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Why Golf?

The Mystery of the Game Revisited
By Bob Cullen

Read an Excerpt

Why the Blind Baby Smiled

Probably ninety percent of human outdoor games consist in the propulsion of a spheroid or spheroidal object to a certain spot.

-- Haultain

The essence of golf is simple. The player has a ball. It lies at point A. Using a club, he tries to move it to point B.

It is an essentially useless endeavor. The ball does the player no more good at point B than it did at point A. There is no evident reason why moving it there should make him happy.

Yet there is no doubt that it does. Before there were courses and rules, scores and tournaments, before there was even a game called golf, there was the pleasure to be found in this simple act.

The joy of whacking something is the common thread in the childhood histories of virtually all the great golfers. Harry Vardon recounted how he and his friends on the Isle of Jersey built clubs to smack a white marble called a taw over the commons of the village of Grouville in 1877. Bobby Jones recalled how, at the age of five, he and a friend would while away summer days on the roadway in front of his Atlanta house, hitting a ball into a ditch with a sawed-off cleek given him by a member of the East Lake Country Club. Sam Snead made himself a club with a buggy whip for a shaft and a head fashioned from a knot in a tree branch. He happily banged rocks around the hills and pastures of Ashwood, Virginia, with this club until one Sunday morning when he happened to hit one through the window of the local Baptist church. Arnold Palmer, in his autobiography, recalls how his father gave him a club when he was three years old, taught him to grip it, and gave him a simple lesson: "Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it again." This Palmer did, with great delight. He is still doing it, with evident zest, nearly seven decades later. In fact, the pleasure he finds in following his father's instruction could well be the reason he has played the game as well as he has for as long as he has.

Still, why should this be so?

I play golf once in a while with a psychiatrist named Joe Silvio. We met at a party given by a mutual friend several years ago. When I mentioned that I played, it was like mentioning that I knew an old flame he hadn't seen since college. His face lit up with a mixture of fondness, nostalgia, and hope. "Golf was the joy of my youth," he said.

I couldn't help but invite him to play.

Joe showed up for our game with a nervous smile on his bearded face and a set of clubs in an old leather bag. The irons were rusty. The driver was an old steel-shafted persimmon, so clearly a product of the fifties that it almost had tail fins. But when he hit a few range balls to loosen up, it was clear that he'd once played well. He had the fundamentals -- good posture at address, a full turn. His timing showed the effects of a few decades of rust. Some of his shots came off the hosel and some off the toe. They banged against the fence on the side of the range.

But it was one of those rare, soft summer days without heat or humidity, a day of blue skies and scattered, high clouds, the kind of July day that once in a while gets lost in Canada and wanders down to Maryland before regaining its bearings. No matter what the ball did, Joe was happy to be there.

"I'm not expecting much today," he said, as much to himself as to me.

He grounded his drive off the first tee. Mine wasn't much better -- into the rough on the left side of the fairway. I didn't care. I was having too much fun watching Joe rediscover the game. He didn't care how many strokes he took. He was enjoying the sensation of hitting a golf ball.

"Golf was a big factor in my boyhood," he said as we walked down the first hole.

He grew up, he told me, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Elizabeth, as anyone who drives down the New Jersey Turnpike knows, is the place where New York stores its oil, in vast tank farms that smell of benzine. It's where freighters unload their cargoes. It's not a place generally associated with golf.

"My father was an oil worker for Esso," he said. "But when I was a kid I got a job as a caddie at a public course called Galloping Hill, near the Garden State Parkway. After a while there, I graduated to a private club called Suburban Country Club. I worked on the weekends and in the summer. I played on Mondays."

Working at a golf club, he remembered, had paid him more than money. It had given him a chance to meet and talk with doctors, lawyers, engineers -- people he would not necessarily have encountered in Elizabeth. Slowly he realized that he was able to handle himself in their company, that they were no smarter than he was. He credited this experience with helping him decide to become a doctor. He applied for a scholarship available to the children of Esso employees and got it. He went to Cornell.

But the price of this upward mobility, it seemed, was golf. He married and started a private psychiatric practice. He and his wife had children. He decided he couldn't spare the time for activities that did not involve them. So the clubs got old in a corner of the garage.

