I am not a golfer. I appreciate the skill, challenge and aesthetics of the game. There are three reasons why I don’t play. First, if I have three hours to spend outdoors, I prefer aerobic activity. Second I am just not cut out for such an unforgiving sport. Third, I have my doubts about the ecological problems of golf as a land use activity.
Nevertheless I admire golf as the ultimate landscape sport. To play well you have to study the contours of the landscape, its smoothness and roughness, its curves and lines, its sweeps and swerves—these micro-topographical variations are intrinsic to high quality golf course design and the requisite skill of the golfer. All good golfers are experts in micro-topographical interpretation, although the substance of their expertise is oriented exclusively towards how a small ball travels on the landscape, not the soil series, or the glacial geomorphology.
Golf shares an interesting structural similarity to pinball. You are trying to hit a ball into a small hole, steering it around and through obstacles, using ricochets to your advantage, using spins and slices. However they are on opposite ends of a spatial landscape scale. Golf is played over hundreds of yards, one hole can be almost a quarter of a mile. You are gauging the spaciousness of the field, navigating the ball within and through that spaciousness. Pinball is contained within three square feet, using multiple balls, navigating them through a crammed space, with many more artifacts of ricochet, obstacle, and pathway. Yet both hold a similar attraction for people who are interested in steering balls through interesting landscapes. Perhaps their similarities are most apparent in their simulacra, especially the computer, where the golf landscape is reduced in scale to the size of a screen and you flick your wrist to control the ball and navigate it accordingly. The computer screen is the meeting place of golf and pinball!
What’s the middle ground between a full-sized golf course and a pinball machine? Why it’s a miniature golf course, a landscape game that takes into account the best of both venues. With miniature golf you’re hitting a golf ball through space into a hole, but similar to pinball, the golfball is rarely (or shouldn’t be) airborne. It navigates many more obstacles and the artful ricochet is more crucial to success. If the miniature golf course is well designed, the ball will travel into some very unusual places and take on a life of its own. Your ball will travel an underground and overground trail, taking on shamanic significance, as it builds a narrative on its way to the final resting place, where it will sit, neatly nestled, finally arriving home.
I adore miniature golf. The scale of the game is perfect. It’s not as daunting as real golf where the small white ball is dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape, and I, for one, too easily get lost in the infinite possibilities of such boundlessness. Miniature golf is a cross between a sport and a board game. It requires dexterity, finesse, tactics, strategy, and luck. Unfortunately most miniature golf courses are either too much like golf, that is, they try to simulate the real thing and lack imagination, or they get carried away in some tacky narrative, mistaking silly statues and buildings for imaginative design. Really interesting and challenging miniature golf courses are rare.
All games of golf, real and miniature, strike me as both deeply serious and entirely frivolous. There are miniature golf championships. During the 1960s there were Putt-Putt courses which sponsored national matches, and even a few professionals. Of course real golf is replete with a finely stratified series of levels, expertise, professional organizations, and paraphernalia. Although I would never consider baseball or basketball frivolous (as humorous as they can be), because I take both games so seriously, I’m enough of a golf outsider that I can see the game as something of a fool’s errand, and on some level, absolutely ridiculous. I don’t mean this to be disrespectful. I am sure that if I viewed baseball or basketball in the same way, I would see them in an entirely different light. Watching eighteen men or women dressed in matching uniforms with team logos, throwing a ball at a bat and then running around to catch, throw it, and avoid being tagged, seems like a perfectly reasonable human activity to me. But watching a man or a woman standing quietly on a grassy knoll, trying to whack a small ball into a hole several hundred yards away at the other end of the field seems silly. And yet I can see myself, later in life, when all prospects of basketball have faded with age, taking up golf, and pursuing that same small white ball with the same depth of concentration, and even love, with which I now handle a basketball. The frivolity of any game is in the eye of the beholder. It serves us well to view all sports as simultaneously sacred and frivolous, secular and parochial, community minded and individualistic, meaningful and meaningless.
As a critic of golf, I find the game too strident in its domestication of wild open space, too big to be a garden, too disruptive of local ecology, whereas baseball and basketball are more appropriately scaled. Golf conveys a form of nineteenth century privilege, steeped in enclosure, a perversely recreational fencing, fox hunts turned to golf carts. I know if I loved the game I wouldn’t feel this way, or I would just accept it as another sacrifice of the ecosystem. I know, too, that if I give myself another chance I could be pulled by this game too. In many respects it is the ultimate landscape game.
One day last winter I packed my cross-country skis into the car and took a ten minute drive to the Dublin Lake and Golf Club. It sits in a beautiful meadow in full view of the northern face of Mount Monadnock. I enjoy skiing on the golf course and using it as an entree to several miles of backcountry exploration. It was a lovely, crystal blue, mid-Winter day, a fresh February early morning sky. The snow and sun were not yet too bright. There was a brisk wind, covering the golf course with deep drifts and icy patches. I was alone on the golf course and the lack of tracks (or the restless wind) meant I would cut a new trail. Skiing this landscape is refreshingly inspiring, a pure blue sky against the white backdrop of fresh snow. The golf course is now a different kind of playing field, an open space, allowing me to explore the winter micro-topography, in the ecological and physiographic context of Mount Monadnock, the Laurentian forest, and the various animals tracks (deer, fox, coyote, snowshoe hare), all of whom traverse this landscape too. We mammals gather here at different times and places, searching for food, mates, or information.
In a few months the snow will melt and the golfers will return. This course is a private club. I’m sure if I played the right social networks I could score an invitation to play a few rounds of golf. But this is an exclusive club, ultimately beyond my economic pedigree, reflective of a particular class and attitude. I may bond with the landscape but I would feel vaguely out of place in its resident social network. Whenever I ride my bicycle through here on a summer day I’m glad to see the golfers with their clubs and carts. I hope their successes outweigh their frustrations. I hope they find solace, satisfaction, and companionship in both the golf game and the landscape. This wonderful place, whether it functions as a golf course, a cross country ski track, an avenue for wildlife, or a nesting place for birds, is a playing field on an ecological landscape.
Humans will always find ways to steer balls through space. It’s just an archetypal thing. There are few better ways to challenge the mind and body than playing with balls—throwing them, catching them, steering them—watching them roll, fly, bounce, and ricochet. It’s inherently interesting. My explanation is simple. It’s a magnificent way to better understand the ecological landscape through a playful, physical extension of the human body. Wherever I am, and I hope wherever you are, wherever humans go, I know that we will all find ways to play with balls in space and time.
I hope that some day someone will design an ecological golf course, not just a place with organic greens, devoid of pesticides, serving whole foods in the lounge, but a playing field that mindfully balances the domestic and the wild, where people play in teams, running through the landscape, rolling throwing and striking balls together, scoring points and overcoming obstacles, and while doing so are observing, identifying with, and immersing themselves in the very biospheric processes which make their play possible. They explore a playing field that merges humanity with the biosphere—rolling balls down hills, around city corners, across watercourses, lifting them high in the air and back again, rebounding off trees and buildings, until they return to their resting places, a neatly dug hole, a home plate, a goal post or a rim and hoop perfectly designed to receive the gift that was meant for it.