Rhythm of the Times

Hey! golf is back with a vengeance, and it's cool again. It seems to me that the game went through a tepid spell in the 1970s. Hardly surprising with all the bad hair, flared pants, and plaid.

But then came the 1980s, and golf stayed warm in solidarity with the music industry, which was assaulting our eyes and ears with the likes of Boy George, Duran Duran, and Kajagoogoo. Uh-huh, I know what you're thinking. Not cool.

Not that I feel the music industry is in great shape at the minute, either. I'm afflicted with an emetic boy-band blues and Britney biliousness every time I turn on the radio. But for some reason the game of golf has pulled itself out of the warm spell, and is appealing to a wider audience than ever before.

Changes in the attitude toward dress code are a big help, I'm sure. For decades, a golf shirt has been a golf shirt, and I for one am glad to see a return to the old crew-neck tee of the 1950s and 1960s, even if the collar is a little lower. Now we have Tiger, Duval, and many others dressing in a socially relevant fashion, in outfits that, without the logos at least, would be equally acceptable at a rock concert or in a nightclub. In fact, these days some of the performers at that rock concert might be similarly attired.

After Arnie, who made the game really cool in the '50s, a lot of big stars liked to play golf -- you know, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, etc. -- but it seems to me that they held more appeal for the older generation.

At that time, the people who were the equivalent of today's rock stars were busy either dying in plane crashes or overdosing on the toilet. But some of today's rock stars are now keen on golf. Quite a lot of them actually, if the AT&T Pebble Beach is anything to go by.

If somebody had handed Alice Cooper a persimmon driver 25 years ago, he probably would have beaten the nearest chicken to death with it. If you had kidnapped any self-respecting rock star and left him out on a golf course with a set of clubs, he would have snorted the nearest out-of-bounds line, hot-wired a cart, and died in a head-on blazing wreck with one of the course marshals.

Nowadays, the aforementioned Mr. Cooper is a really good six handicap and Hootie and the Blowfish are mad keen on golf, as are the guys from Creed. Vince Gill could beat me, Celine Dion can play in at least two languages, Glenn Frey swipes at it frequently, Cameron Diaz would win any hole she played simply by bending over to tee the ball up, and Carson Daly is a golf nut. It's not like all these people are getting on in years either; some of them are in their 20s.

So what the hell happened to turn some of our hippest and least square people off drinking, drugs, fornication, and trying to commit suicide by way of general enthusiasm -- as did so many normal famous people in the sixties and seventies? Maybe on the fairways they find respite from the craziness of their lives, but I think there might be a more recent development that has more of them punishing the pill. (Bear with me here for a moment, because I haven't even come close to thinking this one through.) In order to find the real reason for golf's popularity today, perhaps we have to cast our addled minds back into our dark, pre-historic past. Imagine, say, for instance, a mammoth hunt during the last ice age. (Like I said, hang in there. Eventually this will make sense.)

There is a group of hunters, huddled around a paltry fire, roasting a turnip, discussing how they can improve their hunting technique. The tribe had always been vegetarian, until an incident some years earlier in which a small caveman had startled an enormous bull mammoth in the act of mating. The great beast had charged, and somehow the unfortunate man had become lodged in its throat and choked it to death.

The tribe suddenly found themselves with enough meat to tide them through the ice-age summer, which was really freaking freezing that year. More importantly, they had discovered a way to kill a mammoth. They just picked the smallest surviving tribe member, tossed him at an enraged mammoth, and hoped to get lucky.

It was a flawed plan, and was not considered in any way a cool activity, especially by the more diminutive of our ancestors, but every now and then they would get lucky, and then afterward, very, very constipated for a few months. Then it was back to the old nuts and berries.

The breakthrough came when a small, nerdy looking caveman named Erk suggested that it might be an idea to use a bigger version of one of the sharpened sticks they had been using to skewer and hold the mammoth meat/ turnip over the fire to skewer the mammoth while it was still alive.

The idea was met with ridicule by the rest of the tribe, whose chieftain, Ugga, lost no time in pointing out to Erk that, as he was the smallest surviving member -- ..and next in line for the old mammoth heave-ho -- he obviously came to the campfire with something of a personal agenda. It should have been something of a paradigm shift, but way back then, no one knew how to pronounce paradigm, so nothing shifted for Ugga, who was secretly a little miffed that the boys had rebuffed his idea for a cure to the constipation problem, which had also involved the sharpened sticks.

However, Ugga was not the head honcho because he was dumber than the rest -- in fact, far from it. He was also the drummer for the tribe, and I suppose, in a way, an early rock star. Later that evening he was beating the mammoth skins for the ladies, and wallowing in their adoration, when one of his sticks broke during a particularly violent paradiddle. (Which incidentally, is the word right next to paradigm in the dictionary.)

The broken stick shot straight up into the night sky, and as Ugga stared up into the blackness for some sign of it, it suddenly speared straight downwards into his left eye socket, killing him stone, motherless dead.

The next thing you know, the rest of the tribe is standing around scratching their overhanging eyebrows, and we have a new head Homo sapien -- namely, Erk. Also, the word spread fairly quickly that there was a cool, new, fun, and ultimately, rewarding way to perform a feat which had, up until that point, been nerdy and dangerous. Of course, before they knew it, mammoths were extinct.

I rest my case, which I fully admit is completely ridiculous. But it's a simple fact of evolution, even in golf, that if something better comes along, people will naturally gravitate toward it. In reality, golf has always been a very cool game, and the current upsurge in its popularity has been caused, at least in part, by a public awareness campaign spearheaded by Tiger and a younger, more athletic, and better looking professional cast.

The game looks more exciting, because, as a direct result of technological advancement, it is more exciting. These days, the holes are cut on impossibly sloping, lightning fast, wafer-thin peninsulas on devastatingly difficult golf courses. With the equipment of yesteryear, players couldn't find today's flags if you gave them each a Geiger counter, yet I'm continually reading that because of all this new equipment, the game is becoming too easy. I beg to differ. Because of these harder golf courses, I believe golf is becoming more difficult.

This is about the ability to applaud a good idea, even if it isn't yours. Throughout the ages, there have always been naysayers every time somebody manufactured something new and improved. But the development of clubs that make a very difficult, frustrating, and sometimes downright silly pastime both easier to pick up and more fun to continue is of paramount importance to the evolution of the game.

A hundred years ago, golfers looked at the old wooden-shafted, wooden-headed play clubs of centuries gone by and wondered how on earth their golfing predecessors managed to get any enjoyment out of a game played with such crude artifacts. It was hard for them to imagine how the beautiful modern equipment of their day, which was so much easier to play with, could possibly be improved upon.

What were they thinking? I'll tell you what they were thinking: The same thing I was when I took up the game 30 years ago. I was playing with tiny, steel-shafted blades, and a laminated driver that looked like a bran muffin on a stick. My grips were shiny leather on a cork underlying, and they felt so bad that on a frosty morning, I lost dental work if I caught one near the heel. But even then, I couldn't imagine how we could make better golf clubs than were currently available. But we did, didn't we?

A hundred years from now, the average space-age hacker may look at the graphite and titanium of today as just another step along the road that led to whatever technological marvel he is presently using to dig lumps out of planet Earth, or Uranus, or wherever. I have no doubt it will be the same age-old, often futile, but captivating pastime.

It will be an effort to get a small white orb into some kind of a crater, which I fervently hope will still be no smaller than 4-1/4 inches in diameter.

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