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A subpar game

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There are some things in this world that are fun, some that are necessary, and some that are unpleasant but ultimately beneficial. Golf is none of these. Instead, it’s a crime whose perpetrators are rewarded with shiny trophies and complimentary cocktails. It’s an invasive species, slithering into every new municipal development plan and clogging up the television for four days at a time in the summer, when people are desperate for anything that’s not a rerun. It’s a human tragedy, a game that wastes valuable resources, and it is as devastating to the environment as it is to the soul.

Of course, calling golf a game is like calling Watergate a surprise party. It is definitively not a game, sport, or even physical activity. It is a pretext for the congregation of venal, casually dressed capitalists whose spouses dislike them smoking and plotting the exploitation of the working class in front of the children. Unlike real sports, the barrier to entry is not skill but rather club dues and a vice president position in some corporate hierarchy. It’s hard to argue that there’s any kind of physical activity involved when participants are given the option of getting around by petrol-powered vehicles. Even the objective is wrong. Golfers compete for the lowest score, which means the easiest way to win is simply not to play, a strategy that this writer strongly endorses.

But whatever else you call it, golf is definitely wasteful. In the U.S. alone, the courses take up as much space as the state of Delaware. To maintain their lush, green appearances, each one uses up to a million gallons of water per day, and collectively, they rely on about 50,000 pounds of pesticides annually. This is unlikely to bother golfers, though, as 41% deny the existence of climate change, making them more likely to hold that view than your average Republican. Put another way, you could replace all of lower Manhattan with oil refineries and Agent Orange labs, and the only thing golfers would complain about is the displacement of their office suites.

It is particularly hard to square paying these environmental costs with being a good California resident. The Central Valley lacks reliable access to water, the homeless population is increasing every year, and PG&E is actually surprised when the forests don’t catch fire. Meanwhile, over 1,000 golf courses across the state pay virtually nothing in taxes while taking up valuable land (often in good school districts) and sucking up obscene amounts of precious, potable water.

If the solution seems all too obvious, that’s probably because it is. From Seattle to Hong Kong, local governments are proposing plans to replace golf courses with public housing. Other municipalities prefer to simply let the courses lapse back into nature, another reasonable alternative. Unfortunately, though, the most common future for any given golf course is also the worst possible — that it will remain a golf course.

Why is this? Why has a boring, unnecessary and harmful practice like golf been allowed to persist into the third decade of the 21st century? It certainly doesn’t help that lobbying groups like “We Are Golf” have become more active on Capitol Hill. The movement to abolish golf also took a hit last year when Tiger Woods returned to claim another major championship, reinvigorating interest in the sport for approximately 72 hours. More than anything, though, the problem is that the Venn diagram of people who love golf and people who are in positions of authority is practically a circle. Look no further than “the most powerful man in the world,” who appears to have run for office merely so he could play publicly funded rounds.

Understood this way, golf is actually a symptom of a deeper societal ill — the concentration of power in the hands of the few. The people of this country at large do not like golf. The number of golfers between 18 and 34 has declined by 30% over the past 20 years. In the last 15 years, over 1,000 U.S. golf courses have closed. A 2016 poll found that 19% of Americans consider themselves “golf fans,” making golf only slightly less popular than the idea of banning abortions “under all circumstances.” Yet golf persists.

But consider that Americans overwhelmingly support background checks on all gun purchases. They overwhelmingly favor allowing Central American refugees to seek asylum in the U.S. They overwhelmingly oppose deploying troops to Saudi Arabia. They have gotten their way on exactly none of this because their interests do not align with those of the ruling class. Every lavish clubhouse, every sprawling, green course, and every oligarch out on the links ought to serve as a reminder of just how unreceptive our leaders are. Is it any coincidence that the last decent president we had, Jimmy Carter, was also the last one to completely abstain from golfing?

Yes, golf is elitist. Yes, golf is environmentally harmful. Yes, repurposing golf courses could help solve crises like water shortages and homelessness. And, yes, it’s true that people do not even like golf much at all anymore. In spite of all that, as long as we continue to live in a two-tiered society, golf will remain. Any bold, new revolution in this country ought to start on the golf courses. It’s time for the people to reclaim them. Give the thirsty water to drink and the homeless land to live on and stomp out this monumental bore masquerading as a sport once and for all. And if our overlords still need some place to scheme, let them take up mini-golf instead.

Contact Skylar Ruprecht at skylarru ‘at’ stanford.edu.