By the time we made the turn, Joe's swing was slowly coming back. He was making bogeys and double bogeys. I was playing my usual game, which was perhaps a stroke per hole better. We weren't competing. He wasn't even keeping score.

The conversation flitted from golf to psychology and back again. We talked about criminal madness and a book I'd written about a Russian serial killer. We talked about the slice and what caused it. He told me how he'd come to rely less and less on Freudian theories over the years, finding that they were useful in explaining aggressive behavior but not very helpful in curing other illnesses.

I was thinking about my conversation with Alex Beam, so as we putted out on the twelfth hole, I asked him what Freud might have said about why people play golf.

"Freud probably would have explained it in terms of some kind of penis symbolism," he said.

The thirteenth at my course is a par three, one hundred and ninety-five yards. Joe hit his best shot of the day there, a three-iron that drew sweetly into the middle of the green. It was a reminder of the skills he'd once had and a promise that he might yet recapture them.

More than that, it was a reminder of the pleasure of the well-struck ball. I was not sure why hitting a golf ball well feels so good. There is, I knew, a pleasing sense of grace and rhythm that accompanies the swing on good shots. There's a strong, solid feeling that flows from the center of the clubface, through the shaft, into the hands, and up to the brain when a ball is hit properly. That's why, I suppose, the center of the clubface is called the sweet spot. Then there's the sight of the ball arcing against the sky and the trees, tracking toward its target. I am not one of those players who hits a good drive and reaches down to find and retrieve the used tee before the ball lands. When I catch one well, I savor every second of the ball's flight.

Joe, I could see, felt the same way. He watched his ball roll to a stop with a pleased smile on his face.

"I must've pulled that one out of my deep subconscious," he grinned.

Actually, Joe told me as we walked toward the green, Freud was considered badly outdated as a theorist on the sources of human pleasure. He had postulated a couple of instinctive drives -- a sexual drive, an aggressive drive. More recent research had suggested a model of the psyche that featured five instincts, though now they were called, with the academic tendency toward verbiage inflation, "motivational systems."

"Golf is probably related to the exploratory-assertive motivational system," he said.

I chipped onto the green and felt unusually conscious of the sensory pleasure the shot gave me. It was a good chip, hit with a seven-iron from a clean lie. I caught the ball just before the clubhead reached the bottom of its arc, making the kind of contact that presses the ball down toward the ground for a millisecond before it reacts to the loft of the clubface and gets airborne, like a watermelon seed squeezed from between pursed lips. The ball hit the green a few feet from the collar and bounced the way a ball struck with backspin bounces -- alertly, like a dog on a leash sniffing for a scent. Then it rolled smartly toward the hole, taking the expected break and dying inches from the cup for a tap-in par. I enjoyed the shot, enjoyed the feeling of controlling the ball.

Joe missed his birdie putt, but he was happy to take a par during this introductory round.

"What's the exploratory-assertive motivational system?" I asked him as we headed for the fourteenth tee.

He told me the story of the blind baby who smiled.

It seems that a psychiatrist was working with an infant born blind. At the age of eight weeks, the baby had never smiled, something that infants blessed with eyesight do at roughly the age of four weeks. But how could a blind infant be expected to smile? He could not see his mother's smiling face.

The doctors experimented with different sounds in their efforts to stimulate the baby. They introduced small bells into the area around his cradle. The sound of the bells, though, did not make the baby smile -- not at first.

The doctors rigged an apparatus that allowed the infant to control the sound of the bells by kicking his legs. Very quickly, the baby got the hang of it. He kicked. He heard a bell ring. He kicked again. The bell rang again.

The baby smiled. He smiled every time his kicking produced the bell sound, even though the sound of the bells had never caused him to smile when it was just a random occurrence in his environment.

What pleased the infant, then, was not the sound of the bell, per se. It was causing the sound of the bell. He smiled because he had discovered he could make something happen around him. He could manipulate his environment.

