[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: The Golf Gene
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Sat Aug 27 00:00:08 UTC 2005
The Golf Gene
[Letters to the editor appended.]
By JOHN TIERNEY
The P.G.A. championship didn't end until Monday, which was ostensibly
a workday, but more than five million men still managed to watch it on
As an action-packed sport, golf ranks down with baseball and bowling,
except that baseball is faster-paced and bowlers are whirling
dervishes compared with golfers. Some golfers do exhibit sudden
movements when they win a tournament, but it's always a shock to see
they can get both feet in the air at once.
Golf features no body contact, no car crashes and no cheerleaders, yet
men keep watching. They make up more than 80 percent of the TV
audience for golf. This might simply be because they like watching a
game they play themselves; men make up nearly 80 percent of the
golfers in America, too. But then why do so many guys play such a
You could theorize that this is a cultural phenomenon, a holdover from
the days of alpha males playing at exclusive clubs. But even though
most courses have been opened to women, the percentage of golfers who
are women hasn't risen in 15 years. Another traditional country-club
sport, tennis, is played by nearly as many women as men, but golf
remains one of the most segregated sports by sex - more male-dominated
than rock climbing, racquetball, pool or roller hockey.
The male-female ratio is about the same as in paintball, a war game
that always made more sense to me than golf. My basic feeling toward
golf - hatred - probably has something to do with how badly I did the
couple of times I played, but incompetence didn't seem to stop other
guys from becoming obsessed with it.
I couldn't imagine what possessed them until I learned about disc
golf, which began as a mellow sport for both sexes three decades ago,
played by hippies in Grateful Dead T-shirts who flung Frisbees into
baskets mounted on poles in public parks. Today there are 1,700
courses and a pro tour that includes superb women players.
But more than 90 percent of the disc golf players, pros and duffers,
are men. The best explanation I can offer for the disparity is what
happened to me the first time I teed off several years ago.
Our foursome started at a tee on high ground, looking down a
tree-lined swath of grass at the basket nearly 400 feet away. After we
flung our discs, as we headed down the fairway, I felt a strange surge
of satisfaction. I couldn't figure out why until it occurred to me
what we were: a bunch of guys converging on a target and hurling
projectiles at it.
Was golf the modern version of Pleistocene hunting on the savanna? The
notion had already occurred to devotees of evolutionary psychology, as
I discovered from reading Edward O. Wilson and Steve Sailer. They
point to surveys and other research showing that people in widely
different places and cultures have a common vision of what makes a
beautiful landscape - and it looks a lot like the view from golfers'
The ideal is a vista from high ground overlooking open, rolling
grassland dotted with low-branched trees and a body of water. It would
have been a familiar and presumably pleasant view for ancient hunters:
an open savanna where prey could be spotted as they grazed; a water
hole to attract animals; trees offering safe hiding places for
The descendants of those hunters seem to have inherited their
fascination with hitting targets, because today's men excel at tests
asking them to predict the flights of projectiles. They also seem to
get a special pleasure from watching such flights, both in video games
and real life. No matter how many times male pilots have seen a plane
land, they'll watch another one just for the satisfaction of seeing
the trajectory meet the ground.
That's the only plausible excuse for watching golf. Men, besides
having a primal affection for the vistas of fairways, get so much joy
watching that little ball fly toward the green that they'll sit
through everything else. One sight of a putt dropping in the hole
makes up for long moments watching pudgy guys agonize over which club
I realize, of course, that this is conjecture. But it could be tested
if some enterprising anthropologist showed a video of the P.G.A.
championship to the men and women in one of the remaining
hunter-gatherer societies. I predict that only the men would take the
day off to watch.
Email: tierney at nytimes.com
* * *
For Further Reading:
From Bauhaus to Golf Course: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of the Art
of Golf Course Architecture by Steve Sailer. The American
Conservative, April 11, 2005.
The Natural History Of Art: Possible animal influence on human
perception of art by Richard Conniff. Discover, November 1999.
Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior by James
McBride Dabbs with Mary Godwin Dabbs. McGraw-Hill, 256 pp., July 2000.
Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology by Denis Dutton. The Oxford
Handbook for Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson. Oxford University
Professional Disc Golf Association
4. mailto:tierney at nytimes.com
The Puzzling Lure of Golf (4 Letters)
To the Editor:
Re "The Golf Gene" (column, Aug. 20): Baffled by the pursuit of a
sport whose action he rates below bowling, John Tierney attributes his
attitude to his own ineptitude. But skill should not be the central
Of the many reasons to pursue golf, high on the list is challenge. For
most people, there are few activities over which we can exercise
control, so conquering some of the mysteries of golf ("conquest" being
in the eye of the guy who just beat his previous record) can be
We watch the pros because we're seeking that single magical movement
that will lift us from hacker to contenderhood. For most, that path
remains clouded in mystery, but by our nature we tend to dismiss
reality and keep on seeking - and that's not all bad.
Ann Arbor, Mich., Aug. 20, 2005
To the Editor:
As a woman who loves golf and may even be a bit obsessed by it, I have
had ample opportunity to test John Tierney's theory.
I play regularly on public courses with both men and women. I can
attest that the women in my weekday league and the men I play with on
weekends are equally fascinated by hitting targets, but neither group
seems to derive any special pleasure from watching the flight of the
golf ball. Most of the time, it's a painful thing to watch.
But we keep coming back to play. There's the enigma.
Huntington, N.Y., Aug. 20, 2005
To the Editor:
John Tierney did not answer the underlying question. What drives men
to play golf? It's simply that unyielding quest of Sisyphus - to reach
Robert H. Berrie
Boca Raton, Fla., Aug. 20, 2005
To the Editor:
It seems more logical to believe that men are greater consumers of
golf than women not because they have inherited a hunter's fascination
with hitting targets in the outdoors, but rather because someone else
cooks their meals, washes their laundry, cleans their homes,
chauffeurs and nurtures their children, supports their job advancement
and on occasion says to them: "You've had a tense week. Why don't you
play golf this weekend?"
As I watched the end of the P.G.A. Championship with my golfer
husband, I yearned for that moment when I can relax, erase my thoughts
and swing the club. I looked at my calendar for a six-hour opening:
fall 2015, after I drop the youngest at college.
K. Louise Francis
Berkeley, Calif., Aug. 20, 2005
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