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Reg Henry: Golf only works if it's hell on grass

With the snow having retreated and chance encounters with wolves and woolly mammoths apparently diminished, it may be time to take out the old sticks -- canes, walking sticks, crutches and, for those in not enough pain already, golf clubs.

Yes, the golf clubs have been in their bags all winter, plotting ways to confound and frustrate the nation's golfing mortals newly released back into the sun. With anticipation building, I too stand ready to drive myself crazy in a new season of trying to hit little balls into little holes.

If only the game were easier. If only the clubs were more cooperative, not to mention those devious greens, which are in cahoots with the ball to make it go anywhere other than into the hole.

But just as sand traps and water hazards start their annual siren song -- "Yoo hoo, big fellah in the spiked shoes, we are over here for you, just one swing away" -- I read a story in The New York Times reporting on efforts to make the game easier to keep people interested in playing. Apparently, leaders of the sport are worried about the game's declining popularity.

That golf has become less popular, especially among the young, comes as a profound cultural shock. Fewer people playing golf? Five million fewer in the past decade, the story said. Surely some mistake. This is America, where the tees are as high as an elephant's eye and a shank looks like its climbin' clear up to the sky.

How do people become properly frustrated without the help of golf clubs? Poor golf-less souls! They must be reduced to jumping up and down on any barren spot, without the slightest chance that a ball resting on the lip of a cup will fall due to tiny seismic shocks from the jumping -- which has never happened in the history of the sport despite numerous fat golfers trying, and I speak here from experience.

Now it is suggested that these forlorn, disappointed people might be lured back to the game by gimmicks. The Times story came with a picture of a tour professional putting into a 15-inch-wide hole, which looked like a bucket.

What an appalling prospect if this should catch on. You could go play Pebble Beach because it's on your bucket list and find a bucket being used for the hole.

This is not right. As one who has found himself turned off by constant rounds of failure, who when confronted with a pond quickly throws the ball into the water on the theory it's best to cut out the middle man, who has spent so much time in sand traps that meeting a camel would not be a surprise, let me just say that I don't want golf to be simple. It's only worth playing because it's hard.

Besides, missing a putt into a hole the size of a bucket would be its own special humiliation. At least a golfer now has a decent excuse, what with the tiny holes.

No, if gimmicks are what a golfer wants, there's always the miniature golf course where the ball shoots down little ramps, past windmills and gnomes and into tunnels. The rest of us should continue to revel in the difficulty of a large and gnome-free environment.

There's a lot to be said for tradition -- and mine involves flaying about for hours in the hot sun, divots flying, balls slicing, then retiring to the bar and announcing proudly: "I broke 80!" See, it's not so hard if you only play nine holes.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "Golf is a good walk spoiled." Certainly it is a witty saying, but if Mark Twain had said all the things attributed to him, he would not have had time to play golf. To me, the time it takes to play a round of golf is probably the only reason to stay home and forgo the aerobic pleasure of swinging and missing a stationary ball.

Making the hole as wide as a bucket, or granting a mulligan on every hole, which I do anyway because Mulligan is not around to complain, is not really improving the game.

I think people young and old just have to accept that, short of having wolves stay for the summer to move foursomes along, anything worth doing badly is worth wasting a lot of time over. Golf is a good obsession spoiled if it becomes an easy walk.

Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email, rhenry@post-gazette.com.



By REG HENRY