Golf – as explained by a movie buff

At last I can reveal why I never made it big in the corporate world. You might have thought that, like most sane people, I just wasn’t interested in all that stuff. But the truth is: I’m a lousy golfer. Playing golf with the boss, as part of my cunning plan to climb the corporate ladder, would have been too embarrassing. If you ask me, “What’s your handicap?” I’d probably say, “I think ‘disability’ is the correct word to use.”

Writing about golf, therefore, would not seem to be my ideal occupation. Fortunately, while golf is not my forte, writing probably is. (“Are you sure?” half of you are saying at this point. “We’re on the second paragraph and you’re already annoying me.” Yes, very amusing.)

A few years ago, I was allowed entrance to an exclusive club called the Australian Society of Travel Writers. As far as I know, this is better than the Freemasons. Like the Film Critics Circle of Australia, another exclusive club to which I once belonged (until I chose to stop being eligible), it means that I have one of those writing gigs that makes everyone green with envy. It doesn’t have as many freebies as film reviewing, because overseas trips are more expensive than movie tickets (though the gap is closing), but it’s still slightly better than copywriting television commercials for liquor stores or sub-editing insurance trade magazines. (Yes, I’ve had those jobs as well.)

Still, when I’m lucky enough to go away, it’s not really a holiday. If you’re at a place whose entire purpose is to encourage you to lounge around a beach or explore a luscious rainforest, the last thing you want to be doing is pulling out your laptop.

I’m still not sensing much sympathy among you. But I mention all this because, among its many attractions, Hainan Island has the world’s largest golf club: a 5,000-acre (that’s 20-square-kilometre) behemoth called Mission Hills Hainan, which I offered to review for a golfing magazine. As I haven’t reviewed any golf courses recently (or ever), I called a friend of mine, a keen golfer who used to work for The Canberra Times, for some background on reviewing golf courses.

Being a clever guy, he explained it to me in the way I’d best understand: by comparing golf courses to movies. Certain courses are known for their artistry, or their aesthetic beauty, or their technical brilliance, or for being “challenging”. They even have numerous top 10 lists for golf courses, just like they do for movies. (The Citizen Kane of golf courses is in New Jersey, of all places.) The golden age for golf course design, any expert could tell you, was the 1920s and 1930s, slightly before the golden age of Hollywood.

My friend went on to explain that, just as there has been a shift towards Hollywood blockbusters, golf courses have become larger and more ostentatious. This explains Mission Hills Hainan: the Avatar of golf clubs. In Asia, as golf becomes more popular, golf courses still haven’t learned the art of subtlety. As this is the continent responsible for garish Bollywood movies and colourful Chinese battle films set centuries in the past with casts of zillions, I can believe that.

This led to a backlash in the 1980s: mavericks designing smaller, “indie” golf courses, prized for their inexpensive artistry. The Jarmusches, Tarantinos and Coen Brothers of the golf course game. Cool, huh? To non-golfers, however, the most famous golf course designers are two of the most recognisable stars, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. While other people play golf in their retirement, these guys are doing something else.

Could it be true? Nicklaus, the greatest golfer in history (and likely to stay that way, now that Tiger Woods has started playing other games and let his golf game suffer as a result), can do landscape design as well? Not exactly, but something like that. “I think he’ll probably be remembered more for his golf courses than his playing,” said my friend.

By now, I was enjoying this ever-expanding metaphor. “So he’s like the Clint Eastwood of golf?” I suggested. It made sense. In the 1970s, Nicklaus and Eastwood were the world’s biggest stars, in their chosen fields at least. Now, as they get older, they are making waves behind the scenes.

“That’s a perfect analogy,” said my friend. Then, just as I prepared to send out a Tweet telling everyone what a genius I was and how well I understood, he added: “Except that Nicklaus has a team working under him, rather than with him. He doesn’t really ‘direct’ every course that’s designed in his name.”

Right. So more like a producer.

Golf had never sounded more interesting to me. Still, I just want someone to direct me to the Toy Story of golf courses: a course so simple, so basic, even a complete klutz could enjoy it. Maybe, before I visit Mission Hills, I should try a spot of mini-golf.

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