August 19, 2005

NYT's Tierney on "The Golf Gene"

Tierney in NYT on the Sailer Theory of the evolution of golf's appeal:

The Golf Gene


New York Times

Published: August 20, 2005

The P.G.A. championship didn't end until Monday, which was ostensibly a workday, but more than five million men still managed to watch it on television. Why?

As an action-packed sport, golf ranks down with baseball and bowling, except that baseball is faster-paced and bowlers are whirling dervishes compared with golfers. Some golfers do exhibit sudden movements when they win a tournament, but it's always a shock to see they can get both feet in the air at once.

Golf features no body contact, no car crashes and no cheerleaders, yet men keep watching. They make up more than 80 percent of the TV audience for golf. This might simply be because they like watching a game they play themselves; men make up nearly 80 percent of the golfers in America, too. But then why do so many guys play such a frustrating game?

You could theorize that this is a cultural phenomenon, a holdover from the days of alpha males playing at exclusive clubs. But even though most courses have been opened to women, the percentage of golfers who are women hasn't risen in 15 years. Another traditional country-club sport, tennis, is played by nearly as many women as men, but golf remains one of the most segregated sports by sex - more male-dominated than rock climbing, racquetball, pool or roller hockey.

The male-female ratio is about the same as in paintball, a war game that always made more sense to me than golf. My basic feeling toward golf - hatred - probably has something to do with how badly I did the couple of times I played, but incompetence didn't seem to stop other guys from becoming obsessed with it.

I couldn't imagine what possessed them until I learned about disc golf, which began as a mellow sport for both sexes three decades ago, played by hippies in Grateful Dead T-shirts who flung Frisbees into baskets mounted on poles in public parks. Today there are 1,700 courses and a pro tour that includes superb women players.

But more than 90 percent of the disc golf players, pros and duffers, are men. The best explanation I can offer for the disparity is what happened to me the first time I teed off several years ago.

Our foursome started at a tee on high ground, looking down a tree-lined swath of grass at the basket nearly 400 feet away. After we flung our discs, as we headed down the fairway, I felt a strange surge of satisfaction. I couldn't figure out why until it occurred to me what we were: a bunch of guys converging on a target and hurling projectiles at it.

Was golf the modern version of Pleistocene hunting on the savanna? The notion had already occurred to devotees of evolutionary psychology, as I discovered from reading Edward O. Wilson and Steve Sailer. They point to surveys and other research showing that people in widely different places and cultures have a common vision of what makes a beautiful landscape - and it looks a lot like the view from golfers' favorite tees.

The ideal is a vista from high ground overlooking open, rolling grassland dotted with low-branched trees and a body of water. It would have been a familiar and presumably pleasant view for ancient hunters: an open savanna where prey could be spotted as they grazed; a water hole to attract animals; trees offering safe hiding places for hunters.

The descendants of those hunters seem to have inherited their fascination with hitting targets, because today's men excel at tests asking them to predict the flights of projectiles. They also seem to get a special pleasure from watching such flights, both in video games and real life. No matter how many times male pilots have seen a plane land, they'll watch another one just for the satisfaction of seeing the trajectory meet the ground.

That's the only plausible excuse for watching golf. Men, besides having a primal affection for the vistas of fairways, get so much joy watching that little ball fly toward the green that they'll sit through everything else. One sight of a putt dropping in the hole makes up for long moments watching pudgy guys agonize over which club to use.

I realize, of course, that this is conjecture. But it could be tested if some enterprising anthropologist showed a video of the P.G.A. championship to the men and women in one of the remaining hunter-gatherer societies. I predict that only the men would take the day off to watch.


For Further Reading:

From Bauhaus to Golf Course: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of the Art of Golf Course Architecture
by Steve Sailer. The American Conservative, April 11, 2005.

I've now added 35 pictures to my article, and a lot of extra text.

The Natural History Of Art: Possible animal influence on human perception of art by Richard Conniff. Discover, November 1999.

Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior by James McBride Dabbs with Mary Godwin Dabbs. McGraw-Hill, 256 pp., July 2000.

“Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology”
by Denis Dutton. The Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson. Oxford University Press, 2003.

The back story is that Tierney's Eureka moment occurred to him while playing frisbee golf (as described above). He then looked up his hypothesis on Google, and found that I had already written up a similar version of it in a 2002 UPI article entitled "The World According to Golf." (And this idea is not original with me -- I first saw it in 1992 in John Strawn's Driving the Green: The Building of a Golf Course.)


