Edmund W. Hughes
Leawood, Kansas

The fact that golf has remained a game of fun, manners, and character clearly can be attributed mostly to the examples of its heroes.

A lot of years ago, when Arnold Palmer was at the height of his reign, he spoke to an appreciative Atlanta Rotary Club. During a question period following his remarks, he was asked to react to recent sports page headlines about young John McEnroe pitching a fit and mouthing off to an official at Wimbledon, resulting in his being the first winner not invited to the traditional closing dinner.

Illustrious Arnold Palmer, 33

Not being prone to criticizing others, Arnie told us of a match as a teenager when he had his first shot at winning an amateur tournament. He approached the 18th green tied for first place. His older opponent sank a putt, and Arnie missed his shorter putt.

“I hauled off and threw my putter across the green.”

His father, who had driven him to the match and witnessed the outburst, said nothing while Arnie retrieved his putter and followed him to the car.

“When I got in the car he quietly told me that if I ever threw a club again, I would never play in another tournament as long as I lived under his roof. I’ve never thrown another club. I suspect McEnroe’s problem is he didn’t have my father.”

I’ve often thought of his comment in the years since, as I watch 12-year-olds swear at tennis judges and throw their rackets in imitation of their idols, and have seen the grand old game lose its character. Today’s spectators around center court at Wimbledon display the grace and charm of a roller derby crowd.

The sportsmanship and demeanor of Palmer and the greats who have followed him have led golf in the opposite direction, until today golf is one of the few remaining sports where players and fans display reasonable manners, probably the last in the U.S., since we don’t make much over cricket.

That is not to say golf is lacking passion or enthusiasm, including plenty of vocal expression. But when a golf fan holds up a finger at a player, you can bet it will be a thumb.

Unlike other formerly genteel sports, where now spectators stab participants in the stands, or competitors take out contracts to break other competitors’ kneecaps, golfers still congratulate each other on good shots, and mean it. Where else do thousands of spectators stand and give prolonged ovations saluting good play as players approach the finish, even though the player might not be among the favorites of those applauding?

Golf develops its own values of behavior. Recently a friend and I walked on at Southview. We were paired with two off-duty truck drivers, and, in my ignorance, I was prepared for anything. It turned out to be a really enjoyable round, replete with enthusiasm and courtesy, as we all behaved at the expected level of the sport.

In contrast, three of our usual foursome recently played with a dignified looking retired executive at a local course which shall remain unnamed. He was fine as long as his game was respectable. But after a poor putt, he screamed a string of expletives and threw his club at his bag a hundred feet away. Such behavior is so rare that we were stunned. No one spoke to him much of the rest of the round, and the enjoyment was spoiled for all. Later he mumbled about having problems at home and not being himself, but he had broken the code. We will avoid playing with him in the future.

Later I learned at the clubhouse that the reason he was available to fill in with us was that others had seen similar displays. Golfers tend to police the game and reinforce acceptable behavior.

There is also a Darwinian-type law of survival of those most fit for the game which tends to weed out the unfit. In short, those who do not have the temperament to emotionally survive instant unexpected highs and lows don’t last too long.

My brother tells of a scene he witnessed at the Highland Park Golf Club in Birmingham, Alabama, as he stood on the 17th tee, with a view of the 11th tee, which requires a drive over a lake. After topping three drives into the pond, a less-than-patient player grabbed his clubs, rolling cart and all, flung them into the lake and stormed off toward the clubhouse. By the time my brother’s group reached the 17th green, they saw a figure striding back to the lake, where he waded out, pulled up his bag, retrieved his car keys, threw the bag into deeper water, and stomped off away.

The disposition of golfers toward decent behavior comes in part from the fact that golfers must have a sense of humor, and be able to laugh at themselves as they display characteristics that can most kindly be described as nutty.

Former Kansas Citian, and now golf writer for Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest, David Owen, put his finger on the souls of golfers in his 1995 book, My Usual Game, where he observes that no other game has as many jokes told about it and its players. While every golfer knows scores of golf jokes, he points out that there are no tennis jokes. The closest he could come to a tennis joke was as follows:

“Distraught wife: ‘You love golf more than you love me.’

Husband: ‘That’s true. But I love you more than I love tennis.’”

The very nature of golf leaves no one to blame for a bad shot or a bad round but one’s self. There being little enjoyment in prolonged anger at one’s self, one might as well laugh at one’s self. Of course golfers do get angry at themselves, but we soon learn that this only hurts the next shots. Besides, sooner or later, a good shot will come along to bring the sun out again.

But, regardless of other factors, the fact that golf has remained a game of fun, manners, and character clearly can be attributed most of all to the examples of its heroes. Try to picture where golf might be today if Arnold Palmer had continued to swear and throw clubs, and thousands of young golfers had grown up patterning themselves on his behavior.

It well might be that nothing has done as much for the game in the last half century as Arnie having had the right father.

This article is reprinted with permission from Kansas City Golf, March/April 1997.