George Floyd’s memorials are ongoing, the president of the Minneapolis City Council has announced plans to abolish police, a pandemic is raging, and I’m sitting down in view of boarded-up windows to write a review of an audiobook about golf. This can only be a thinkpiece about how much the world has changed, and how long it’s needed to.
On the face of it, summer 2020 would seem to present an unprecedented opportunity for golf: a sport that’s played outdoors and socially distanced almost by definition, where each player brings their own equipment and times of participation are carefully scheduled. Basketball hoops have been removed from parks, and soccer fields have been closed, but golf courses are wide open.
(Except, that is, in cases where groundskeepers are still trying to repair the turf damage from a volatile wintertime freeze-thaw cycle brought about by — let’s not abbreviate our global crisis list — climate change.)
Who’s going to hit the links, though? Golf’s place in the national conversation right now is, first and foremost, as the privileged pastime President Trump pursues at taxpayer expense exceeding the GDP of a small country, irrespective of his repeated criticisms of Barack Obama’s far less frequent outings.
Secondarily, golf is seen as an environmental travesty and flagrant waste of resources, particularly among Americans too young to remember even Tigermania, let alone the Great White Shark or the Golden Bear. “My favorite person on TikTok,” tweeted writer Alison Herman last month, “is this socialist teen who exclusively posts about how much she hates golf.” Abbie Richards currently has 102,300 followers, and has added police defunding to her personal platform.
Thus, the most engaging battle in Golf’s Holy War, the new book by sportswriter Brett Cyrgalis, is the battle over golf course design: how the midcentury movement toward showy, highly artificial landscapes has given way to a re-embracing of natural topography in the spirit of Scotland’s original links courses. Environmental concerns are at least tangentially relevant to that story, though Cyrgalis focuses on how the courses are experienced by players.
In something of an oversell, the book is subtitled The Battle for the Soul of a Game in the Age of Science. In reality, the “battle” Cyrgalis describes is less between science and soul than between the left and the right brain. Even as golfers rely increasingly upon whatever technology they’re able to afford for swing analysis and mental mapping, their scorecards are unavoidably tied to intangible factors like mood and concentration.
In one long chapter, Cyrgalis tracks the career of Tiger Woods. In his quest to hold, then recapture, his extraordinary dominance over the game, Woods has gone through a series of coaches who serve both as technicians and gurus. The author is fascinated with this stratum of the golf world: the men (yep, all men) who geek out over proprietary technology and promise transformative insights into the various woes that plague golfers’ games.
Among these, the most fascinating is Mark Broadie, who’s helped the PGA find telling patterns and insights in the precise statistics that technology now allows them to garner. Among those insights: putting is unduly elevated as a component of the game, because high-stakes tournaments so often come down to a putting duel on the 18th green. The more important skill, Broadie points out, is what got those two players to the summit of a crowded field…and that’s not putting, it’s accuracy and length off the tee and from the fairway.
For a book about technology, though, Golf’s Holy War cherishes the game’s eternal verities, the questions that have remained constant from Ben Hogan (whose legendary “secret” may or may not have ever been revealed) to Justin Thomas. Cyrgalis counterposes The Golfing Machine, Homer Kelley’s 1971 “instructional system,” to Golf in the Kingdom, Michael Murphy’s mystical novel from the same year. Is golf about the machine or the man?
Well, it’s certainly not about the woman. The most prominent female who figures in Golf’s Holy War is a young woman who submits to having her swing tracked by one of the book’s many male experts. Race figures, of course, in the chapter on Woods, but Cyrgalis devotes approximately as much space to string theory as to institutional discrimination in a sport that only allowed non-whites to play as pros beginning in 1961.
As Cyrgalis notes, Woods captivated a wide range of Americans and did inspire kids of color to take up the game. As the New York Times noted last year, though, those kids found it hard to stay in the game: golf is prohibitively expensive and inconvenient for many players who don’t come from privilege. A reality that many whites in America — myself included — are leveling up to is that it’s not enough just to not be racist, we have to actively dismantle structures of oppression.
That’s not what Cyrgalis’s book is about, which means that although it’s not bad on its own terms, it feels tangential at best to the conversations golfers really need to be having. If you find it easy to lose yourself in an easy read about a “battle for the soul” that’s fought almost entirely in the minds of white men (or a more difficult listen about it, read by wooden narrator Kyle Tait), you’re probably not doing much for golf’s future. If, indeed, it has one.