My impression from the local driving range is that golf has been getting more popular with young women over the last couple of years. Perhaps this is due to the golf recession driving down sky high greens fees? Or bigger clubs that are easier to make solid contact with? Annika Sorenstam? Michelle Wie? Or maybe it's not happening at all... Hard to say.

Golf was fashionable for young women right after WWI, when Vogue featured covers of flappers on the links and P.G. Wodehouse wrote dozens of romantic comedy short stories for the Saturday Evening Post about two duffers who challenge each other to a desperate round to see who will win the hand of the beautiful ladies club champion.

But then it faded in popularity among young women. Today, a large fraction of women golfers are post-menopausal wives who join their retired husbands on the links.

In one survey of married PGA pros' wives, only one out of nine played golf herself often enough to have an official handicap. This suggests that access to golf courses, which the wives of star male golfers have in abundance, is not a limiting factor in keeping young women off the golf course.

The only time my wife ever got interested in golf was during her pregnancies with our sons, during which she became, for the only times in her life, a fanatical sports fan. She said she'd be flipping through the channels on TV, "And there was a close-up of a golf ball sitting on a tee ... and I just wanted to hit it!" Presumably hormonal in origin, this is a rare condition, but not unknown (I've heard from three other women who felt the same way during their pregnancies). If you are a medical researcher, you should do a paper on this Pregnancy Sports Fan Syndrome and get it named after yourself.

A sizable fraction of American women golf pros are lesbians, with well-informed published estimates running in the 20% to 30% range. In fact, one of the LPGA's major championships, the Nabisco (formerly Dinah Shore) in Palm Springs, doubles as a national lesbian spring break.

In East Asia, however, golf is quite fashionable among straight young women, and the same is true among Asian-American girls. In Southern California high schools, Asians make up about one third of female All-Conference golfers compared to about one-eighth of male star golfers.

I've never heard an explanation why. This has been going on much longer than 15-year-old Michelle Wie has been famous. It's more reasonable to say that Wie is an outgrowth of this Asian girl love of golf than that the trend started with Wie. Of course, it's likely to accelerate since Wie is on track to become the most celebrated woman athlete in the world by the time she is 18 or so. In at least one measure, performance in PGA men's tournaments, Wie is ahead of where Tiger Woods was at the same age. And it won't hurt the willowy 6-footer's popularity with young women that she looks like a fashion model.


Tierney is already getting grief from the smear-by-association crowd. One liberal blogger is shocked, SHOCKED that Tierney linked to my golf-architecture-as-art essay because it contained, out of about 4,000 words, this thought-crime:

"'The web version of Tierney's column approvingly links to another Sailer piece containing this profound analysis: "On the other hand, the Ladies Professional Golf Association's Nabisco Championship in Palm Springs has become one of the largest annual lesbian get-togethers in the United States, but, as Camille Paglia has noted, lesbians tend not to be interested in the classic visual arts, and, indeed, are often resentful of the prestige of Dead White European Male artists.' Do Tierney and the Times endorse this bigotry?"

Ah, the good old quote-out-of-context then point-and-sputter school of left- McCarthyite demonization! No need to come up with any facts or logic supporting your objections to any statement. Just fuming in outrage is sufficient.

Is Mr. Ailes claiming that the Nabisco Championship (formerly the Dinah Shore) is not one of the largest lesbian party weekends in the country? Ask some lesbians and they'll set you straight. For example, from the book "Girljock," "The Nabisco Dinah Shore Golf Tournament is reputed to attract the largest lesbian gathering in the known universe."

Or from The Advocate: "Dinah Shore weekend in Palm Springs is fast becoming the lesbian event of the year."

And if the blogger is indignant about the second half of my sentence, well, then his argument is with Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, which a "Lingua Franca" survey of academics picked as the number one academic book of the 1990s.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


charles edwards said...

Very interesting I have found that golf has reached the masses all over the world and as the main players are getting world wide publicity more people see this game as accessable, there are now many local courses and also a lot of complexes such as Polaris World that feed the people that are serious and need a holiday home, but there are still local clubs for the average joe to join with affordable prices to suit all of the budding pro's.

Reg said...

Golf challenges us on so many different levels, especially on the psychological side. Golf can be fun, serious, exciting and at times incredibly frustrating. A bit like the female species I suppose. May be that is why we love it so much?