The Kong of Golf

“There are generally,” Nick Paumgarten at The New Yorker wrote recently, “two approaches to thinking about games: narratology and ludology.” Paumgarten is writing a profile of Shigero Miyamoto, the “King of Videogames”—he is the man behind Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, the Legend of Zelda series, and another bunch of zillion-selling videogames that have literally changed the terms not merely of videogames, but childhood itself. By “narratology” and “ludology,” Paumgarten means two things: the second is how a game plays, or its mechanics; the first, however, is the story a game tells. But the division between the two is far older than videogames.

One way to think of the distinction is to think of Arnold Palmer, the King of Golf. One reason for his title is because (according to myth) he always went for every shot. He was, in sum, a master of ludology—he could hit the most difficult shots. Palmer only thought of hitting the best possible shot on every occasion. Of course, Palmer didn’t really, because golf is not just about hitting golf shots, but that’s how people remembered him.

People today tend to forget about a golf course’s narratological aspects, I think, for several reasons, one perhaps being Palmer’s example. But Palmer, despite a swing that most people think of as at best unorthodox, is also perhaps behind what might be a significant reason for narratology’s decline: the rise of golf pro at the expense of the caddie.

It’s a subject I’ve discussed before, but essentially the point is this: golf pros teach a particular way of swinging the club. They take no account of the particular situation a golfer might be in—every swing, on the practice range, takes place in an idealized space, with no reference to what happened before—or what might happen afterwards. Or, in short, the way Palmer played.

Learning golf from a golf pro is in Paumgarten’s terms, an exercise in ludology. What a caddie does, however, is quite different. The caddie’s job is to select the best shot for the golfer at that moment. It is not to find a shot the golfer might be able to hit with another hundred or thousand repetitions, it is to find the one that will work now—with reference to the shots the golfer has already hit during that round, and with reference to the ones the golfer will likely have to hit to reach the green. To put it in philosophic terms, the golf pro is a Platonist, dealing with ideal conditions, while the caddie is an Aristotelian, dealing with gritty reality.

Golfers, used to learning to play on driving ranges with instruction either from a golf pro or—perhaps more likely—a friend or relative influenced by the teachings of golf pros, become accustomed to the ideal space created by the range. They take each shot as a singularity, expecting to play the shot as if they would at the range where if they fail they can always just tee up another ball. They forget about the shots they’ve hit previously and forget their next shot should not be their best shot—the one they might be able to hit under ideal conditions at the range—but the one they are likely to hit. But the driving range is not the golf course, and ludology alone is not golf.

Golf, like videogames, has that other element described by Paumgarten—narratology. There is a story to each course, and each round played on every course has its own story. This is perhaps less surprising than it might appear—Milman Perry and Albert Lord discovered in the 1930s that epic poetry, like The Iliad or The Odyssey, was originally an oral form composed around discrete episodes, each of which had to be completed before moving to the next. Every poet or bard who recited or sang an epic might recite it slightly differently each time—using alternate line readings, perhaps—but each recitation took place within an organized frame. Just so, videogames proceed according to differing “levels,” within which the player might take any number of different actions, but that proceed until the end of the game.

Golf is played in that sort of space: each hole is like a “level” in a videogame, or an episode in an epic poem. The narratological aspect of a course is recognized by the fact that holes on particularly well-known courses, like videogame levels or episodes in an epic, have distinct names. The Odyssey for instance has episodes like “Scylla and Charybdis,” Level One of Donkey Kong is called “Barrels,” St. Andrews has the Road Hole and the 12th at Augusta National is “Golden Bell.” These names aren’t merely a useful shorthand to remember the hole, or simply picturesqueness. They are also reminders of what golf is—and at times, a clue as to how to play.

Those names are also reminders to golf architects that the job is not just to construct interesting holes, but also to string them together well. No golf course, for instance, ought to begin with the toughest hole—like a videogame, courses should begin with easier holes and gradually (or not so gradually) become more difficult. But that’s a relatively easy assignment. What’s more interesting—and perhaps a mark of a superior architect—is to construct a hole that depends for its interest upon an earlier hole, that builds upon the past.

The interest of the 8th at Riviera Country Club for instance depends on the fact that from the 7th tee the golfer has to hit a shot into a very narrow landing area. On the 8th tee the golfer has to choose between two different landing zones: a broad one on the right fairway and a tight one on the left fairway. Naturally, if the tee shot on the 7th was troublesome the right fairway on the 8th will look more inviting—but that sets up a more difficult approach to the green. It’s precisely for this reason that a good caddie can be helpful: a skilled player who for some reason had trouble on the 7th might elect to take the right side without a caddie in his ear.

That’s one reason why golf architects and caddies are natural allies—and both are enemies of that other reason narratology is often lost by golfers: the golf cart. To understand golf’s narratology needs a slow examination of each hole, which is to say that an appreciation of narratology requires walking.

Zipping from shot to shot means missing the connection of each shot to the next, and each hole to the ones following. Without those connections the golfer loses the plot, like the reader who reads The Odyssey for the battles, or the videogamer who uses the cheat codes. Riding a golf cart, in that sense, isn’t playing golf at all.

Most guides to golf courses, the kind the upscale courses put on their yardage books, are written by golf pros and as such are written from a ludological perspective. The pro tells you where to hit your tee shot and then how to hit the approach. I’ve never seen any guides written from a narratological standpoint, though I think these would probably be more useful.

Such guides would be written by way of at least two or three different viewpoints: one for the skilled player, which would probably be closest to the guides written by pros, and at least one other for the less-skilled player. I have rather an ambition to write such a guide at least for the golf courses I’m familiar with most. If Arnold Palmer is the King of Golf, perhaps there’s room for Kong.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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