Friday, July 11, 2014

Fernando, the Peruvian Neymar

I'm in a desert shantytown in Peru with my two-year old son, Lucien.  There's no golf course at all here in the sun-baked dusty city of Piura, which lies in the great Peruvian coastal desert -- an expanse of sand and rock almost as vast the Sahara.  It's among the world's driest places anywhere.  The piece below isn't about golf, but another sport, soccer, or "football" as the rest of the world properly calls it:

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I’ve never lived in a stranger place than Venice.

It was a great empire centuries ago, the master of the Adriatic and a swath of Italy.  Now it’s an open air museum.  Tourists from Russia, Germany, China, Brazil, the Ukraine, and, of course, the United States tramp through like an invading army.    Some three million visitors a year come to see the Grand Canal and other iconic sites, and yet there are only about 80,000 Venetians left.  Tourists outnumber natives by more than three to one on most days.  It’s hard sometimes to find a shop that sells something besides carnival masks, plastic model gondolas, and the latest Italian novelty souvenirs like joke kitchen aprons with the penis of Michelangelo’s David.
As much as anything, Venice has always been a brand.  No place on the planet may be so stunningly gorgeous as this emerald island city, and Venetians themselves have always known that.   Those extraordinary Venetian Renaissance painters – the Bellini Brothers, Carpaccio, Paolo Veronese – already mythologized their city’s watery enchantment five centuries ago.  So, later, did the likes of Canaletto and Guardi, whose oils of the Grand Canal and the Rialto godfathered the modern tourist postcard.   Then as now, a gondola ride, a stroll through St. Mark’s Square, or an excursion to watch the glassmakers of Murano form the Venetian copyright.  This carousel of images conjures enough beauty and romance to draw more visitors than ever from around the globe.   As the global middle class has expanded, tourism has become the world’s largest industry, and this has only multiplied the numbers coming to Venice.  There were no Russian, Chinese, or Brazilian tour groups here several decades ago. 
But why do so many of us want to travel?  As sociologists John Urry and Jonas Larsen observe in their fine The Tourist Gaze 3.0, vacationing has become “a defining characteristic of being modern.”  We’re drawn, of course, by the promise of escaping the grey grind of home and work, and the lure of some legendary faraway locale.   Every trip, in fact, has its own moral imperatives – a “must see” list. Thus, in Venice, a gondola ride remains obligatory for the more mainstream tourist, no less than climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris or visiting the Vatican in Rome.   Those more would-be discerning visitors – of the kind who style themselves as “travelers” as against the run-of-the mill tourist -- have their own moral economy.   Here the search for the local, the authentic, and the less touristed takes precedence no matter that these have all become Lonely Planet clichés in themselves.   Urry and Larsen also coin the label of “post-tourists” for those who disavow any interest in the authentic in favor of a perverse anthropological delight in the kitsch, hybridization, and unexpected juxtapositions of a world where there really is no place off the beaten track anymore.  And, by now, the taxonomy of tourism also includes its more particular niches – the medical tourist to India for heart surgery; the astronomy tourist to Namibia for a total solar eclipse; the wine tourist to Croatia or the latest viticulture hotspot; and, yes, the golf tourist chasing some new great golf experience.
I’m little more than extended-stay tourist myself in Venice, here just for the fall.  But I am teaching two courses at Venice International University, and the crowds can sometimes make it hard.  When running late, I always seem to find the alley blocked by some ambling, camera-laden scrum of a German tour group.  The area between St. Mark’s Square, the Academia Bridge, and the Rialto forms a tourist Bermuda triangle.   Many, if not most, Venetians live off the tourist trade; but many nonetheless speak nostalgically about less crowded times.  If you wander down the right back alley, you can still find the surviving remnants of a functioning Italian city -- a playground, a tailor, a basketball court, an upholsterer, a yoga class, a pet shop, a funeral parlor.  But everything costs twice what it does on the mainland, where the down economy already makes things difficult for ordinary people.  And family life is no easy business in a cramped Renaissance city however picturesque.  No wonder so many Venetians, even those who still commute across the lagoon into the city, have moved to Marghera, Mestre, and other terra firma towns. 