That, Joe told me, was one of the experimental bases for the theory of the exploratory-assertive motivational system. Making something happen in the environment around them gives human beings a sense of competence. That, in turn, gives them pleasure. A baby will indefatigably use his arms and legs to push the pieces of a mobile hanging above his crib, simply for the pleasure of seeing them move in response to his actions. A golfer will happily spend hours on the practice range hitting seven-irons to a flag in the ground one hundred and fifty yards away. Both the baby and the golfer are impelled by the same instinct.
par

Joe's explanation reminded me of something I had recently observed far from a golf course. It was the early stages of a new sport called punkin' chunkin'. Punkin' chunkin', in the light of Joe's explanation, seemed like a very basic manifestation of the exploratory-assertive motivational system.

It began a few years ago in the fields around Lewes, Delaware, when some farmers had to dispose of their unsold pumpkins after Halloween. Someone suggested a contest to build devices that would heave the pumpkins across a field, where they splattered in a very satisfactory way. Punkin' chunkin' was born.

Punkin' chunkin' touched something within the psyches of the people of the Delmarva Peninsula. Within a few years the informal little contest had grown to a major spectacle. The simple early catapults used to heave the pumpkins evolved rapidly until there were several classes of implements. In the unlimited class the pumpkin heavers turned into launchers the size and length of water mains, powered by gas or compressed air, mounted on heavy trucks with names like the Destroyer. The distance the pumpkins traveled edged past half a mile. A little Presbyterian church at the far end of the field had to be boarded up for protection during the contest.

The town of Lewes organized punkin' chunkin' into a late autumn festival. Fences were erected and tickets were sold. Budweiser became a corporate sponsor. And thousands of spectators showed up each November to watch people heave pumpkins across a plowed field, to see the vegetable arc against the sky and splatter against the ground. It was entertainment at its most elemental.

"Yeah, Joe," I said. "That sounds plausible."

Heaving pumpkins. Hitting baseballs. Throwing a basketball through a hoop. Playing golf. They all stemmed from the same instinct.

We were playing the seventeenth hole, a short par five. I tried to crank out a long drive. As is usual in such cases, I threw off my rhythm and cut the ball, pushing it into the right rough, in a spot from which I would have no chance to reach the green in two.

"Still, I'm not sure Freud wouldn't have been right in equating the urge to hit a golf ball with some kind of symbol of virility," I said to Joe as we walked after our balls. "Isn't that why people love to see John Daly or Tiger Woods more than Corey Pavin or Lee Janzen, even though Pavin and Janzen have won U.S. Opens and Woods and Daly haven't? They're the big studs because they hit it three hundred yards."

Joe shrugged, wordlessly expressing his opinion of Freud. "I think you'll find that Freud was best suited to his own era, when a lot of things were more repressed," he said.

As if to demonstrate how the long drive was overrated, I got onto the green in a regulation three strokes and missed a short birdie putt. It was the putting, more than the length of the tee shot, that determined the score.

Joe's old leather bag gave out as we played the last hole. He picked it up and the strap pulled away from the body of the bag. He carried it down the last fairway with the strap slung over his shoulder and clenched in his right hand, the way boys carried their schoolbooks when Freud's theories were new and in fashion.

He was far from discouraged. "I've got to get a new bag and maybe some clubs," he said. "Should I buy new or used?"

I suggested that Joe get back into the game the way I had years before at Stanford. I told him he should go to a used sporting goods store and buy some secondhand clubs to use until he could better determine the state of both his swing and his interest. I recommended a lightweight nylon bag with a pop-up stand; Joe, with commendable instincts, had already decided that he wanted to avoid golf carts whenever possible and tote his own clubs.

Joe had a suggestion for me. "You should go see Joe Lichtenberg," he said. Lichtenberg was a psychiatrist, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. He had written a book, Psychoanalysis and Motivation, that summarized the research that developed the model of five motivational systems.

I found a copy and read it. The exploratory-assertive motivational system turned out to be one of those scientific terms of art that conceal more than they illuminate, at least for those not immersed every day in the jargon of the trade. Essentially, it means that if you give a human being an opportunity, he will explore his environment and try to make things happen in it. It's another way of saying we're active and curious. It's another way of saying we like to be in control of our surroundings. It's another way of saying we like to be good at exerting this control.

It also turned out that in experimenting with these tendencies, it was remarkably easy to get infants to display the traits that make golfers like to hit golf balls.

