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Golf, Sex, and Death: Why They Don’t Get Along

He was looking down, which is what he likes to do in the forest. On his knees, squatting, peering under the leaves, and there—wedged in the mud—was the invader. The Thing From Elsewhere.

It was a golf ball.

A golf ball lying on the ground, covered in autumn foliage
Photograph by Martin Paul, Getty
Photograph by Martin Paul, Getty

David Haskell is a biology professor who recently wrote a little book about a small patch of Tennessee forest and the animals and plants that live there. Living things fascinate him. Golf balls? Not so much. “When a golf ball in the woods strikes my eyes,” he writes, “my mind condemns the ball, the golf course, the golfers, and the culture that spawns them all.”

So he’s not a fan. We’ve all met people who hate golf. Nothing new there. It’s the subtle, complicated way he hates golf—that’s what got to me.

He despises its biology.

A worker from the Las Vegas water authority xeriscapes a golf course
Photograph by Pete McBride, National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Pete McBride, National Geographic Creative

Golf, Sex, and Death

A golf course, he declares, ruthlessly erases two rhythms fundamental to the natural world: death and sex. Every golf course, he says, is designed to be sexless and deathless—and to stay that way. Which, he believes, is deeply “unnatural.”

Hmmm. Let’s think about this.

It’s true that if you step into the woods that surround a golf course, you’ll find trees that release seeds (sex!), that have pollinating flowers (sex!), and that have birds flitting about singing mating songs (sex!) and that then build nests (post-sex!). But back on the golf course, saplings, branches, nests, seeds, flowers—things that muck up the grass—are removed by the ground crew. So yes, that’s an erasure.

A manicured golf course and fall foliage
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative

As for the grass itself, it isn’t allowed to grow to produce seed heads (sex!). Instead, it’s constantly mowed to keep it in a truncated, “youthful” state. (Haskell calls this the grassy version of “perpetual childhood”). The same goes for putting greens, where the grass is cut back even more radically and the root system is kept intentionally shallow so that it grows laterally, making for a dense, soft, youthful cover.

Botanically, I guess, Haskell is right. Evidence of aging and sex is suppressed at the golf course. But that’s also true of baseball diamonds and football fields. As for death—well, step back into the woods and everywhere you look, you see decay (rotting wood, falling leaves, the browns, reds, and yellows of autumn). Death and dying are everywhere.

For example, tree stumps. A tree takes roughly the same time to disintegrate as it does to reach its full height. So in any patch of woods, dead trees stick around, showing off their “dead verticality,” as the poet Gary Snyder once put it.

“How curious it would be to die and then remain standing for another century or two,” Snyder said. “If humans could do it, we’d hear news like, ‘Henry David Thoreau finally toppled over.’”

But there is no toppling on a golf course. Everything is too young to topple. Old things are removed. “The golf course has been sanitized,” Haskell writes, “by the puritan life-police.” Be young or be gone.

A golf ball in the grass at the Hard Rock Golf Course in Punta Cana
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative

This is the deep mindset of golf course design—which is strange, since (unlike baseball and football) it is famously a game that attracts 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds. Why protect them from what they already know? Ah, well, maybe that’s the key. Maybe a golf course is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stage set designed to soothe folks who don’t want to be reminded of what’s coming and what’s waning.

The forest is different. It’s orchestral. It emerges, writes Haskell, “from the give and take of thousands of species; a golf course’s ecological community is a monoculture of alien grass that emerged from the mind of just one species.” The one species that can see death coming.

What to Do With the Invading Golf Ball?

So when David Haskell finds a golf ball in his forest patch, he gets rid of it, right? He’s going to do what the golfers do—he will sanitize.

Ah. Not so fast. Haskell is a complicated man.

