Several years ago, in 2017, a photo went viral of golfers finishing their round, despite the Eagle Creek wildfire in Oregon, USA raging behind them. It showed three men focussed on hitting little white balls into a hole on a manicured expanse of carefully watered grass, despite the hillside burning behind them. This scene is replicated daily by millions of men playing with their little white balls on the world’s nearly 40,000 golf coursesrather than helping in the critical fight against climate change. This essay investigates what it is about golf that so fascinates many men. Why do they play it so obsessively while the world is falling to pieces around them?
Much has been written about the environmental damage caused by golf, its elitism and its sexism. There have been liberal (equality) feminist critiques of the slowness some men’s clubs have shown in allowing females equal access to membership. If men can do it, why can’t we women? But there is a much more pernicious aspect of golf which this essay aims to reveal.
I suggest that the reason for men’s obsession with golf and obliviousness to catastrophic ecosystem collapse is that for many men, playing golf is sublimated penis in vagina (PIV) sex, and men are tragically addicted to PIV sex. To sublimate means to express socially or personally unacceptable impulses (often sexual) in constructive, acceptable forms, often unconsciously.
Thus, rather than go off on a Saturday morning to have sex with a young woman, men divert or sublimate this sexual urge into the socially acceptable pastime of golf. To men, for the most part unconsciously, the holes of the golf course represent 18 young women, each presenting her own challenge and pleasure, to be attacked, conquered and penetrated. For a man, getting the golf ball in the hole represents getting his penis in the girl. Men enjoy it because they get to experience the chase, the capture and the delight of the ball going into the hole, again and again. Better this, they might argue, than going to a brothel.
Golf is socially sanctioned sublimated sex
This is a recreation that men do together, fraternally. As well as this being recreation as relaxation, diversion from work, they are re-creating patriarchy in a sublime way. According to Collins English Dictionary, sublime means vaporous, pure or noble. Men are channeling their sexual urges into a respectable activity that makes them feel good and doesn’t get them into the immediate trouble that doing what they really want, having sex with a number of young women, could.
Golf makes again, over and over, their sense of what it is to be a man, of who they are. The winners are the top dogs, the most admired of men and the losers have enjoyed participating in the game. With this insight it is clear that golf is far from being a harmless pastime. It is another expression of men's sexual desires. Golf is socially sanctioned sublimated sex and far from being victimless, it ravages the environment, diverts men from helping with the battle against the fire (climate change) and reinforces patriarchal ideology and systems. Radical feminist Mary Daly wrote extensively about sublimation, that patriarchy expresses itself and reproduces itself in hidden symbolic forms.
A number of critics have noted that golf courses are bad for the environment and communities. Jay Griffiths writes,
“worldwide, golf is an arch act of enclosure, a commons fenced and subdued for the wealthy, trampling serf and seedling. The enemy of wildness, it is a demonstration of the absolute dominion of man over wild nature.”
George Monbiot adds, “All over the world the construction of golf courses is associated with dispossession and environmental destruction.”
The British organisation Tourism Concern calculates that,
"an average golf course in a tropical country such as Thailand needs 1,500kg of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers".
Unlike the natural world beyond the golf course, with its wild diverse ecosystems, the golf links are meticulously and expensively prepared for men’s pleasure. Each hole is laid out like a prostrate young woman. Men hit their first shots from a smooth grassed teeing area from which they can see the tightly mown uniform grass of the fairway.
For men, like a domestic lawn, the fairway unconsciously represents the young female skin. Unlike natural grassland in which grass grows long, sets seed and dies, on a golf course, the grass is kept in a state of permanent youth. Most clubs spend vast sums of money employing greenkeepers to feed, water and mow the green sward into a constantly smooth, sensuous surface. They are a form of public lawn and their history is linked to garden lawns which developed in the 18th century. Larry Hodgson in his history of lawns says “The idea of the English landscape garden was to show that the owners could afford to devote vast amounts of highly valuable land to purely aesthetic purposes.”
In golf, groups of men (brotherhoods, fraternities) bond over their domination of nature and women by trampling over ultra-short lawns and getting their sublimated PIV sex by putting their balls into the holes. They conspire together to ignore the fires of climate change and #MeToo voices of girls and women.
Supporting the idea that golf represents sex, if subconsciously, men often use romantic language when describing golf courses. Jack Nicklaus, says of the Old Course at St Andrews “I fell in love with it the first day I played it. There’s just no other golf course that is even remotely close.” He could be describing a favourite girlfriend.
Many holes on golf courses have female names, such as the 6th hole at the top British course, Royal St Georges, “the Maiden.” It is described by Bernard Darwin as
“steep, sandy and terrible, with her face scarred and seamed with black timbers, but alas! we no longer have to drive over her crown: we hardly do more than skirt the fringe of her garment.”
The 4th hole at Carnoustie is “like a beautiful mermaid” that lured a famous French golfer to his doom. On “Mae West” the 12th at Sandy Lodge in Hertfordshire golfers hit their balls over two large mounds, which represent the famous actresses’ breasts.
Holes and balls
Sexual language abounds. The balls, struck with clubs on long shafts are said to penetrate the air. Hills represent hips, mounds look like bosoms, smooth gentle contours delineate the teenage virgin (the fairway) from the experienced and now untamed older woman: the long thick grass of the rough, which can trap a man’s ball, impeding its progress towards the hole.