For instance, if you take four-month-olds and expose them to five-second bursts of multicolored light, you will get their attention for a while. But, being infants, the babies will soon get bored. They will stop turning toward the source of the multicolored light.

If, however, you rig the display so that the infants can turn it on by turning their heads from side to side three times, their interest picks up dramatically. The infants will shake their heads so steadily they resemble Soviet arms control negotiators in the bad old days of the Brezhnev regime. They love the idea that something they do with their bodies affects something in their environment.

Dr. Lichtenberg, of course, was not the first to notice the tendency. Even Freud wrote of the way his grandson, at eighteen months, liked to throw small objects out of sight and then hunt for them. He would do this over and over again, making them disappear and reappear in his world.

Toymakers have known about it for generations. Think of the pleasure children get from their hammers and Peg-Boards, toys that consist of nothing more than an opportunity to wield a sort of club and bang a peg so that it protrudes from one side of the board rather than the other. The child bangs all the pegs through to one side, then happily turns the board over and bangs them through to the other.

Dr. Lichtenberg's role was not to discover this trait. He assimilated the experimental results of many researchers and interpreted them to produce his model of the psyche.

The doctor, as it happened, lived not far from me. I called him up and asked for an appointment. He sounded politely skeptical of my explanation -- that I had read his book and wanted to ask him some questions about his theories and the light they might shed on the pleasures of golf. No doubt he had found that disturbed patients can present their cases in eccentric ways. I made a point of carrying a notebook when I went to his office. I kept it clutched in my hand as I made my way through the little maze of doors and corridors he had erected to protect his patients' privacy as they came and went.

Dr. Lichtenberg was a short, wiry man with graying hair. He dressed soberly in a white shirt, a tie, a conservative blue suit, and sensible shoes in black leather. He projected dispassionate rationality. He did not, he told me, play golf. He sailed. He played tennis. He took long, regular swims. While he swam he mentally composed paragraphs for his books.

He had been thinking about my query, he went on, and had some ideas. He agreed with Joe Silvio that the exploratory-assertive motivational system was fundamental to the pleasures of golf. But it was not the only factor. He thought all five of the human motivational systems played a role.

So we sat down -- I chose an armchair facing him and kept a measured distance from the couch along the far wall. Dr. Lichtenberg shared his thoughts as he might if lecturing a small group of medical students.

The first instinct, he said, is the regulation of our bodies. We are born wanting to eat and sleep, of course. But we also want to control our movement. Babies in the womb, for instance, know how to bring their hands to their mouths to suck their fingers. Immediately after birth, they've lost this ability. It's because moving body parts through the air is different from moving them through the fluid environment of the uterus. Infants seem to resent this loss of control. In the first days of life, they struggle to remaster the skill. At first they push their hands past their mouths. In about ten days, though, they learn. It gives them satisfaction to move their hands to their mouths and suck.

In another decade or two, the same instinct might be prompting those infants to master ballet or tennis or golf. All three are disciplines that call for mastery of complex movements. When we master such movements, when they flow as if by instinct, we have a word that describes what we have done: graceful. It implies that a higher power has helped us control our bodies.

It is, I suppose, the search for that state of grace that impels dancers and golfers to practice. Or, as Lichtenberg explained it, "We work to get the brain to run the musculature in a very particular way. There's a pleasure that comes when it's beautifully coordinated."

The second general instinct in Dr. Lichtenberg's model of the psyche was what he called the "attachment-affiliation system." To put it less clinically, we all want to love and be loved. We all want to have friends.

Golf, Lichtenberg said, struck him as a peculiarly good sport for friendship. As a tennis player, he had noted that golf, unlike most sports, did not require the division of the players into two sides. Tennis did so by means of a net. In football the teams defended opposite ends of a field. Other sports had goals or baskets. They all came down to skins against shirts, home versus away, us against them. You can't have a game without having a winner and a loser.

But golf, as Joe Silvio and I had rediscovered, lends itself to a completely noncompetitive, friendly approach. I could think of hundreds of pleasant rounds in the company of both friends and total strangers with no match on, nothing at stake. We simply enjoyed the game together.