“Should I remove the balls or leave them nestled in place?” he asks himself. They’re not going to decompose any time soon. Golf balls are strengthened thermoplastic, which means they can’t be eaten by bacteria or fungi. Biologically, they “have nothing to contribute,” Haskell writes, and yet (you can feel him struggling here), what’s the point of removing the ball? Yes, taking it away removes evidence of human influence, but humans are constantly visiting, altering, shaping the woods. We hunt, we chop, we crush, we litter, we pee in the woods. Are we invaders? Is that the right word?

“Such a view drives a wedge between humanity and the rest of the community of life,” Haskell writes. Instead, he looks down at the ball and thinks, “A golf ball is the manifestation of the mind of a clever, playful African primate. This primate loves to invent games to test its physical and mental skill. Generally, these games are played on carefully reconstructed replicas of the savanna from which the ape came and for which its subconscious still hankers. The clever primate belongs in this world. Maybe the primate’s productions do also.”

OK, so the golf ball is a human dropping. But it’s also a lost ball, out of bounds. So what does he do? To pluck or not to pluck? Haskell gives it one last ponder. And then walks away.

The ball stays.

“(T)o love nature and to hate humanity is illogical,” he writes. “Humanity is part of the whole … Nature does not need to be cleaned of human artifacts to be beautiful.”

Golf courses, on the other hand, need to cleaned of woodland artifacts to be beautiful.

Interesting difference.

David Haskell’s wonderful book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature has been mentioned here before, but it taught me so many things about trees, leaves, light, snails, flowers, little mammals, twigs, buttercups, photons, and on and on, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s not like I don’t read other books, I just can’t stop thinking about this one.

9 thoughts on “Golf, Sex, and Death: Why They Don’t Get Along

  1. In my wayward youth, at least during the warmer seasons, I found golf courses (and cemeteries!) excellent locales for advancing my sexual projects. I didn’t consider death much, but if I had I would have reflected that in cemeteries death had already been amply provided, and that the golf played in the day on golf courses was deadly boring, existing mostly so my more businesslike cousins could suck up to rich people from whom they hoped to benefit some day. Golf courses, though, are simply a piece of what the rich seem to enjoy: a kind of eternal youth in death. Look at their suburbs, their parks. Been doing it since ancient Egypt. As for the golf ball, they can be useful in certain kinds of vandalism. Take them and put them to use!

  2. I find your article an intriguing argument on how golf courses are made to look youth and have no sign of old trees or decaying grass. It’s interesting and destructive how the ground crew keeps the golf course ‘clean’; by tearing down birds nest (which probably most have eggs in them) and killing old growth trees to make the golf course look like it’s in a youthful state.

  3. I have been to many golf courses that do a great job incorporating the natural habitat in their designs and are often designated wildlife preserves. This land could have been turned into shopping malls, parking lots, or housing instead of a golf course which would have further limited our green spaces. This was an amusing article but very one sided.

  4. “I placed a jar in Tennessee,
    And round it was, upon a hill.
    It made the slovenly wilderness
    Surround that hill.

    The wilderness rose up to it,
    And sprawled around, no longer wild.
    The jar was round upon the ground
    And tall and of a port in air.

    It took dominion every where.
    The jar was gray and bare.
    It did not give of bird or bush,
    Like nothing else in Tennessee.”

  5. I’ve removed the golf balls when I’ve found them in more natural settings due to the possibility of an animal, perhaps a snake, mistaking them for eggs. Enough death without contributing to it! Interesting article. Thank you!

  6. Having grown up in rural Western Australia I’m happy to report that not all golf courses are so unnatural. On our country golf courses the bushland surrounding the fairways is natural. The fairways themselves are cleared through the bushland and the “greens” are carefully levelled sand. Not a lawn mower in sight.

  7. Trees taking a century to decompose? Man, where are your beetles and woodlice? Here 10 years is the norm, most trees that fall are already shot through by borer. I have seen many a log on a bushwalk crumble to wood punk, soft as wet tissue paper. I would even dare venture a human skeleton out in the open would last longer.

    Also, pick up the balls, you can sell them back to the club at quite a good price.

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