You know what I like about this country? The up and down of it. The highs and lows of it. The flat and mossy, the wide and terraced, the trim and compact of it. I like the river banks and the mean rocky faces of the mountains. I like the scooping, ever broadening highways, with their ever-present hiss in the distance, and the graveyards – I like them too – burgeoning with men and women who lived the lives of bakers, soldiers, dog handlers, of favorite aunts and teachers of extraordinary things.
I like everything urban, suburban, exurban and completely non urban. I like every bit of it. And I especially like the fact that somewhere in this country, in and alongside all the places I just mentioned – at the edge of a cemetery, alongside some highway, in the shadow of a giant hotel, tucked in the curve of this river or just beyond that sun-soaked range of hills – there is a golf course. It’s just sitting there, built on faith that people will always play, despite their troubles, despite their cares, despite everything that says forget it, it’s just a game. The golf course offers itself up and reminds you. Play.
Baseball may be the American game, but golf is the American landscape. It is the soil itself, the rocks, the sips, the crags and the valleys. Golf is every aspect of the land, offered up in measure of pleasure and pride, in increments of humbleness and prejudice alike. A golf course nestles into a piece of land and blends forever, or it mows things down and regrows them, then blends forever.
In that aspect – this argument between what is natural and what is necessary – golf is less like American landscape than it is American architecture. And that is pretty damned good, too.
I have never been to a golf course that did not in some way relate to the world in a fashion all its own. I’ve teed off over ravines, marshes, bogs, arroyos and canyons. I’ve hit down into quarries and up onto mountain escarpments. I’ve lost balls into more types of scrub than there are names for. I’ve had to draw the ball over parking lots and fade the ball around fences. I’ve played golf in front of cows, sheep, goats, bison, coyotes, raccoons, possums, bald eagles, red tailed hawks, bats and alligators. And there are the gnats, too. The black flies. The chiggers. The ticks. I celebrate them all.
I’ve hit to islands, both ancient ones and man made.
And weather? Need I catalogue the rain, the sleet, the scorching heat? Need I remind you of the times you pressed on with lightning in the distance, or let someone play through so you could luxuriate in walking the final hole with your daughter, as the air cooled, as the sun eased downward, as the lights came up in the little houses, set here and there in the nooks of your home course? Weather is the government of golf, it taxes and it tolls, it lends its light and heat. It allows us to build, forces us to rebuild. It watches over every golf course, on every day.
Each course, a different signature, each hole an ink stroke – permanent and impermanent all at once – on the canvas of the Earth. You fly over this country, and there they are like little green windows in the land. You drive the country and the courses are there, too, along the horizon, just past the gate, just through the fence or right along side the road. Private or public, they show themselves to the world in the manner of their own choosing.
That’s why I will play any course, any time. Because a golf course teaches. And these aren’t the lessons of club choice or the advantages of a high-compression ball. This isn’t about keeping your left arm straight. These are lessons about the dirt in your county. Or the hills in mine. About the depth of limestone that runs under one course, or the lake that edges another. Golf is a lesson of the land.
I like the drive to a golf course, past all the ugly strip malls, through and around the throb of traffic. I like the parking lot, gravel or asphalt, eroding or freshly curbed, and the rank and dusty range. I celebrate everything that is jenky, hinky, rigged up or otherwise contrived about a golf course. These are human efforts: gaudy or meek, subtle or grotesque. Made by humans. Why revere a cathedral that took decades to build if you cannot celebrate a golf course that takes just as long to keep building?
You cannot love a garden if you do not love a golf course. You cannot love a baseball stadium if you do not love a golf course. And you may not love these things. But I do. I like every aspect of this land, where these great endeavors of play rise up, the course subsumes the land, then gives in, grows or grows smaller. They live a life, these golf courses. We try to keep them the same, but change comes – the oak on the 15th pushes toward the sun, over years, over decades even. Then a fungus comes, and the greens perish. A course lives a life, what – 10 years, or 12, two decades or eight? Who knows the life of a star? Who really knows? And what is a lifetime? I suppose some courses may persist hundreds of years, whereas I know that others fold on some obscure pulse point of the economy.
A golf course is different every single day. On its first and last, the leaves hang, the sunlight falls, the ball flies a little different than the day before. There will be a first day and there will be a last, to every course, to every club. It is the impermanence that makes them shimmeringly American to me.
You know why I like golf courses? You surely know that I like them all, their art or their kitsch, their detailing or their worn out edges. There is a golf course in every corner of this country, and there is a golf course for each one of us. They beckon in the distance. They thrum with life in closer proximity. They are like us, they are like the land. They live and they die. They are a public pleasure, offering private gifts.
Bless them all. Bless this game.
By Tom Chiarella