A Gentleman’s Game?

In the movie Bagger Vance, young Hardy Greaves, played by J. Michael Moncrief, caddies for Matt Damon’s character, Rannulph Junuh.  Hardy sums up his view on the game of golf, “Ask anybody. It’s fun. It’s hard, and you stand out there on that green, green grass, and it’s just you and the ball, and there ain’t nobody to beat up on but yourself; just like Mister Newnan keeps hittin’ himself with the golf club every time he gets angry. He’s broken his toe three times on account of it. It’s the only game I know that you can call a penalty on yourself, if you’re honest, which most people are. There just ain’t no other game like it.”

Golf has been described in times past as a gentlemen’s game. But in today’s politically correct culture, such a moniker is quickly labeled sexist, if not elitist.  While that may have been true in times gone by, it remains a game with clearly defined rules of etiquette and the only game you can (and should when appropriate) call a penalty on yourself.  

Nevertheless, sooner or later, along the fairways and greens, players will hear verbal utterances that may bring into question the civility of those engaged in the divot-digging sport known as golf — a sport once described by Winston Churchill as “a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

PGA Professional Ray Floyd reminds us, “They call it golf because all the other four-letter words were taken.

Stand by someone who chunks a chip shot or misses a short putt, and your auditory system may reverberate with their expletives — or sarcasm. When asked why he was using a new putter, PGA Professional Craig Stadler grumbled, “Because the last one didn’t float too well.

Last month, PGA Tour Pro, Patton Kizzire, lost his temper after double-bogeying the 18th hole at the BMW Championship and promptly broke his putter in half.  

These events came to mind when recently I witnessed such less-than-gentlemanly behavior myself. No, it wasn’t an angry tirade of intemperate words, though I have seen the occasional green-side temper tantrum.

I found myself in an awkward situation with inappropriate humor.  

I played golf (for the first time) with a guy  named Sid, and it became apparent that he liked to tell jokes.  Non-stop. Unable to resist unloading his lifetime collection of humor on a new playing partner, this cart mate proceeded to fill the airwaves with his brand of humor — a brand more salty than sweet, more profane than sane. Yes, some were innocently funny, but many proved to be crude and rude as the day wore on. 

How do you respond to verbal diarrhea?

Let’s face it, golf and jokes go together like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  (If you are my age, you’ll understand the reference.) So many things can happen while playing golf, and with so much time between shots, well, what other sport offers more fodder for laughs?

Besides, the way most of us play, if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll go crazy. For a sport where slices, three-putts, and post-game libations are a common occurrence, is it any wonder this venue is an obvious source of humor? Jokes and sharing humorous stories are ways to break the ice when paired with a golfer for the first time. Most golfers appreciate the camaraderie that comes when playing golf with friends or even strangers.  Sharing war stories and telling jokes are part of the game. Some consider on-the-course storytelling a means of therapy.

But what do you do when the verbal behavior of your playing partner becomes intolerable and offensive?

I struggle with that.  As a Christian, I don’t want to come across as judgmental or self-righteous.  Neither do I want to act like it doesn’t matter. I can object, but doing so in a holier-than-thou approach may silence my partner and bruise the relationship. Changing the subject in hopes my potty-mouth partner takes the hint works — sometimes.  

This one particular morning, the afore-mentioned Sid (not his real name) came across as friendly and outgoing, so I expected an enjoyable round. We had not played two holes before he displayed a total recall of every joke he had heard over the past fifty years. I was impressed he could remember all of them.  His humor was funny until it became uncomfortably crude, vulgar, and eventually offensive. I soon discovered I was riding with an encyclopedia of raunchy quips.

I confess to being unsure as to how to respond. Sure, I could have told him I didn’t appreciate it and asked him to stop. If we had been in the presence of women or children, I would do exactly that. But I took an alternative approach. Call it passive-aggressive, but I stopped laughing when the jokes crossed the line of good taste. Though I sensed his awareness of my less-than-enthusiastic response, he kept spewing forth his off-colored jokes. Surprisingly, during the middle of the round, he admitted to being a church-goer, which only confused me all the more. 

A Christian walking by faith would not be talking like a drunken sailor on leave.

I recalled a quote by P.G. Wodehouse, “To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.” 

Fast forward one week. As I practiced on the putting green, a funny thing happened. Sid saw me and walked over. Anticipating another distasteful story, I braced myself for what was to come. Fearing my passive response the previous week might have been interpreted as tacit approval of his style of joke-telling, I mentally prepared a response.

What he said next just blew me away.

Hey Buddy, I’m glad to see you here today. I need to apologize. After we played last week, I felt guilty sharing all of those raunchy jokes from my past.  I am not that kind of guy anymore.  I have no idea why I felt compelled to share all those horrid jokes. I stopped that a long time ago. So when I went to church this week, I stood up before my en’s group and confessed my sin, and I wanted to apologize to you too. Please accept my apology.”  He offered his hand.

Wow.  I smiled, shook his hand, and said, “Sure, Sid, apology accepted.”

It was nice to meet a gentleman on the course.

It was then I recalled another golf-related quote.  This one by the late Payne Stewart, “But in the end it’s still a game of golf.  If at the end of the day, you can’t shake hands with your opponent and still be friends, then you’ve missed the point.”

Note:  Photo courtesy of Gene Gallin at Unsplash.com

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