[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: The Golf Gene

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The Golf Gene

[Letters to the editor appended.]


    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
    television. Why?

    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
    frustrating game?

    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'
    favorite tees.

    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
    to use.

    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: [4]tierney at nytimes.com

                                    * * *

    For Further Reading:

    [5]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.

    [6]The Natural History Of Art: Possible animal influence on human
    perception of art by Richard Conniff. Discover, November 1999.

    [7]Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior by James
    McBride Dabbs with Mary Godwin Dabbs. McGraw-Hill, 256 pp., July 2000.

    [8]Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology by Denis Dutton. The Oxford
    Handbook for Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson. Oxford University
    Press, 2003.

    [9]Professional Disc Golf Association


    4. mailto:tierney at nytimes.com
    5. http://www.isteve.com/golf_art.htm
    6. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1511/is_11_20/ai_57042527
    8. http://www.denisdutton.com/aesthetics_&_evolutionary_psychology.htm
    9. http://www.pdga.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.
     Robert Faber
     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.
     Denise Seigel
     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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