Backstory: Country clubbed

Baseball may be America's pastime, but golf is America's game. It's watched for hours on big-screen TVs on weekend afternoons by men and women who say, "I could do that," after Tiger Woods drops a 40-foot putt. It's played all summer by those same men and women who curse their slices, hooks, shanks, and line drives – some even hit with ferocity, albeit deep into the woods.

Golf is the great equalizer. It's where the mighty are humbled and the humble are ... mightied?

It's not a stretch to say we live in a world obsessed with status, prestige, and money. But on the golf course none of that matters after the first shot. All that matters is where you hit that little white ball and whether you caught the short grass on fairways. In the end, it's simple: The person with the best game has the most respect.

I'm a middle-class guy, but I've played a couple of times (as a guest) at a country club where the membership fee is $100,000. While I'm basically a bogey golfer, I've won a few games playing against well-off members and walked off thinking – to paraphrase the Beatles – "Can't buy me golf!'' The course is gorgeous, the ocean view immaculate. And just maybe I take home a bit of pride, knowing I played the better game. I wouldn't swap my life for theirs. (Right?)

I came to the game at age 12, when it was something to do when we weren't playing baseball. At some level, I swear, even then I knew my baseball career would end at some point – I was thinking the major leagues, in my late 30s, but it turned out to be high school, at 18. But I knew golf could be mine for life. This was before I was schooled in the ancillary benefits – business, social contacts, bonding. I was just enamored of the skills needed to play: the strength, timing, rhythm, consistency, and mental discipline. Plus there was the pure satisfaction of hitting the sweet spot on the driver and watching the ball journey 250 yards, coming to rest near a sprinkler head in the middle of the fairway.

It's the Zen of it all. It's five hours away from the work-a-day world. It's where cares and pressures vanish, for now.

In the 30-plus years I've played, I've never done it because it was hip or un-hip, and it's gone through both phases. I confess I like the fact that Alice Cooper is a scratch golfer and Iggy Pop and Megadeth's Dave Mustaine finesse the ball with some dexterity, too. I like the fact that virtually every star of basketball, baseball, football, or hockey who's asked what his favorite sport is (outside his own), says "golf." Many will also say it's harder. Mark Twain called it "a good walk spoiled.'' The best book I've read on the game is Rick Reilly's "Missing Links," fiction that is more fact.

Because John Updike has written most exquisitely about the game (check out "Golf Dreams"), I will cede the last bit to him. He knows what he's talking about: "When you stand up on the first tee," he writes in "Rabbit at Rest," "it is there, it comes back from wherever it lives the rest of your life, endless possibility, the possibility of a flawless round, a round without a speck of bad in it, without a missed two-footer or a flying right elbow, without a pushed wood or a pulled iron.''

Jim Sullivan is a freelance writer in Boston.

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