At Large

Mutt putt - Breaking golf's final barrier.

WHEN WE WERE KIDS, golf was an opportunity: We’d scavenge balls in the roughs and sell them back to the golfers. And, like sex, golf was a mystery: What were those grown-ups doing out there, and why?

A few years later, golf became the Enemy: the hierarchic ritual, at once haughty and sycophantic, of the exploiter class, a corporate field of dreams, drenched in herbicides, trampled by white shoes, and flecked with cigar butts, where pot-bellied pseudo-outdoorsmen on motorized carts plotted takeovers and pretended to get exercise. It represented all that was hateful about Nixonian America, and it was godawful boring to boot.

Then the boundaries started to smudge. Peers of mine—ex-radicals and hippies who only went to golf courses for a little off-hours trysting or inhaling—started playing the game. The first boomer president arrives and, whaddaya know, he loves to hit the links with Vernon Jordan and (as another FOB put it) “talk about pussy.” We haven’t just become our parents. We’ve become their golf buddies.

Now the buzz is that golf means just the opposite of what it did when we were growing up. “From pros to average Joes, everybody plays in the dirt,” The Seattle Times intoned over a photo of tattooed, T-shirted slacker golfers, touting last week’s PGA Tournament at the Sahalee Country Club. Hip, even hip-hop, threads have invaded the stodgy greens, and loud cheers have replaced the whispers that made televised golf seem such a weird cult ritual. TV commercials sell cars and credit cards against golf backdrops. The Seattle firm Addictwear, LLC markets “Gen-X golf fashions” on the theory that even though golf is hardly an extreme sport, it’s difficult enough to afford the “personal challenge” that Gen X craves.

“This is the future of golf,” Scott Stossel writes in the August 3 New Republic: “inclusive, diverse, and middle-class.” He argues that the game’s deep-seated race, class, and gender barriers are crumbling, thanks only in part to the charismatic Tiger Woods. Clubs that still banned blacks, Jews, and Catholics in the early ’90s (!) dropped those rules and began recruiting at least token specimens. The National Minority Golf Association claims the number of African-Americans golfers has grown from 700,000 in 1992 to 4 million; more women and Asians are also playing. Will the golf course replace the baseball stadium as the universal recreational meeting ground? Baseball (and other pro-sport) tickets are growing exorbitant, while relatively affordable public golf courses supplant the traditional country clubs. Hey, handicapping scores is proto-affirmative action.

STILL, YOU GOTTA WONDER about this purported populism when you see all the flash and splash over the Sahalee swing-dig—what with companies plunking down the price of a house in Greenwood for a four-day, silk-lined hospitality tent. But concede the point; golf’s still got a ways to go if it’s going to get down with ratball, stickball, and alleyway soccer. Class, race, and gender breakthroughs are fine, but one barrier remains to be busted if golf’s to become the truly universal game: the species barrier.

But this can be done, I discovered a few weeks ago, when I visited my friends X and N (theirs is a sport that thrives on obscurity), hit a golf ball for the first time in 30-odd years, and discovered the joys of Midnight Scavenger Dog Golf.

X and N live in a decaying East Coast city that shall also remain nameless, one with a whopping murder and (this time of year) perspiration rate. Though he’s from the Glasgow slums, X fulfills all the golf-loving clichés that attach to Scots the way futebol mania attaches to Brazilians. But he and N spend too much time working for too little money, to have much of either for an indulgence like golf. And they have an overcharged lab named Rosalind whom they refuse to let atrophy into another wretched city dog that never gets to run.

Fortunately, they’ve found the single solution to all these problems. You guessed it: Midnight Scavenger Dog Golf. After a late dinner, X appeared club in hand and said, “So, d’you want to go try a little golf?” My daughter and I were dumbfounded, but tagged along—up to the municipal golf course, which happened to lie amidst some of the roughest neighborhoods in a very rough city. Sure enough, X pulled out a bag of golf balls and tees—throwaways scavenged on previous outings, as per MSDG rules—and teed off. The ball whooshed and disappeared, to our feeble senses, anyway. Rosalind, who heard or saw it better, galloped off, snatched up the ball as it rolled, pranced around for a moment, and—this is very important—did not fetch it back. She dropped it in a new place, clearly marking it for us. In this game, ball stealing that’s insufferable on the diamond or tennis court is not only acceptable, it’s indispensible. The essential rule of MSDG: Play it as the dog lays it.

And so we did, one moonlit hole to another. Outside the course, sirens wailed, large cars cruised, and who knows what mayhem transpired. But no one bothered us; there must be something about a group of people walking around with golf clubs and a large dog at midnight. Whatever relief real golfers may find by day, it could hardly touch the serenity of those empty, darkened links. Fireflies flickered on the margins, and the putting greens looked and felt like black velvet.

At first, thrashing at a dimpled little ball seemed the most awkward, futile gesture muscles could attempt. Then X showed us how to relax and meet the ball, rather than trying to whack it. For a moment I experienced the fabled Zen of Swing, made all the more liberating by the fact that I could barely see the ball.

Yes, we poop-scooped. And we replaced our divots (unlike all too many daytime golfers on this city course; this is the modern Tragedy of the Commons). In the words of Bob Dylan (who for all I know is a golfer now as well), “To live outside the law you must be honest.”

Lawless we may have been, but we were also soldiers in the civic good fight. Cities go to great lengths to get decent folks to go out, build “critical mass,” and take the streets back from the ruffians. They erect streetlights, stage “Nights Out,” and beg Planet Hollywood to come downtown. We putted. Walking tall, clubs in hand, we were Guardian Angels of the green. Dog golfers of the world unite, and take back the links!