You would never say, “I tennis, I football, I soccer, I basketball, I baseball, or I hockey,” would you? You say, correctly, “I PLAY tennis.” Sports are nouns, after all.
So, why is “I golf” an acceptable way to describe playing that sport?
Yes, I know, people also say, “I run, I swim, I ski.” But those activities, while they can be sports, stem from actions (verbs) with no reason to keep score. They are, in a real sense, simply ways to move from one place to another – a journey. You can choose to keep score or measure your time. But, it’s not what drives the basic activity.
Full disclosure: I was raised by two English majors and growing up loose use of the language was not acceptable in our house. So, as a kid, golf was always a noun. I had never heard anyone say, “I golf.” It was always “I play golf.” But, after I left home I noticed most other people did not share my narrow view of how the sport was to be described.
So, that got me thinking. Is there something about golf that sets it apart, that puts it into the “I run” category? Is there something about a “journey” buried in the game?
I thought back to my early days in golf, and how my parents let me build a green in the field behind our house. I had to learn about lawn care and grass maintenance at a level our regular lawn never enjoyed; how to sift dirt in the coarse New England soil get the rocks out, how to blend in some sand to get the drainage right, and how to sweet talk the nine hole course superintendent down the street out of some special grass seed and their old greens mower to get my golf green built and ready to play.
Then I learned that if you have an old apple tree, you can perfect a 30 yard flop shot over it (take that Phil Mickelson!) if you practice it about a thousand times while your mother is trying kindly but firmly to get you in for dinner. The rest of my game has deteriorated since then. But I can still hit that flop shot in my sleep. Practice matters in the journey of life.
Golf later took me to the finals of my club championship at the tender age of 18, at a little course in southern Quebec where my family had a summer cottage. We were the only Americans in the club, so I was playing for my country. And it was the first time I’d played in front of a gallery. So, I choked.
After 11 holes without even a par, the match ended mercifully. But, at the awards ceremony an interesting thing happened. While my 21-year-old adversary joked about how his victory showed that the “older generation could still teach the younger generation a thing or two,” he graciously added that my ability to keep my composure in the face of a publically humiliating situation was something the older generation might learn from, too. Grace under fire matters in life.
And that story found its way into my graduate business school application, which may have helped my first choice B-school overlook my decidedly mediocre undergraduate grades. And there I met a couple from Portland, Oregon, who convinced me that this was the only place to live, if I only knew it.
And so, having journeyed west, and having met my wife in Portland, I got a few more golf lessons.
When we were expecting our first child, we received some very scary test results. Only after a much more thorough set of tests did we know that our baby was going to be all right. I went out that afternoon and shot the best round of golf I had scored in a decade, and haven’t been within five strokes of it since. The whole notion of how the game is 90% mental was never so clear. And the fact that it was only a game was never so evident. Golf provided the path to discovery.
And when that child, our oldest son, was thirteen, we were playing golf and for the first time ever he out drove me. He turned with this ear-to-ear grin and blurted, “Dad, puberty rocks!” It was the first time, and not the last, where I got to see the joy when the younger generation feels they can show their elders a thing or two. And for the first time, and not the last, I started to feel just a little bit old myself.
So, maybe golf is really like running, swimming, or skiing. Maybe it is a journey independent of any score.
Maybe “I golf” is OK after all.