What is it about golf? Such a silly game when you think about it — traipsing thousands of meters cross-country to whack a tiny ball into teeny holes with a skinny stick. Whoever invented it — probably the Scots — had a diabolically twisted sense of fun. And yet, as we are constantly reminded, no other game can quite touch golf’s image as the pastime that brings us closest to paradise.
Last month, a renowned American bass-baritone named Thomas Stewart died of a heart attack at the age of 78. His death was unexpected, and opera lovers around the world expressed shock and sadness. Yet many fans took comfort from the manner of his passing.
As Stewart’s wife described it, he was on the golf course at the time: “We went out to the course, played for a while, he made par, and then suddenly turned around and fell backwards,” she said. “I tried to resuscitate him, but he didn’t respond.” Make par, then die. As one tribute put it, that is “the way many of us would choose to go.”
The incident also stirred memories of the death nearly 30 years earlier of singer and actor Bing Crosby, who succumbed to a heart attack after winning a casual 18-hole round on a picturesque course near Madrid. Reportedly, Crosby’s last words were: “That was a great game of golf, fellers. Let’s go get a Coke.” Like Stewart’s, it was the kind of demise that fantasies are made of: instantaneous, in the company of spouse or friends, at a moment of accomplishment and exhilaration, and in a setting that has become a byword for the good life. These lucky men were in heaven before they died.
Golf, more than other any other sport, has that effect on the imagination, for both those who play and those who just sit at home and watch more talented people drive, chip and putt on television. It suggests so many of the things we yearn for as we revolve on our hamster wheels of duty and routine: breaking free, getting some boredom-free exercise and exchanging the stale, temperature-controlled office for some fresh air, grass, trees and a pretty view.
Never mind that, much of the time, office affairs follow us right onto the green. Out there, you can at least pretend those aren’t colleagues and clients you’re playing with, but fellow dreamers on an azalea-lined fairway at Augusta.
Tennis has a little bit of the same country-club or vacation-resort aura as golf, but really, who dreams of dying on a tennis court? Golf’s ace in the hole, so to speak, is its physical setting. The fact is, golf courses are beautiful places, every one of them different. Conservationists have decried their effect on the environment over the years, but new courses address many of those concerns. From the emerald greens of Pebble Beach to the windswept links of St. Andrews to the spectacular desert courses of the Middle East, golf is played on some of the loveliest patches of the planet. Even the humblest local public course can suggest heaven on a sunny late afternoon.
And then there’s the mystique that attends the sport’s best exponents. Two things recently reminded us of that: the death last Tuesday of one of golf’s all-time greats, Byron Nelson; and the debate roiling the media over whether golf superstar Tiger Woods, tennis’s Roger Federer or racing’s Michael Schumacher is the world’s greatest active athlete.
Nelson, who was 94, didn’t die on the golf course but in perhaps the next best place, sitting peacefully on his back porch in Roanoke, Texas. He was a legendary player at his peak during World War II, winning 18 of 31 tournaments he entered in 1945, including 11 in a row, two records that still stand. Then at age 34, he abruptly retired to tend his ranch.
“Each drive, each iron, each chip, each putt, was aimed at the goal of getting that ranch,” he wrote in his memoir. That ranch might have been Nelson’s patch of heaven, but it was the silly, ancient game of golf that made him a god.
For some reason, golfers are among the most mesmerizing of all athletes. Maybe it has to do with the sheer intensity of the battle between human and ball. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that of the three men in contention for the unofficial title of current Mozart of sports, Mr. Woods must win hands down. He himself, with Nelson-like modesty, has deferred to Mr. Schumacher, citing his consistency.
But let’s be honest here. The sport itself matters in such contests, not just the sportsman. Mr. Schumacher drives cars very fast. Who cares about that? Who dreams of swapping the hamster wheel for a steering wheel? More to the point, who fantasizes about dying on a racetrack?
Golf, we submit, best represents humanity at play. The game’s best living representative therefore gets our vote.
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