Getting that golfing look

Tim Cohen

As a South African non-golfer, I often wonder whether non-golfers around the world wonder what we put in our water. The recent Masters victory of Trevor Immelman, someone I had never heard of before, underlines the country’s extraordinary golfing tradition.

I know of Ernie Els of course. I even know his nickname: it’s “the guy who always comes in second after Tiger – except when he doesn’t come anywhere at all”. Everyone knows that.

Newspaper reports on the recent Masters noted that it was the first time in 30 years since a South African had won. I take that as a backhanded compliment. The writers were obviously shocked it hadn’t happened sooner. It was almost as if the underlying thought was, “Well, obviously, they should have won a Masters, but weirdly they didn’t – and look at how long it’s been since that hasn’t happened.”

You can understand their surprise. There are an extraordinary number of high-ranking South African golfers on the international ratings. The official world ranking after the Masters now includes three South Africans in the top 15, compared to five Americans – a country equally golf-mad but with a population 40 times larger. Although they do, of course, have Tiger.

Immelman is the leading money earner on the 2008 European Tour, one of four in the top 20. The list has the cheek to say British unless otherwise stated. Well, sucks to you, buddy. There are only three Brits on the list. It should say South African unless otherwise stated, thank you very much.

Weirdly, Els still comes in third on the official world golf rankings, despite having a bit of a miserable time since coming back from injury. But the remarkable thing about this list is how Tiger Woods dominates. His ranking is now double his nearest competitor’s. Judging by Els’s ranking, even if Woods stopped playing for a dozen years, he would still be the world’s highest ranking player for about a decade. When I ask experts about this, they just say it’s one of those strange things about golf.

No its not. It’s completely bonkers.

But this is the weird thing about golfers. They seem to have the patience of Buddha and an ability to accept complete travesty as “one of those things”.

And the television commentators are always just so nice. They say things like, “Ooh, he is going to have a tricky time negotiating that five foot kikuyu rough from the middle of that swamp.” (Golfers always know what kind of grass it is. Its not “grass”, its “west Appalachian wheat-grass”.) What commentators don’t say is, “What a complete twit that guy is for using a nine-iron off the semi-rough into a headlong gale. Now he’s in the water – again!”

When pro golfers, who earn millions for playing the game, miss a complete three-foot sitter on the green, there is normally complete silence. They don’t say the obvious: “You idiot! You’ve really fluffed it now.” It’s all about discretion, consideration, maturity, and being all-knowing and accepting about the unfathomable ways of the world.

This is one of the reasons I don’t play golf. I know I would wrap my seven iron around the nearest tree in frustration at least four times a game – but that would be the fun part. What turns me off is the look – that look. It’s that shadow of a thought you can glimpse passing over someone’s face before they get their presentation face back on.

When people ask, as they often do in South Africa, whether I play golf, and I say no, I get the look. The say “Oh!” very casually – too casually. But behind the façade they are thinking, “Danger! Danger! Non-golf player, and we all know what that means.”

Ironically, I suspect this is probably part of the reason for South African’s disproportionate success at producing great golfers. South Africa has a great culture for golf. It’s not just the outdoorism, or the benign weather, or even the glorious amount of space. It’s not even the fact that South Africa’s high unemployment rate makes it cheap to maintain these enormous and lavish monuments to the pleasure of a few.

It’s the look.

Playing golf and having a golfing mentality is simply expected. While there are still huge arguments about the racial make-up of South Africa’s cricket and rugby teams, the burgeoning black middle class has taken to golf in a totally natural and unquestioning way. It’s the great middle-class game; a testament to careful, plodding achievement; a tribute to even-handedness and enlightened acceptance; a demonstration of the virtues of single-mindedness and focus; that rewards come to those who plan carefully and follow through. And it’s place to wear your silliest pants.

And there is that other thing. If you play golf, you will never get the look.

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to Business Day and the Weekender, where he worked for most of his career, and financial website Moneyweb where he writes on business and corporate activity for an associate site called Dealweb. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.