Yes, I’m back! It’s been a while, I know. But let’s get to it.
Like many of you I have been thoroughly entertained, vexed and exhilarated by the World Cup. And since most things in my life are only one or two mental degrees of separation from golf, I wanted to share some observations about the similarities–yes, you read that right–between the two sports.
Of course the two sports are extremely different in certain obvious respects. It’s difficult–but not impossible–to get farther apart on the aerobic scale (think archery). One is the quintessential team sport, and only the presence of a caddie prevents professional golf from being as solitary a competition as a singles match in tennis. But no matter, what do they have in common?
Both sports are often described as “boring” by the non-fan or uninitiated. Of course the opinion that soccer is boring is a minority view globally, and it is most widely held here in the States, home of baseball, a game that most of the planet finds especially tedious. Now I don’t mind when people describe something as boring if they preface the assessment with an “I” statement, as in “I think that..” or close with the clause “…to me.” But all too often I hear people say that “X is boring” and I don’t have the sense that they are being economical with their words and that the conditioning preface or ending, while not voiced, is nevertheless implied. No. Quite the contrary. They are expressing their subjective opinion as if it were an objective assessment.
And as a side note, I think golfers should be especially careful about this kind of pronouncement. We may find it interesting when Steve Williams and Adam Scott debate whether the shot calls for a 7-iron or an 8, and we do appreciate the phenomenal athletic accomplishment involved in hitting a ball 175 yards and having it come to rest on a 12 square foot landing area that has the receptivity of a runway. We like it, but we are definitely outnumbered. A golfer who deems soccer boring is like a guy who ventures out of his glass house with a bag of rocks and starts flinging them around the neighborhood.
Are we having fun yet?
The inspiration for this post came to me after a brief and very indirect encounter I had this past Friday. (It was also, sadly, prophetic of my own emotions some 48 hours later.) As I left work that afternoon I checked the score of the Ecuador-Honduras match one last time. 1-0 Honduras. I got on BART and when I got off at 24th Street and Mission I ducked into a little pastry shop a couple doors down from the station. It’s one of those Mexican shops that sell those really cruddy cookies that taste like they were made out of sawdust. They’re so bad our sons–even as little kids– wouldn’t eat them. There was a small, non-high def TV perched on the top of the shelves at the rear of the shop and I took a quick peek at the score: 1-1, Ecuador had equalized. As I turned to leave I saw an older guy–probably my age-wearing a well-worn Honduran National team jersey. Our eyes met for just a moment. I raised my eyebrows as a way of acknowledging the change in the game’s circumstances, and also as a way of masquerading that, although it was not with a great deal of passion, I was rooting for Ecuador. But what struck me at that moment was the look in this guy’s eyes. It was mixture of anxiety and dread, leavened only slightly by the faintest bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things might work out. His team had scored their first World Cup goal in years, but now that advantage was erased. His country, one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, was on the world stage, but only for a moment, and as the momentum of the game shifted, he seemed to anticipate that this appearance would be just another opportunity for disappointment and defeat.
And so it is out on the course. We approach difficult shots with a fatalistic attitude. We pepper the air with expletives and groans. We see bad things happen to our golf balls, and although we express our disappointment with a full range of complaint and invective, deep down inside we’re not surprised. We knew it would happen. And yet we return again and again to the course, hoping, just like that Honduran guy in the pastry shop, that maybe this will be the time things are different.
Commentators describe both games, golf and soccer, as cruel. You don’t hear that about American football. Brutal yes, but cruel no. The same goes for all the other sports. They can disappoint, they can frustrate, but they don’t have the reputation for cruelty. These two do. As the Men in Blazers pointed out to us in the painful aftermath of the Portugal match, “Football is meant to hurt,” and every weekend millions of golfers console themselves and their playing partners by observing that “it’s a tough game.”
The realm of the random
Bad hops and weird bounces play a role in other sports, but not to the degree they do with these two. The ball caroms off a shin and straight onto the boot of an onrushing player and–voila–GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLL. The well-struck putt, perfectly calibrated in terms of speed and line, hits the smallest of imperfections or lumps as it decelerates near the hole and–just like that–somebody else gets the trophy. In both sports we celebrate and exult in the rare and improbable. Goals are, as all too many an American has been known to complain, rare events in the course of a match, and there is no higher spot in the pantheon of golf than the one reserved for that rarity, the inexplicably perfect shot, the hole in one. In both games, we put up with a lot of back and forth as the price for the chance to experience the breakthrough, the moment when it does all work out.
So, as I get ready to hit the button that says “Publish,” we are just hours away from knowing if the USA advances or goes home. Will this be a day to celebrate, or a day to look back at Sunday’s 95th minute with renewed anguish? Who knows? I’m ready to be happy, I’m resigned to being disappointed. I’m a fan. I’m a golfer.