Golf, Sex, and Death: Why They Don’t Get Along

He was looking down, which is what he likes to do in the forest. On his knees, squatting, peering under the leaves, and there—wedged in the mud—was the invader. The Thing From Elsewhere.

It was a golf ball.

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Photograph by Martin Paul, Getty Photograph by Martin Paul, Getty

David Haskell is a biology professor who recently wrote a little book about a small patch of Tennessee forest and the animals and plants that live there. Living things fascinate him. Golf balls? Not so much. “When a golf ball in the woods strikes my eyes,” he writes, “my mind condemns the ball, the golf course, the golfers, and the culture that spawns them all.”

So he’s not a fan. We’ve all met people who hate golf. Nothing new there. It’s the subtle, complicated way he hates golf—that’s what got to me.

He despises its biology.

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Photograph by Pete McBride, National Geographic Creative Photograph by Pete McBride, National Geographic Creative

Golf, Sex, and Death

A golf course, he declares, ruthlessly erases two rhythms fundamental to the natural world: death and sex. Every golf course, he says, is designed to be sexless and deathless—and to stay that way. Which, he believes, is deeply “unnatural.”

Hmmm. Let’s think about this.

It’s true that if you step into the woods that surround a golf course, you’ll find trees that release seeds (sex!), that have pollinating flowers (sex!), and that have birds flitting about singing mating songs (sex!) and that then build nests (post-sex!). But back on the golf course, saplings, branches, nests, seeds, flowers—things that muck up the grass—are removed by the ground crew. So yes, that’s an erasure.

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Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative

As for the grass itself, it isn’t allowed to grow to produce seed heads (sex!). Instead, it’s constantly mowed to keep it in a truncated, “youthful” state. (Haskell calls this the grassy version of “perpetual childhood”). The same goes for putting greens, where the grass is cut back even more radically and the root system is kept intentionally shallow so that it grows laterally, making for a dense, soft, youthful cover.

Botanically, I guess, Haskell is right. Evidence of aging and sex is suppressed at the golf course. But that’s also true of baseball diamonds and football fields. As for death—well, step back into the woods and everywhere you look, you see decay (rotting wood, falling leaves, the browns, reds, and yellows of autumn). Death and dying are everywhere.

For example, tree stumps. A tree takes roughly the same time to disintegrate as it does to reach its full height. So in any patch of woods, dead trees stick around, showing off their “dead verticality,” as the poet Gary Snyder once put it.

“How curious it would be to die and then remain standing for another century or two,” Snyder said. “If humans could do it, we’d hear news like, ‘Henry David Thoreau finally toppled over.’”

But there is no toppling on a golf course. Everything is too young to topple. Old things are removed. “The golf course has been sanitized,” Haskell writes, “by the puritan life-police.” Be young or be gone.

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Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative

This is the deep mindset of golf course design—which is strange, since (unlike baseball and football) it is famously a game that attracts 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds. Why protect them from what they already know? Ah, well, maybe that’s the key. Maybe a golf course is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stage set designed to soothe folks who don’t want to be reminded of what’s coming and what’s waning.

The forest is different. It’s orchestral. It emerges, writes Haskell, “from the give and take of thousands of species; a golf course’s ecological community is a monoculture of alien grass that emerged from the mind of just one species.” The one species that can see death coming.

What to Do With the Invading Golf Ball?

So when David Haskell finds a golf ball in his forest patch, he gets rid of it, right? He’s going to do what the golfers do—he will sanitize.

Ah. Not so fast. Haskell is a complicated man.

“Should I remove the balls or leave them nestled in place?” he asks himself. They’re not going to decompose any time soon. Golf balls are strengthened thermoplastic, which means they can’t be eaten by bacteria or fungi. Biologically, they “have nothing to contribute,” Haskell writes, and yet (you can feel him struggling here), what’s the point of removing the ball? Yes, taking it away removes evidence of human influence, but humans are constantly visiting, altering, shaping the woods. We hunt, we chop, we crush, we litter, we pee in the woods. Are we invaders? Is that the right word?

“Such a view drives a wedge between humanity and the rest of the community of life,” Haskell writes. Instead, he looks down at the ball and thinks, “A golf ball is the manifestation of the mind of a clever, playful African primate. This primate loves to invent games to test its physical and mental skill. Generally, these games are played on carefully reconstructed replicas of the savanna from which the ape came and for which its subconscious still hankers. The clever primate belongs in this world. Maybe the primate’s productions do also.”

OK, so the golf ball is a human dropping. But it’s also a lost ball, out of bounds. So what does he do? To pluck or not to pluck? Haskell gives it one last ponder. And then walks away.

The ball stays.

“(T)o love nature and to hate humanity is illogical,” he writes. “Humanity is part of the whole … Nature does not need to be cleaned of human artifacts to be beautiful.”

Golf courses, on the other hand, need to cleaned of woodland artifacts to be beautiful.

Interesting difference.

David Haskell’s wonderful book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature has been mentioned here before, but it taught me so many things about trees, leaves, light, snails, flowers, little mammals, twigs, buttercups, photons, and on and on, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s not like I don’t read other books, I just can’t stop thinking about this one.