The long thick grass of the “rough” is like the hairy legs of women who are not depilating themselves for men’s pleasure, or the wrinkled skin of older women. Having hit his ball along the fairway, avoiding, if possible, traps such as lakes, bunkers of sand and the rough, the golfer reaches the very short grass of the “green” where the aim is to get the ball in the hole. The number of strokes he takes is recorded and the man who gets his ball into the holes with the fewest strokes is the winner.
On the most prestigious courses it is not just the golfer (the man) and his fairway (the girl), but there is a third actor present: awesome mother nature. England’s top course, Woodhall Spa has “firm, sandy heathland fairways, incredible bunkering and ancient woodlands.” Ancient woodlands here represent mother nature. I think Golfers value grand natural landscapes on the outskirts of the course to remind them of mother nature’s power and heighten the pleasure at her taming.
Many courses offer amazing views of wild nature. Another top course, Trevose in Cornwall, is set beside a stunning Atlantic coastline. The men enjoy the juxtaposition of feeling small in the face of mother nature, but big in relation to the conquerable fairways. The game makes them feel in control. Interestingly, it’s as much a taboo to speculate that climate change might be making the winds windier and the hot days hotter as it is to discuss religion.
Golfers say they play the courses (the girls) but also the elements (mother nature). The changeable elements of rain, wind and temperature need to be understood and mastered, in order to get the ball in the hole. Mother nature is a force to be battled by the men trying to have sublimated sex with manufactured young women. So there are three actors on the course. The man (the golfer), the girl (the course) and mother nature (the natural landscape, the weather, the ocean, the elements). The experience for men is most exciting and pleasurable when the girl is sensuous, teasing, challenging but ultimately fuckable, and mother nature stunning, magnificent, scary. Men pay a lot to have access to these patches of tamed nature. Following this line of thinking, for some men, extreme golf beside forest fires might actually become a new type of sublimated kink.
As with celebrity child sex abuse, priests abusing children, gangs grooming vulnerable children in children’s homes, the acts are barely hidden. They are doing this in plain sight, right in front of our eyes, but it’s so normalized that we can’t see it for what it is. The sublimation changes the obvious act of penetration by a man’s penis into a young female body, into a socially more acceptable game of getting balls into holes on a dolled-up part captured piece of land. The patterns and satisfaction for the man are sophisticated. A man who can enjoy golf is higher level than the oaf who just goes to a prostitute, but the sexual images and words are ever present. Sublime is one of the most used words to describe a golf course.
This explanation for golf might seem far-fetched, but there is plenty of evidence in men’s own descriptions of golf to back it up. The sublimated sex can be glimpsed in this famous description of a glorious start to a round of golf by the king of golf writing, P G Wodehouse,
“It was a morning when all nature shouted Fore! The breeze, as it blew gently up from the valley, seemed to bring a message of hope and cheer, whispering of chip shots holed and brassies landing squarely on the meat. The fairway, as yet unscarred by the irons of a hundred dubs, smiled greenly up at the azure sky.”
The subliminal message is this: Mother nature is calling “Watch out!” Her voice is encouraging the men, whispering of men holing shots (fucking girls), brassies (clubs) landing on the meat (men hitting the female body). The fairway (the young woman), so far unblemished by the cuts of hundreds of blows, smiling her naïve consent up to the sublime vapours above her.
Men wouldn’t want their wives coming with them to the brothel
Having built their patriarchal pleasure grounds, many in the early 20th century, men fought long and hard to keep women off them. It was only in 2017 that Muirfield allowed women to become members. You wouldn’t, after all, want your wife coming with you to the brothel.
When women have succeeded in joining golf clubs, it has often been assumed that they were lesbians, the inference being that men assume a sexual interest in women is a necessary motive for playing golf. One of the few academic studies into women’s experience of golf found that female players’ biggest concern and surprise was the accusation that playing meant they must be lesbian.
“When women have succeeded in joining golf clubs, it has often been assumed that they were lesbians”
Women players in the main have circumvented this accusation by wearing feminine clothes to display their submission to patriarchy and indicated publicly their heterosexuality. Female beauty displays as a form of submission to patriarchy are explained best in Sheila Jeffreys’s book, Beauty and Misogyny. The displays of femininity went so far that in 2017 the LPGA (the governing body for female golf) instructed professional golfers to wear less revealing clothes for competitions, which ironically enraged some of the young women who had utterly bought into the self-objectification and kowtowing to patriarchy.
Are the men conscious of golf’s sublimation of PIV sex Probably not. But the repeated striking and penetrating of the young sward, the earth’s naked flesh, the gentle mounds and the enticing holes are shapes and patterns and habits. The rhythms of patriarchy recreating itself. In the last century, golf has played its part in upholding the hegemony of patriarchy. In terms of masculinity, it is now equally important that American presidents play golf as believe in god. Obama made sure he was seen to be playing from time to time, and Trump’s company owns 12 courses. Even communists, such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, have been seen playing golf, perhaps in their own nod to the patriarchy they also upheld.
Clearly, the sublimated sex motive is not the only reason people play golf, but it is a key one. And it does matter. Environmentalists who want to challenge men’s wanton destruction of the planet without confronting men’s sex interests will be surprised and perhaps confused at the vehemence of golfers’ resistance. Challenging a man’s access to sex, actual or sublimated, is in many cases threatening the thing most precious to him in the world. More important and fascinating to many men than the fire raging on the hills surrounding him and his fairway.