Golf’s future is uncertain. Courses are closing and membership numbers are shrinking faster than D.J.’s bladder before a clutch putt. Jordan, Rory, and Rickie have injected some much-needed sizzle, but not enough to reverse the downward trajectory of the game at large. Old codgers, teaching pros, course owners, fellow coaches, and media blame the same triple-headed monster: “It’s too hard, too expensive, and takes too long.” The industry has responded with gimmicks like foot golf, enlarged cups, 13-hole courses, and golf “experiences” like Top Golf where you can “play” while slurping margaritas and jamming chili cheese fries. Private clubs are slashing rates, partnering with fitness centers (no thanks), and letting Joe Public play at select times. The First Tee’s impact appears to be negligible, and a broken, balding Tiger Woods did not bring about a generation of minority players; at the high school regional tournament where I coach in metro Detroit, there was exactly one African American player.
Yes, the game is difficult, pricey, and time-consuming, but I think the real culprit is more insidious; it’s one that has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, often without our permission.
I’ll wait for you to stop looking at your phone.
It’s the Internet.
This might be a curmudgeonly “kids these days” argument, but consider the extent to which the interwebs have spun their way into every crevice of our lives. What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Before you go to bed? Stopped in traffic? Watching the baseball game? At the game? While you’re at the game and the winning home run is being hit? If you didn’t answer “check my phone,” then you’re probably lying. Mobile web access has rendered useless three traits vital to golf: patience, concentration, and the ability to interact with strangers.
In 10 years teaching high school English and five years of coaching golf, I’ve witnessed a precipitous decline. And it would be lazy to suggest that only teenagers are in this electronic thrall. We’re all more impatient, more distracted, and more self-absorbed. I have to tell my 66-year-old dad to put down his iPhone during conversations. “No dad, I didn’t see Bernie Sanders’ tweet.”
So it’s no wonder that when you ask a kid if he wants to play golf, he’s not interested. I hear, “Want to escape for four hours and play a game in nature with some good people? You might even get close to God.” He hears, “Want to put on a collared shirt, turn off your phone, abandon your X Box, walk through the woods, and get really frustrated?”
Golf requires the very qualities that digital technology doesn’t:
Patience. On the golf course, if the foursome ahead is holding up play, you wait, take some practice swings, and visualize the rest of the round. In our digital world, if you’re stuck in traffic, you can read a Times article, check email, text three friends, deposit a check, and update your Fantasy roster. Consider that for 3 hours and 58 minutes of a 4-hour round, you’re not even swinging a club. Why would anyone “waste” that much time when he can get so much done?
Concentration. On the golf course, in order to properly execute a difficult shot, your body, mind, and soul converge in a Zen-like focus on a single task. In the modern world, you can simultaneously run a spreadsheet, listen to a Podcast, IM a co-worker, and order lunch. And despite the prevailing research that less that 2% of the population can effectively multitask, we insist on — even take pride in — doing multiple things at once.
Ability to interact with strangers. Without a clean foursome, you experience that awkward first tee moment when the starter introduces you to your playing partners. As an introvert, this has always induced anxiety for me. But isn’t it healthy to be uncomfortable? I look Bob or Bill or Mike (90% of the time they have one of these names) in his eyes, smile, and firmly shake hands. And we’re off. When was the last time you shook hands with someone in his twenties? Exactly. There’s a decent chance he spends 80% of his life on the Internet, where — with sound tech skills, serviceable writing, and cleverly placed emoticons — he can earn a paycheck, “run” errands, and find a wife. Try using an emoticon when you’ve got a 220 carry into a postage stamp with the club championship on the line.
In Nicholas Carr’s chilling book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, he argues that the Internet is rewiring our neural pathways such that we are experiencing the world much differently from our predecessors. Specifically, we’re conditioned to crave instant gratification, distraction, and artificial light. I submit that these pathways are leading us away from golf and into a scary place where silence isn’t golden and nothing is worth waiting for. Yes, golf is hard, it takes time, and it’s costly. But so is a bottle of Scotch. So is a great marriage. So is being a parent. Remember that progress is not always good. So call me old-fashioned…Please.