Can golf be fun?
Golf is played in fresh air and sunshine, surrounded by nature at its manicured finest. Yet, one of the game's most telling and long-standing assessments says it is "a good walk spoiled."
And then along comes the U.S. Open.
Once a year -- 2011's edition will be played this week at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. -- the United States Golf Association picks an extremely fine golf course and performs such wicked modifications to it that the best players in the world are left crying.
Typically, the course is dried out and firmed up. The rough is grown to shoe-swallowing heights, a pair of par-5s suddenly become par-4s, and the smallest mistake starts a domino effect that often leads to embarrassment.
When the week is finally over, the winner will enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, achievement, survival and success. But it will not have been fun.
That's the problem with golf. Too few players are able to enjoy the journey.
I go back to that line that I love: If this was a smiling contest, I wouldn't be entered. And I really mean that.Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open winner
"I go back to that line that I love: If this was a smiling contest, I wouldn't be entered," said Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open winner who has since moved to the broadcast booth. "And I really mean that."
It's not that players should be expected to drop as many one-liners as putts while they wear a smile to work every day. The job requires serious concentration and focus. Game faces are highly fashionable. Still, no game needs to look like a death march.
Or should it?
"If you're having fun, there is something wrong with you," said Andy North, another two-time U.S. Open winner. "It is the most brutal test of all tests. I know all the sports psychologists are telling all these guys you're supposed to smile and have a wonderful time and all that kind of stuff.
"I wasn't talented enough to go out there and have a great time. I had to grind and grind and grind to play well, and the U.S. Open is even more so. But I think that's also why I had success at a U.S. Open. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed that mentality. I enjoyed that type of test. It was something I had to do on a week-to-week basis. So maybe I was a little better prepared for it than the guy that went out there, hit it around and had a wonderful time and smiled and waved at everybody, because that is not what the U.S. Open is about."
There are a few exceptions. American Bubba Watson, a country-fried free spirit from the Florida Panhandle, is possibly the greatest.
A two-time winner in 2011, Watson has never had a coach, swings hard, likes to manufacture shots (at least attempts to) on demand and makes every round an experience. By no means does Watson hit and giggle his way around a course -- he is as stoic as the next guy. But at least he looks like he's having fun.
"It's just the way I go about it, the way I approach it," Watson said before heading to Congressional. "I let the game just happen. It's all feel for me. I learned around my house -- whiffle balls around my house. I don't like taking instruction from anybody. I want to be the boss. My dad always taught me to be, there's two options, you can either be a follower or a leader, and he said, 'You don't want to be a follower, you want to be a leader,' and for some reason it just stuck with me and I've always wanted to do it my way.
"That's where I sort of coined the phrase 'Bubba Golf,' do it my way and make it more fun."
Reminded that most instructors preach a checklist of swing thoughts, Watson's response was vintage Bubba Golf.
"I'm glad I don't have a coach," he said.
"If my mind is going right, if I'm in the right spot, I'm thinking about my target and that's it. I think target, and if that's target most of the time, it means I'm going to move it one way or the other."
Watson found early that he just wanted to have fun while learning the game as a kid growing up in Bagdad, Fla.
"We had plastic balls around the house and I learned how to move it, hit it over trees, under trees, over the edge of the house, under the carport, and just learned how to move it both ways, and I played it one way and I played it the other way," he said. "I always had to learn how to shape the ball."
Now 32, the three-time Tour winner and 2010 Ryder Cup team player still manages to play with similar youthful imagination. Speaking of which, has anybody caught the 59-second YouTube video posted just this week, featuring "The Golf Boys" -- Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan and Watson -- in a rap/rock parody of themselves?
One word: hysterical.
Such a light side, however, has never been the norm.
When Raymond Floyd was on the way to winning the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 1986, he famously walked past his wife, Maria, without registering her presence. Strange, who is the last player to win back-to-back Opens (1988-89), could muster a stare that turned any unmannerly noisemaker into a puddle of goop. Then there is Tiger Woods' habit of throwing clubs and spewing colorful language in reaction to uncooperative shots. John Daly has simply walked off the course.
Somebody, anybody -- smile, be happy.
There's a saying that golf is "paralysis by analysis." The theory suggests that an over-obsession with the perfect swing often locks up the mind and body like a rusty gate. The message is "Trust your game." Players know it's the truth. Not all of them, however, can accept it. So they overthink everything and enjoy the moment less.
"I look at some of the friends I have who are teaching professionals, and they know too much about the swing," defending Open champ Graeme McDowell said. "I'm glad I don't know what they know, and I don't crave the knowledge of technique because I don't want to analyze every shot that I hit.
"I want to know why I hit bad shots and that's all I want to know. There's a time and a place for technical practice, but there's also a time and a place for just golfing and the art of the game. It's not about swinging the golf club perfectly."
Professional golf's occupational hazard is that only a select few players seem to be able to avoid making the game even harder than it already is. Golf is unlike other competitions in which emotion, adrenaline and anger can often be channeled into positives. Golf is one sport best played with a low pulse rate.
"We all need to get better mentally, because golf is all mental," Watson said. "The game is easy. You just swing it one way and swing it back the other way, but the problem is our minds start thinking about water, trees, bunkers, out-of-bounds, if you're going to beat that guy, if you're going to beat this guy. It's just hard not being mechanical."
So, just like the weather, TV reality shows and American car companies, everybody talks about taking a lighter approach to golf, but nobody does anything about it.
"I think every generation says this: 'Ask the young guys to smile looking like they're having fun,'" Strange said. "I think you'd be writing the same thing about Ben Hogan. Did he smile a lot? We all can't be Lee Trevino, and he was wonderful for the game, but he was the exception.
"Guys are out there to make history for themselves and to pay the bills and be the best they can be. It's not all fun and games. I like the way we see these young kids. When you look back at the Masters and you have these young kids trying to win their first major, and a lot of them with good charisma and good-looking kids with great swings, I thought it was a wonderful show. We could very much have that this week at the Open too. But you won't see a lot of smiles out there, no."
At least not until the end, when somebody is asked to "Say cheese."