Given the chaos that passes for culture these days, its hard to find a
metaphor that even comes close to summing up everythingor even a lot.
Heres one for you. How about the 17th hole on the Stadium Course at Sawgrass
course in Ponte Vedra, Florida?
A golf hole as metaphor for American, nay, world culture? Yep.
The idea goes like this (bear with meits going to take a while to get to
The 17th at Sawgrass is unique in all golf. Its a
short par 3, about 130 yards. The problem is, the only thing between tee and green is
water, and the green is an island, a very small island, maybe 15 by 25 yards.
Theres more. The little island is built up maybe three feet above the surrounding
lake by bulkheads.
So. You hit a high shot, the idea being that itll come down straight and not roll
or take a crazy bounce. Thats the plan. The execution of course is another thing
Hit a bad shot and before you can say "Ben Hogan" your ball's in the water,
to the delight of the throng.
Once a year the best 52 golfers in the world come to Sawgrass for what is called The
Tournament Players Championship. A field like that draws big crowds, 40,000 or more
a day for four days.
The real cognoscenti in those crowds dont waste their time walking hither and yon
to catch a glimpse of Tiger or whoever. Instead, they plop themselves down early around
the lake at the 17th, and there they stay.
The result is golf as theater, and gallery as Greek chorus.
This deadly island green, surrounded by water, surrounded by people who, the longer
theyre there, become more and more expert on how to playand not to
playthe 17th. They become not only expert but highly vocal in rendering their
You wont find many duffers among the 52 best players in the world. But even the
best players are subject to nerves. Add in a deadly little par 3 like the 17th and an
expert mob thats there to be ENTERTAINED and what you have is a marvelous little
By the afternoon of the fourth day, the mob at the 17th has seen everything.
Theyre jaded, a little hot, a little tired, but still watching, still judging.
Late on Sunday afternoon here come the last groups of players, presumably the leaders,
several of whom have their nervous eye on the $1.6 million first-place money.
What happens on the 17th, with only one more hole to play, can have a big effect on who
gets the pot of gold, which of course re-arouses the interest of our jaded Greek chorus.
Whoops, shouts, hollersit gets pretty rowdy.
But like all good actors, the chorus responds to its cues and falls silent when the
course referee raises his arms for quiet as each player prepares to hit toward the tiny
As soon as the ball is struck, the chorus starts rendering its opinion and you
immediately know how good the shot is because THEY know. Remember, theyve seen it
The roars of either exultation and approval or of derision and scorn follow the ball on
its destined path either to safety on the tiny green or to the bottom of the lake.
And so it goes shot after shot on the 17th until the last group has moved on and
silence returns to the little island of infamy.
What, you ask, does this have to do with American, nay, world culture?
A lot, when you think about it.
There the mob sits, eager, waiting for the next
performers to come on stage. And of course these guys are, to anyone who follows golf at
all, celebrities, each with his own shtick: Tiger exuding aplomb, Phil with his
deer-in-the-headlights expression, Vijay whose mind seems 10,000 miles away in the Fijis,
Davis you imagine might rather be in an ad for mint juleps, and so on.
One by one they traipse onto the stage at the 17th, each having in his own way bonded
with the groundlings around the lake. They traipse, they ponder, they pose, they strike,
they watch, they react.
Entertained mightily, the crowd moans or rejoices with them, first on the tee, and then
on the green.
Then these, the famous, trudge onward, out of sight to the next stage, out of sight at
the 18th. The crowd, forgetting quickly in the manner of crowds, turns its attention and
its instant judgment to the next celeb.
Instant judgment, immediate-gratification without end, over and over, at least until
everybodys played out and has to go home and rest up for the next time.
I dont know about you, but this sounds a lot like me and my remote
control and my 200 channels. Click, watch, react, judge, click, react, judge. Yawn. Time
Next day: click, react, judge.
Or me and my mouse nibbling through the countless terabytes of information on the
Internet. Click, react, judge, click, react, judge.
Neo-puritans bemoan this state of cultural affairs. Were wasting away, they keep
telling us. Were destroying our children. Whats happened to education, to Real
Culture? What will come of an alleged democracy in which everybodys so busy being
entertained they dont have time to think? Turn off the TV, the neo-puritans yell.
Get involved! Save a tree! Go to church!
Pause, now, and think again of the 17th at Sawgrass. What does the mob do at the end of
the day? They get in their car and go home. Yes, the car they get in may well be an SUV.
Yes, they may well turn on the TV or log on to the Internet as soon as they get home. And
yes, their lives often consist of large chunks of time when they are, well, having fun.
You have to remember that fun is something puritanswhether old or
newhave a lot of trouble with. In this dark, dark world, theyve been
sayingyellingfor a long time, fun is possible only if youre not paying
Well. The Greek chorus around the 17th pays really close attention. Sure, what
theyre paying attention to is, in the larger scheme of things, trivial, but it is
also a whole lot of fun.
They pay attention. And then they go home. Theyve got stories to tell, but beyond
that? Do they think the guys they were watching are anything more than really good
athletes whove develop one small skill to a high degree?
Sure, a few think that, but for most of the chorus, no, the players were just
So too with the troubled comity of this American democracy.
Most of the time, most of the chorus is only paying half-attention, assuming
that the politicians are mostly jerks who, out of self-interest, will do a half-way decent
But now and then, here comes history with a really challenging 17th hole, and everybody
pays more attention.
The chorus gets rowdy, watching closely and judging like crazy. Suddenly the game,
which the politicians had sort of been lazing along in, becomes important because the
citizenry is aroused.
And to everybodys surprise, what the elected guys do on the 17th TURNS OUT TO
MATTER. The chorus watches, waits for the strike of the ball, and reacts.
Woe unto the celeb who doesnt realize that, aroused, the chorus canand
willmake or break him.
Hoots and hollers on the course. Yeas and nays at the ballot box.
Those 17th holeswhich life does present us with now and thenget
everybodys attention, but only as long as the hole is in play. Once the outcome is
decided, its back to life its own self.
What the puritans and the pessimists and the would-be tyrants forget is that the chorus
is always, always there offstage, ready to re-assemble at a moments notice when the
next island green comes in sight.
No doubt many of the smarty-pants in the Bush administration are more than a little
puzzled at the growing resistance to their guy and their rah-rah policies. Having come to
power in a dubious election, they coasted to victory in the mid-term contest as the
voters/gallery/Greek chorus mostly yawned and sat on their hands.
Now they arrive at this 17th hole called "Iraq." Soon the gallery, which,
remember, has seen some real scalliwags and scoundrels play through, will get to pass
judgment on this bunch of non pareil trick-short artists. Theyve got our attention,
thats for sure. The only question is, are we still sitting on our hands?