Even after the "I am Tiger Woods" democratization of the sport in the late 90's, and with the fact that 90 percent of golf is played on public or semi-public courses, golf still has an undeserved bad name as an idle pastime of the leisure class.
The recent economic downturn, the growing (perceived) poverty of time and the mandate to work as much as possible have some (such as The Hungover Caddy in this month's Golf Digest) feeling compelled to leap to golf's defense.
Certainly, tastes and preferences have changed. In most of the widely adopted versions of masculinity and male responsibility, spending seven or eight hours on the golf course on Saturday with your buddies and neglecting family obligations (and likely work) is unacceptable. Even so, there are many reasons why playing golf is an excellent idea for the modern man or woman.
The Experience of Nature
One needn't be Emerson, Thoreau, Wordsworth or a flower child to appreciate nature as encountered on the golf course. The jury is out, to a degree, about how well the earth is served by the development of golf courses. Certainly, leaving an ecosystem alone would be preferable to building a golf course; however, a well-maintained green space with minimal water usage, in cooperation with preservation societies, and with a minimal use of pesticides is vastly superior to, say, the great asphalt expanse of a Wal Mart.
Given this, a man can feel relatively good about strolling through wide, rolling fairways, stopping to appreciate the varieties of flora and the beauty of the sun through the trees. Spectacular and sublime moments await almost every golfer on every course. To be sure, teeing off at Augusta at sunrise and playing your local muni on a crowded Saturday afternoon in the summer heat won't be identical experiences, but nature is there to be experienced and appreciated at both locales.
Health and Wellness
Walk the golf course whenever possible. It is both the way the game was meant to be played, for what that's worth, and vastly better exercise (~700 vs. ~400 calories burned). Additionally, there is the unquantifiable "being out in fresh air" factor.
Golf fits well into a larger lifestyle of fitness and proper nutrition and provides a unique opportunity to integrate a hobby with the rest of one's life. Eating and exercising to be a better golfer likely makes one a better person...at least physically.
The mental stimulation, demands on one's creativity and problem solving, also cannot be discounted. Beyond this, from a mental and emotional standpoint, golf is (largely) a stress reducer...that is until the first duck hook or topped tee shot.
There is, I think, a line in Golf in the Kingdom identifying golf as an opportunity for "men to love men" in a socially acceptable fashion. I am not sure I would go as far as to say that the members of the foursome that have played together every Saturday morning for 20 years love one another, but they do share a special bond.
Playing golf with other people is both a unique social opportunity and an experience of shared struggle. This particular dynamic in which four people spend more than four hours together, experiencing degrees of failure more often than success, creates a singular connection between people.
On a more superficial level, it's no secret that playing golf, particularly at a private course, presents a fantastic opportunity for networking and building relationships, even if one's club forbids talking about business on the course (which a gentleman shouldn't really be doing, anyways).
Playing golf is much more likely to benefit one's career than detract from productivity and success. Consider those filling out the field of 72 players in the American Cancer Society outing and how many of those individuals could become clients, contacts or friends.
To Engage the Metaphor
It is cliche to point out the way in which golf imitates life and vice versa. However, the game of golf does have a unique way of revealing a man's character. Additionally, success in golf is largely a product of deliberate, purposeful execution of a detailed plan to meet clearly defined goals. This, too, is much like life.
We walk the same courses. Some of us are better golfers and some of us are worse. All we can do is put forth our best efforts, take advantage of opportunities, learn from mistakes and then forget them, plodding forward all the way.
For A Singular Challenge
Whatever else it is, golf is a unique challenge. It is a solitary activity at which one can never achieve perfection. If shooting par or better is the "object of the game," then only five percent of golfers ever achieve this objective. When one is able to shoot par, then the real challenge of golf begins: that of learning how to score, manage the course and play shots which lead to birdies.
What would perfection look like? 18 holes in one? 18 birdies? The former is impossible and there is a 99.99 percent chance the latter won't happen. Given this, the golfer and his golf game must forever be a work in progress rather than a completed project. The success of a golfer really comes down to the magnitude of his mistakes rather than his ability to be better than anyone else.
To Play a Gentleman's Game
Golf is popularly referred to as a gentleman's game. If you've ever seen or been part of a men's league, you may have a different conception of the game altogether. However, golf as it is designed, governed and often played is a gentleman's game.
Historically, men have always dressed in sporting or casual attire for golf and set out to play 18 with an ethic of care and gentility towards the course and their competitors/playing partners and with respect for the integrity of the game.
Much is made, also, of the fact that golfers are expected to police themselves on the golf course (although many, certainly, implore the foot wedge at will). Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the golfer to both behave himself and know how to behave on the golf course. The onus of responsibility is placed solely on the individual golfer, and there is a clear mandate of integrity and honesty.
Restraint, also, is a hallmark of the gentleman. Our golfing ids may be inspired to hurl clubs and profanity, to walk off the course or make one too many trips to the beer cart. However, as in life, for the greater good, we must restrain ourselves.
Decorum also governs the social dynamics of the golf course: playing in turn, not distracting fellow golfers or getting in their way, not talking about business on the course; these are basic things, but things which cannot be overlooked, just like the rules which govern everyday interactions.
Perhaps it doesn't seem like a terrible thing to walk across a playing partner's putting line, but the action signifies disrespect and a lack of concern and is thus unacceptable. The possibility of giving offense, then, warrants vigilance and care, both of which are essential traits of a gentleman, both on and off the golf course.
It is for these reasons, and many more, that I am a golfer and that I believe golf has true value. I believe golf is anything but an idle pursuit and call on casual golfers to deepen their understanding of and appreciation for the game and implore those who have never picked up a club to give the frustrating, but beautiful, game a try.