We live in an age where professional sports seem to dominate much of our social landscape. Currently the Major League Baseball season is well underway and the NBA and NHL playoffs are nearing their climax. NFL teams are conducting off-season Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and it won’t be long before those guys report to training camp. There are numerous contrasts between these sports and the guys who play them and another sport, golf. Here are just a few obvious differences.
- All team sports require everyone to work together to achieve a common goal, while golf is essentially an individual sport; the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup being the only notable exceptions.
- Team sports involve competition between teams on a precisely defined field, rink or court, while golf competitions have individual players competing against a course that offers infinite variations.
- Virtually all team sports include some degree of physical contact between the competitors (not as much in baseball as the others), while the only contact between competitors in golf is a handshake or the occasional pat on the back.
- The tone of conversation between team sport competitors is typically described as “trash talk” with the goal being intimidation or distraction, while such confrontational communications are considered inappropriate between professional golfers.
- The spectators at team sporting events attempt to impact the outcome of the game by cheering, booing or heckling the players during the course of play, while golfers enjoy respectful silence during their actual play and good shots are universally applauded, no matter who makes them.
Perhaps the most striking difference between our beloved team sports and the game of golf rests in how they are administered. In football there are 22 players on the field at any given time, and 7 officials, not including the guy in the replay booth. In basketball there are 10 players and three officials. In hockey there are 12 players and 4 officials. In baseball there is a maximum of 13 players on the field at any given time, with 4 umpires, unless its the playoffs when there are 6 umpires. In each instance there is one official for about every three players. Their job is to control the play by enforcing the rules, often based on what one can only hope are independent and unbiased judgements. Needless to say the officials are often targeted by angry players and fans of losing teams as the reason for their lack of success. But, without these officials the games simply could not be played. Can you imagine Kobe Bryant or LeBron James ever calling a foul on themselves during a crucial playoff game. Is it likely that any tight end would ever agree that he was holding the opposing defensive end. Hockey without officials and the “sin bin” would be nothing more than a brawl on ice. Oh wait! Bad example. Hockey already is a brawl on ice. Perhaps that’s why some people love it the most.
Golf, on the other hand, is described as a gentleman’s game. It isn’t that there aren’t any rules, quite the contrary. The rules of golf are as numerous and as penal as those of any other sport, and every tournament employs numerous officials who oversee the conduct of the competition. But golf officials are, by and large, simply available to the players to assist them in interpreting the rules. With very few exceptions the officials stay behind the scenes while the players police themselves. It is far more common for a player to willingly call a penalty on himself than it is to have an official step forward with an unsolicited adverse ruling. The rules of golf actually call for competitors to assist each other in making rulings during the course of play, and this universally takes place in a cordial and often collegial manner.
Participating in a team sport is often encouraged for children as a means of teaching them life lessons, such as working together and recognizing, understanding and playing within a set of rules. All children naturally tend to rebel against the rules, so the responsible parent, just like the official in a team sport, must step in with some form of discipline when the rules are violated. Over time the goal of parenting is to encourage each child to assume responsibility for their own actions, with the reward being the freedom to make their own independent decisions as adults.
Sadly, many of today’s team sport professionals appear to have never learned these basic lessons. They seem to have little respect for the officials, their opponents or the fans. Their behavior can only be described as that of a undisciplined teenagers or the growing group of “occupy” participants. When these truly incredible athletes prance around beating their chests, whine about every foul called against them or in some instances act like common backstreet thugs, they are distracting from both their talent and their game.
I find it very interesting how many professional athletes eventually gravitate toward golf as their preferred leisure activity. Perhaps it’s because they see golf as an opportunity to compete as an individual. They are not reliant on a teammate to pass them the ball or drive them in from second base. But I think it also has something to do with a desire to escape the constant oversight of third party officials, much the way the teenager wants their freedom and independence from their parents’ oppressive control.
If you have been watching professional golf on television lately you no doubt have seen the promotions for “The First Tee”, a program of the World Golf Foundation, which is supported by the PGA, the LPGA, the USGA, numerous corporations and other organizations. Their mission is “To impact the lives of young people by providing educational opportunities that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf.” Their stated goal is to get 10 million more kids introduced to the game of golf and all that goes with it. Watching “The First Tee” ads during the recent telecast of the Masters golf tournament reminded me of an old saying taught to me by my father when I was growing up. He said, “If you want to know the true character of a man, get him on the golf course.”
The nine core values that “The First Tee” teaches through golf include: Honesty, Integrity, Perseverance, Sportsmanship, Judgement, Responsibility, Courtesy, Confidence and Respect. These are indeed the characteristics that every adult should embrace, and ones that all our children should be taught. It’s a shame that many of our highly visible athletes who, like it or not, serve as “role models” for America’s youth often demonstrate quite the opposite through their own behavior. But, hopefully through the efforts of programs like “The First Tee” and the clear example of earned personal freedom based on the assumption of individual responsibility embodied in the game of golf, the next generation of Americans can escape the growing trend toward childlike dependence.