More addictive than vodka
William Leith reviews On Golf by Timothy O'Grady
In this pensive, confessional, sometimes desperate book, Timothy O'Grady examines his own - and, by extension, the Western world's - obsession with golf. But this is not a simple celebration of the game; sometimes it reads like the thoughts of a raging alcoholic or drug addict. O'Grady loves golf, but it also makes him seethe with self-loathing and inner doubt. Golf, he tells us, "will find your addiction gene even more rapidly than vodka or roulette". And then, when you actually get on the course and tee off, "you may feel like tearing your liver out".
Golf, O'Grady thinks, is quite different from other sports for a simple reason - it's the only game in which an ordinary player can sometimes do something extraordinary. Amateur footballers, in contrast, can never kick a ball like Beckham, just as amateur drivers could never bomb round Silverstone like Schumacher. But most golfers experience occasional moments where they feel touched with genius. And when this happens, you get "a feeling of power", a sense that what you have done is "unambiguous, indisputable and pure". After that, there's no turning back.
Hitting a perfect golf shot, O'Grady tells us, "can overwhelm all the anxieties and miseries in your life and seem to define the essence of the best part of what you are". He grew up in Chicago, the son of a golf addict, and this book charts his relationship with his father. "Golf," says O'Grady, "seemed lodged in our home like another family member that had been born unassisted and ectoplasmically out of him." And this other family member, this unlikely sibling, became the cement between father and son. "The son craves the admiration of the father," says O'Grady, "but he also strives to surpass him, and in some figurative way to kill him."
But when it goes wrong, golf is the worst of sports. Defined by occasional perfection, it can also magnify humdrum failure. In this way, it is the least forgiving of sports. As O'Grady points out, both ball and target are tiny, and the target is way out on the horizon. When you fail, "a violent and enraged self-loathing may enter you like a poison injected into your vein". After a while, even as you walk up to the ball, "you experience a kind of breakdown as though your body has been miswired". And this happens, sooner or later, to everybody. One day, it will happen to Tiger Woods.
In the end, you realise that the horrors of golf are part of the attraction - perhaps the main part. Golf intensifies your relationship with yourself. There's a great moment when O'Grady describes how he played a round with Arnold Palmer. Squaring up to the ball, "my chest felt like it was in flames". Palmer tells O'Grady to calm down - to enjoy himself. Fat chance. For O'Grady, every shot feels like a matter of life and death. That's why this book is so good.