Have you been to your local golf course lately? It’s not the geek-fest fashion disaster most of us non-athletes were forced to call a sporting venue. Now, it resembles the pages of Esquire or Sports Illustrated. Golf is actually a sport. A hip one. Is there nowhere for a nerd to fit in anymore?
In my late teens, I spent a significant amount of time wearing 100% synthetic slacks and a pained expression on my face while chasing a small white ball around large green expanses – okay, searching for a small white ball in thick trees and sand traps. I did this with cigar chomping men who drank, cursed and complained about their wives a lot. That is, when they weren’t complaining about searching for a small white ball in thick trees and sand traps. About the only thing we had in common were matching wardrobes and an addiction for a game with a cool factor a notch below Math-o-lympics.
It certainly killed any chance I had of being cool, because while I was checking out the new sweater-vest collection at the Roger Dunn Golf Shop, my friends (friends are people who constantly ridicule you, right?) were hitting the beach with girls and surfboards and decidedly un-pained expressions. Seriously, I even felt sorry for me. But I couldn’t help it. The golf bug had bitten me. I just wish it had gotten me a little later in life. Like now, for instance, because against all odds, golf, an activity traditionally associated with fashion-challenged pear-shaped men is suddenly one of the hippest sports going.
Need proof? Two words: Kelly Slater. Arguably the coolest guy on the planet, Slater has been named by People Magazine as one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World,” named by Surfer Magazine as the greatest surfer of all time and jammed on stage with Jack Johnson and Eddie Vedder, two close friends. I don’t think the cool-o-meter even goes that high. Oh, and did I mention that he’s won the professional surfing world title an unprecedented nine times? Yeah, that was his day job.
On the links, he’s a two handicap and shot a three-under-par 67 in this year’s Pebble Beach AT&T Pro Am. I’ve also heard rumors that Slater doesn’t need sleep and can hit a one iron. In other words, he may be an alien life form. If he starts hanging with Tom Cruise, I’m calling the government.
This is a guy who travels with a backpack, a stack of surfboards and his golf clubs. Think about that for a moment. The king of a sport known as the symbol for carefree, existentialist rebel beach fests is embracing – publicly, mind you – the sport known as the symbol for the establishment’s tie-wearing, conference-call-loving, my-knees-haven’t-seen-the-sun-since-grade-school set. When did that happen?
A while ago, actually.
First there was Clint, who’s always been an avid golfer and perennial Pebble Beach Pro Am attendee. And even if he doesn’t look as cool in a visor and funny shoes, are you going to tell a driver wielding Dirty Harry that? I mean, just how lucky do you feel?
Then there was Michael Jordan. But something about a six-foot-six guy attacking a tiny white ball with an extra-long club made the whole thing seem a shot short of actually cool. No matter how perfect his swing became, it still looked a little clumsy and a lot dangerous, sort of like that feeling you get when opening a rollaway bed: This could go horribly wrong at any second and I could lose an arm. He even smoked cigars while on the course, something I don’t think he ever did while flying over guys to ram a basketball through a hoop (although I’m sure he could). Personally, whenever I saw Jordan on the golf course, I half expected him to wink at the camera in mid-backswing, as if to say, “I’m so cool I have to do a little golfing to bring myself back down to human status.” In short, it felt like a novelty act, like his baseball years.
Slater fixed all that when he caught the golf bug around the same time as Jordan did, only by accident and decidedly off camera. Apparently, in the late ‘90s, Slater had a meeting at a golf course. He played nine holes, took five dozen shots to do it and never made the meeting. He was hooked. Within a few years he was carting clubs around the world and boasting a one-digit handicap. It’s the type of story that makes guys like me want to hate guys like him. The problem is that by all accounts Slater is such a gentleman, he even makes that impossible. In other words, he wins again. Yaaawn.
Paradoxically, for pro athletes, especially surfers, golf seems a perfect fit. Just ask Ross Williams, another pro surfer sponsored by Reef who spent several years in the top 16 of the sport, lives in Hawaii and is Slater’s good friend and frequent partner on the links. In case you don’t hate him yet, he’s also a four handicap. “Golf is the perfect sport for travelling surfers,” he says. “When you’re on tour there are lots of golf courses around and with surfing the conditions aren’t always good so you have a lot of down time and not a lot of obligations.” In other words, the very nature of the coolest sport on the planet fosters an addiction to the nerdiest. Make that, the formerly nerdiest.
