To Be Absolutely Frank

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We're all golfers now, even if we've never played anything more ambitious than the local Putt-Putt.

By 5.23.03

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All the fuss yesterday about Annika Sorenstam at the Colonial reminds me of how ignorant I am about one of America's major pastimes. I've been surrounded by golf all my life -- the house I grew up in was built on land that a few years earlier had been part of a course -- but I wouldn't know a tee shot from a T-bird, or T-birdie, or whatever it is. Putt-Putt is the closest I've come to playing, and even there my knowledge is slim. I've always been more interested in the windmills and other fancy obstacles than in driving the ball into the hole.

My parents, as you may have guessed, are not golfers. When I was growing up, most of our neighbors belonged to the local club, but my dad claimed he wasn't interested because it didn't take black people. I have no idea if there was such a policy, and since the only black people in our neighborhood were a family of diplomats from Senegal, the odds are it was never put to the test. It's probably more pertinent that patience has never been my family's signature virtue, and from what I can tell, golf -- even the "speed" kind the Bushes favor -- takes plenty of patience.

In spite of this upbringing, I do have a brother who's been known to play the occasional round. He went to a Jesuit high school with its very own course. My high school was also Jesuit-run, in a marginally rough neighborhood downtown, and my classmates and I used to smirk at our suburban rivals with their manicured greens. Maybe we were jealous, though looking back, I still think liquor stores and housing projects make for a more educational environment.

Golf is obviously a great game, otherwise so many wouldn't devote themselves so passionately to it; but it's just as obviously a great status symbol. It's the aspirational game par excellence. Though it evokes wealth and power, it's also accessible. Practically anyone in America who really wants to do so can find a place to play.

That must be the reason, apart from the opportunities it offers for talking, that Bill Clinton indulged in it as candidate and president. The image of him in a golf cart reassured the Bubbas that he was no Dukakis, without offending the Democrats' liberal base.

Golf is an "elitist" game, not an elitist one. Whereas polo -- now that's an elitist game. Try to imagine an American politician letting himself be photographed swinging a mallet from the back of an Argentine pony.

Of course there are courses and there are courses. Clearview in Queens and Piping Rock in Locust Valley are in vastly different worlds, my sources assure me, though merely half an hour's drive apart. It's not a question of landscaping or maintenance; the crucial factor is exclusivity. That's what set off the New York Times on its campaign against the no-girls-allowed Augusta National. How the membership policy of a private club in Georgia could possibly matter to American athletics or society is a puzzle to me, but as noted above, I know scarcely anything about golf.

Ms. Sorenstam is the first woman to play in a PGA tournament since 1945, and bully for her, though it's hard to imagine how this can make any difference either. Every sport will always have its standouts whom the rest of us, men as well as women, stand on the sidelines and watch.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.