Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On Golf, Beer Bellies and the Definition of Sport

A few years ago, I wrote a book about chess. It was, by all accounts, a curious decision, one I couldn't fully explain even now, except to say that I found what I thought was an excellent story, and I wanted to share it with the world (and in an ideal world, the process of finding an idea would be just that simple, every time around). And in the process of promoting said book, I was surprised how often I was asked a question that seemed, at least to me, entirely irrelevant--the question of whether chess, in any way, shape or form, could somehow be considered a "sport."

I suppose most rational humans would agree that the answer is pretty obviously negatory, though I also rationalized my answer by noting that golf is considered a sport, and is reported about on the sports pages (including by me, for several years), when, in fact, golf is not really a sport at all. I still believe this, and apparently I am not the only one: Tom Watson's near-miss at the British Open, at age 59, has motivated skeptics like CBS Sports' Mike Freeman to make the same point. And yet I find myself somehow disagreeing with Freeman even as I fundamentally agree with him.

I have nothing against Freeman; I once shared the microphone with him at a book reading, and I find him an entertaining and provocative columnist. But he seems determined to denigrate golf by repeatedly likening it to bowling, as if bowling is somehow the bane of the Western world, as if somehow men with beer guts are incapable of feats of athleticism (which would most likely elimate every relief pitcher before 1982, as well as several backup quarterbacks). At one point, I believe he becomes the first sports columnist since Westbrook Pegler to use the word "casuistry," and it is all very interesting, except whenever I read something like this--a pointed argument assaulting our liberal definition of the word "sport"--I find myself asking a simple question:

Who cares?

Perhaps I am the exception to the rule here. Perhaps there is some validity to Freeman's argument that golf, given its long history of haughtiness and racial separatism, deserves to be taken down a peg. But while it is true that there are certain "sports" I would prefer to watch, and while a case can be made that certain sports may seem less relevant as the nation evolves around them, I also think there is simple truth to sportswriting, and to journalism in general, which is that a good story is a good story, no matter what dubious form it may take. And Tom Watson at the British Open was a good story (as Freeman eventually acknowledges), and Roger Federer at Wimbledon was a good story, and LeBron James in the NBA playoffs was a good story, and Bobby Fischer in '72 was a good story, and Earl Anthony when...he was, like, Earl Anthony...was a good story, and all of these men were incredibly skilled--perhaps even geniuses--at their given avocations, be they "sports" or "specialized skill sets."

I mean, let's face it: In an ideal world, we would spend our time analyzing rivalries between neurologists and cell biologists and algebra teachers, and we would value all of these avocations more than the ability to hack at a ball with a stick. That is not how the world works, but until it is, I see no reason not to extend the notion of public genius as far as it will go.

(Photo: AP/Alastair Grant)

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