“Really? I think golf is still super nerdy,” says Williams, challenging my premise. To which I say, Dude, you’re a pro surfer living on the North Shore playing golf with Kelly Slater and Jack Johnson. Snoop Dogg is nerdy to you. Still, he persists. “But the things that make golf nerdy are the things that make me like it. You have to set up a tee time, you have to where a collared shirt and there’s all this etiquette involved. Whereas in surfing it’s cool to be sort of punky and brash and a rebel. And those are all things that to me are super dorky and unoriginal.” That’s nice, Ross, really. I just wish your kind discovered that in high school, before giving me all the wedgies.
Still, it’s nice to know that I was ahead of my time. But like most people ahead of their time, I was severely ridiculed. Severely. Even my mom made fun of me.
But now, everyone’s in on the action. The golf part, not the ridiculing me part. Okay, actually both, but let’s not dwell. “I have so many friends that golf and they’re all different characters,” says Williams. “You have your crazy, partying gambler guy, then your rich businessman with stiff shirt and loafers, and everything in between.” Right. So one final question: Why is that party guy still hassling me?
The thing that stings the most about golf’s coming out party, though, is that guys like me, who logged the fairway miles in the goofy pants era, are now getting smoked by guys rocking up in a pair of Volcum trunks, a backward hat and six-pack abs. Six packs! Isn’t that against the rules or something? We sneer at the sand between their laces while they smack a drive a hundred yards past ours, then have the nerve to be modest about it. “Gosh, I really thought by my second month playing, I’d be better. Hey, how ‘bout a Red Bull? On me, bro.” I have news for you: you are not being cool, you are not being modest. You are insulting me. And it hurts. (But I will take that Red Bull.)
But that’s not even the most irksome part, because I’m a writer, so let’s face it, I’m used to being belittled. What really gets to me is that inevitable moment when the cute beverage cart girl visibly drools over Mr. Red Bull, forgets to charge him for his two sandwiches and three drinks, then wheels off with my change. It’s like a scene from high school – or what I refer to as Four Years in Monkhood – played out over and over every Sunday. Because again, guys like me put in the bad years, when being on the golf team meant losing girls to the chess club guys. And I didn’t even make the cut for the golf team.
In fact, if my golf game mirrored my high school dating stats, I’d be working on a 137 handicap. So when I see guys like Kelly, who has dated both Pamela Anderson and Cameron Diaz, shoot a 67 on the Shore Course at Pebble Beach… well, let’s just say I’m rooting for the sand trap. I mean, there was a time when there were scientific studies dedicated to discovering whether or not golfers had sex drives, now there’s an insatiable Tiger swinging away. It’s all totally backwards. And the frustration is really putting a warble in my back swing, darn it.
Here’s another question I’d like answered: Is any “sport” you can play in a sweater while smoking, drinking and never breaking a sweat truly a sport? Sure, it takes concentration and good hand-eye concentration. But so does Whack-a-Mole.
Of course, there are still signs of the good old days, even according to guys like Slater and Williams. “Surfing is filled with tons of hype and promotion,” says Williams, “whereas golf is strictly ‘What did you shoot today?’” Uh, please, don’t ask. Just keep talking. “In golf, if you’re good enough to compete it means you played well, where surfing is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s extremely different that way.”Again, that’s a really nice thought. And he may be right; he’s definitely right about surfing being a lot about image and hype and golf being about none of that.
So maybe there is hope for nerds like me yet. After all, there are still roaming refreshment carts featuring healthy doses of beer, vodka and high-fiber snacks alongside the PowerBars and vitamin-spiked purple sports drinks. And those big-bellied white guys with the sweater vests and cigars simply refuse to give up their tee times. So I for one say good for them. Keep it old school, buddy. Because frankly, you’re my last chance at looking even close to cool.
Especially in these ridiculous pants.