Something strange has come over me. An affliction I'd be loathe to discuss if I didn't know an ever-growing subset of the general population to be similarly stricken, to be experiencing the same deep misgivings and sense of guilt to which this particular behavioral disorder can readily give rise. You'll no doubt recognize its other symptoms: protracted stretches of blank-eyed torpor and creeping ennui, a beguilingly pleasurable mental state punctuated by sudden irrational outbursts of frustration, elation and silent, mouth-agape awe.
I've taken to watching golf on television. And I don't mean the occasional peek at a late-Sunday afternoon final-round playoff. I'm watching entire tournaments. On Monday mornings, I find myself looking forward to Thursday, arranging my already highly flexible freelancer's schedule to ensure that I'll be on hand for the mid-afternoon opening-round coverage on USA or ESPN. I like to get a feel for the entire narrative arc of a tournament, to get a sense of which golfers are in the groove and which aren't, which ones are confidently shaping their shots and which are struggling just to make them. I've learned to discern such things. I pay close attention to the analysts' banter, the intricately contoured, computersimulated course descriptions, and the slow-motion "Stop it right there!" swing breakdowns. I can now spot when a left shoulder is flying out or when someone's weight is too far forward. I even enjoy the commercials.
This was not supposed to happen to someone like me. I play golf perhaps two or three times a year, and I hardly ever watch television except for news, the occasional movie and a really big baseball or football game. As for golf on TV, the very sound of it (or the relative lack thereof—wispy-thin club swipes, silent treading and muffled winds) used to double me over with depression, instantly triggering in my mind a nightmarish suburban pastiche of passed-out fathers in plaid pants and Banlon shirts beside beanbag ashtrays in paneled dens. Golf on TV was nothing less than a complete acquiescence to aging, a tacit surrender. Indeed, when I found myself tuning into matches a few years ago at the ripe age of forty-five, I went to my doctor for a checkup, certain that my new compulsion betokened an early demise.
"What's up?" the doctor asked upon entering the examining room.
I couldn't tell him that I was watching golf. Whatever might have been ailing me, I still had my vanity. "I've been kind of listless lately," I said.
Everything checked out fine with the doctor. But back at home there was no concealing my new addiction.
"Are you out of your mind?" I remember my wife, Bex, saying the first time she caught me sitting in the living room on a Friday afternoon transfixed before that undulant canvas of iridescent green, dabbed here and there with those huge, amoeba-like splotches of pearly white sand.
"Yes," I said rather sheepishly. "I think I am."
In the beginning at least, I was able to blame my new addiction on you-know-who. My standard refrain, fashioned as much to answer my own misgivings as well as those of my horrified wife, was that it wasn't golf per se that I'd become interested in so much as it was Tiger Woods. "Excellence like that," I'd consistently hear myself espousing, "in any endeavor, is just intriguing to me."
It is, I think, still a legitimate claim, and any doubts I may have had about it at the time were eliminated one subsequent Sunday afternoon when I was forced away from the coverage of yet another major that Tiger was well on his way to claiming by two whining dogs with full bladders. I dashed with them to the park and was met there by Cilla and her poodle. Cilla and I often walk our dogs together, allowing them lengthy off-lead runs while we stand by and chat. On this day, however, we both noted each other's unusually testy, tight-lipped demeanor. I watched Cilla repeatedly checking her watch and then, just as I was about to call my dogs, she called hers and started away.
"Tiger," she said, turning back with a mischievous grin. "He's already on the back nine."
Of course, the natural consequence of such a fascination is that you eventually begin to focus in on and decipher its cause. Reams have been written by now about the genius of Tiger Woods. For me, however, the feature of his play that first drew me to it (and then to golf in general) is the suppleness and sensuality of his ball striking, so apparent that it seems to inform and animate that formerly dead space between a golf swing and its result. He reminds me of a fly fisherman casting underhanded, the ball going out from the club on a flowing line to a desired spot, a dynamic that, with multiple camera angles and slow-mo analysis, we can now observe and understand via TV—in some ways, more so than if we were standing on the tee beside him.
All of which brings up an intriguing chicken/egg question about today's more-nuanced-and-informed TV coverage: Did Tiger's play cause the coverage to rise up to meet it, or did the two phenomena occur coincidentally?Whichever it is, no sport is better served by the recent advances in television coverage—everything from the improved computer simulations to the army of wisecracking, straight-talking commentators. That stiff, whispery, swing-and-distant plop of yesteryear and the deadening disconnect between the strike of the ball and its arrival has now given way to something far more textured, dynamic and, well, dare I say, sexy.
Okay, that may be going a bit too far. The latest fast-cut, rock- 'n'-roll ads and intros for tournaments do feel a bit out of place. This is golf, after all: muted, manicured, mind-wrenchingly motionless, like soulful dancing with your feet nailed down, all the dynamism flowing from a zen-like balance, both psychological and physical. Golfers must be, by definition, withheld. Which is why all sorts of imaginative contortions are required in order to convey just how good these guys truly are.
Advertisements for other sports have only to show their respective athletes in action, either super slow or souped up. Golf promos, on the other hand, are all indirection and mixed metaphor: Phil Mickelson pitching to David Robinson on a basketball court; David Toms knocking delicate shots from his front yard off the satellite dish on the roof and into the gutter, from where they roll back down to his feet. Then there are the golf promos by omission: Isiah Thomas missing the garbage can with a crumbled up piece of paper and deadpanning: "Can I get a mulligan?" And the virtual promos: "Signboy" taking over the controls of a golf video game only to flatten the simulated Phil Mickelson with an errant shot's ricochet. Finally, there are the cartoonish promos, my favorite being Tiger Woods's back-sassing clubhead cover: "And another thing, Hotshot, you've been dinkin' 'em out there lately."
Recently I read a popular TV critic getting all in a huff about how commercial and rowdy golf coverage is becoming, slamming the networks for marginalizing the actual competition in their "stop-at-nothing quest to attract younger viewers." It's a claim that, while preposterous in my mind, did help to further offset my fears about premature death. Somehow, my tuning into golf has made me a member of that very target audience to which a middle-age man rarely minds belonging. It seems, in fact, to have made me downright hip.
Sure, golf may never be the stuff of rock-'n'-roll, but why must it remain forever mired in the mausoleum-like solemnity of the Masters?I happen to like the fist pumping and highfiving, and the cheering hoards of beer swillers around the sixteenth green at Arizona's FBR Open. And I'm hardly going to get exercised over ABC's "Hunk Cam" focusing on John- Elway-look-alike Ricky Barnes while commentator Judy Rankin climbs up into the bleachers to ask some young women if they think Barnes is cute. There's ample downtime in any golf telecast for extracurricular color.
In fact, one of my favorite aspects of golf on TV is the way in which it unfolds very much at the pace of my own drifty, mid-afternoon mindset, allowing me to get in some reading or editing or note-taking between shots. Somehow, the prospect of ostensibly relaxed but inwardly struggling golfers plying seemingly idyllic but perilpocked landscapes is an extremely apt metaphor for writing. It reminds me that even in my apparent torpor I am still, in my own way, working hard. And if that sounds like one more monstrously contorted golf promo, its ultimate affirmation for me came one recent afternoon when I arrived home from walking the dogs to find Bex in front of the TV watching third-round coverage of the AT&T Pro-Am.
"I don't know," she said as I stood looking down at her in disbelief. "There's something oddly soothing about it. Like watching fish."