In fact, golf is a sport that has to be slightly modified if the players want to make it more competitive, want to have a winner and a loser. That's why a lot of golfers normally bet a few dollars at the start of a round. It's why the game maintains an elaborate handicap system. It's why clubs have tournaments. The game is like a sports car. You can soup it up and race it, but it's also great for relaxed cruising on a sunny day.

Dr. Lichtenberg kept ticking off the instincts that made golf attractive. The third, he thought, was the goal of sensual pleasure, the esthetic instinct. This instinct makes some of us love Impressionist paintings. It also, he thought, makes golfers love golf courses. "Golf has created a setting that's highly pleasurable. People gravitate toward the course for this reason," he said. "It allows us to combine the sensual appreciation of art with the playful, exploratory, adventurous side of our personalities."

The fourth instinct was a negative one, he said. Human beings are wired to react adversely to certain things -- foul tastes, foul deeds. We respond with anger, fear, disdain, contempt, sarcasm, shame, or sadness -- perhaps a combination of several. This instinct, restrained to moderate levels, helps people resolve conflicts and avoid danger. Unchecked, of course, it can be the source of terrible unhappiness.

I smiled. That, I told him, was something good golfers knew. I remembered Sam Snead saying he tried never to be more than "sensibly irritated" at anything that happened on the golf course.

Finally, Dr. Lichtenberg concluded, there was the exploratory-assertive instinct, the one Joe Silvio had cited to me. It is the instinct behind both work and play.

The spontaneous play of children and infants, he said, follows a few general patterns. They seek stimulation and contact with the environment. They like activity to require a degree of persistence. Finally, kids at play want some risk, some tension.

"One's interest in efficacy has to be stimulated, or the play becomes boring" is the way Dr. Lichtenberg put it.

But kids don't want the tension in their play to be so great as to frighten them, Dr. Lichtenberg went on. A frisson of tension pleases us; panic does not. Thus, for example, most boys will walk on top of a six-foot fence, but not on a wire a hundred feet off the ground. Thus, most people bet two dollars a side, not their houses, when they play golf.

Kids also appreciate novelty and variety in their play, the doctor noted. They're delighted by slight variations in their games -- much as golfers delight in new courses and new holes.

Kids at play enjoy developing competence, whether it be with a yo-yo, a top, or a club and a ball. That's one reason successful societies encourage children to play. The urge to develop competence is thought to spill over into their work and studies.

Or, if they're fortunate, into golf, I thought.

Yet another golf-related feature of the exploratory-assertive system, Dr. Lichtenberg went on, was something called the Ziegarnik Effect.

"The Ziegarnik Effect?" I asked.

The Ziegarnik Effect, he replied, is the name given to a tendency that emerged in a series of experiments regarding complex tasks. Subjects were given a job like adding seven rows of numbers. Then the researcher stopped them in the middle of doing this job and asked them to do something else. When this second chore was completed, the researcher gave the subjects a choice of activities. Most subjects chose to go back to the seven rows of numbers and finish adding them up. "People want to keep going," Dr. Lichtenberg said. "They want to finish what they've started."

"Like the eighteen holes of a golf course?" I asked.

He nodded.

The Ziegarnik Effect, he said, helps explain the satisfaction of the structure of the game. Golf gives us eighteen separate tasks and eighteen satisfying moments of completion before it rewards us with the grand satisfaction of completing the course. It would be, after all, possible to lay out a seven-thousand-yard course with one tee and one hole. No one does so. It would reduce the pleasure of the game.

Dr. Lichtenberg put down his notes. He had covered everything, he said politely, and my fifty minutes were almost up. He had a patient due shortly. Did I have any brief questions?

Well, I said, he had shed a lot of light on the pleasures of the game. Obviously, golf stimulates some parts of the brain that are wired to give us enjoyment. His model of the psyche did not, of course, explain completely why golf was more addictive than, say, competitive archery. But it helped.

I did have one question. Why, if he thought golf would be so well suited to the pleasure centers of the psyche, did he not play himself?

Dr. Lichtenberg responded with the wry smile of a man who long ago sorted through the messy passions of life and made strictly rational choices about which ones he would indulge.

"The learning curve is too steep," he said. "I never felt I wanted to take the time to learn."

Copyright © 2000 by Bob Cullen

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