And, as almost anywhere on this 21st century golfing planet, you can find golf in Venice, or at least the greater Venetian lagoon.    At the very tip of the barrier island of Lido lies the Circolo Golf di Venezia.  The course is a pleasant enough track built in the 1920s, though nothing extraordinary.   It doesn’t say much for Italian golf if the Circolo is really among the top ten in the country as one ranking has it.   But it’s nonetheless always interesting to see the local twists to the game abroad, and what they reveal about that particular society and culture.  To paraphrase the great French sociologist Roger Caillois, how we play always discloses much about who we are.  Italians, as we know, love to eat well, and that’s certainly evident at the Venice course.   You can sit on the club terrace and have a delicious cold seafood salad washed down with the Veneto’s good white wine.  It’s a far cry from the proverbial greasy hotdog, Powerade, and bag of potato chips at the American golf course grill.   
The Circolo also reflects the more parsimonious, greener habits of Italian consumers.   In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, wastebaskets, cars, toilets, cars, and even paper towels are much smaller than those to which we Americans are accustomed; people use things to the end instead of running out to buy a new one as in our throwaway consumer culture.  At many American courses, especially upscale ones, you can find all manner of balls if you poke around in the woods and creeks, including more than a few virtually new ones.   Not in Italy.  I wasn’t sure if I had enough balls to finish the round on the watery Circolo course, and yet, though I scoured the bushes, I failed to turn up so much as an old Top-Flite.   And if American golfers, at least those who can afford it, feel obligated to have the newest model clubs in their bag, there’s no such imperative in Italy.   The bag storage shed for club members was a museum of early generation titanium clubs.  A 1990s Callaway Big Bertha, so big and shiny in its day, looks now like a undersized early industrial artifact of another era, like an old Olivetti manual typewriter. 

And consider the greeenskeeping. Italian landscaping, like the food, runs to a calculated yet unforced simplicity.The Italian gardener does not share the American lawn nazi’s horror at the stray weed. The Circolo has the archetypal Italian mix of cypress and pine, and, though maintained well enough, it’s a bit shaggy, no effort made to keep every blade of grass in place as at a high-end American club. A Renaissance fountain lies just next to the 18th green in a reminder of just how much Italy remains a land of ancient and jumbled chronologies where Etruscan burial grounds, Roman ruins, Medieveal churches, Mussolini-era train stations, and new McDonald’s jostle and crowd up against one another. The fountain at the Circolo, it should be noted, plays as an immovable obstruction with no relief if your ball ends up next to or behind it.
Back across the lagoon in Venice, the grand old city can feel besieged by its millions of visitors.   It sometimes seems as if Italy’s precious Renaissance marvels -- Giotto's Arena Chapel, Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Botticelli Birth of Venus -- sag wearily under the weight of so many staring visitors, so much written about them, so many photographs, so many centuries passed.    But laments about an overtouristed Venice are hardly new.   Henry James, back in 1909, already noted that some travellers found the place “odious” because they had “too many competitors there” and were forced to share the city “with a herd of fellow gazers.”   But the great novelist loved Venice anyway as a place of “a thousand occasional graces.”   He was taken, among other things, by the light.  It was, he wrote, “a mighty magician and, with all respect to Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all.  Here sea and sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue against every object of vision.”

I feel much the same way.   Once I navigate the alleyways out to San Zaccaria, I climb aboard the Number 20 vaporetto, these boats being Venice’s only form of public transportation.   It heads out to the university on the island of San Servolo with a view opening up back to the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark's, and the grey-blue water of the lagoon.   It’s a view straight off the postcard rack and yet no less stunning for that fact.
I can't imagine there's a more beautiful commute anywhere in the world.

A bit of promotion: my new book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal is now available in print and for Kindle and other e-readers

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Et tu, Hank?

“Golf can be taught,” that great American comedian and archetypal duffer Leslie Nielsen (Airplane, The Naked Gun) once quipped, “It just can’t be learned.”
That hasn’t kept golf instruction from becoming a multibillion dollar business.   The likes of Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler – self-taught pros with funky homespun swings – have become rare exceptions.  Every other pro seems to have been coached from the cradle.  Their grooved swings are as bland as a vanilla milkshake at the clubhouse grill.  The most famous golf teachers have become celebrities in their own right.  David Ledbetter and others command profitable empires of videos, books, academies, and Golf Channel appearances.   Even we amateurs no longer “play” golf.   We’re supposed to “work” on our games with the right drills, instructional apps, and guidance from of our teaching pro with his taped video camera feedback.   
It remains golf’s greatest illusion to think we can revolutionize our game with just a few small adjustments.   We’re convinced, as the wry golf writer Herbert Warren Wind already observed a half century ago, that by modifying the way “we bend our left knee” or “position our right thumb” that “even-par scores will be no trouble at all.”  That eternal hope of getting it right, if only for a day, is part of the game’s allure.   Golfers are like Coyote.  We’re always ready to chase after the Roadrunner again no matter that we know that our game will likely blow up somewhere along the way before we can grab that juicy low score.
No less a golfing god than Tiger Woods turns out to share the hacker’s illusion about the possibility of perfection.   He’s now reinventing his game for the third time, with a third instructor.  His swing has become golf’s most famous science experiment.  One wonders, of course, whether Tiger might play better if he stopped worrying so much about his downswing plane angle, right shoulder tilt, and other arcana, and instead just hit the ball.  But Tiger, so unique in other ways, has the mentality of Joe Duffer in hoping that his latest swing makeover will change everything. 
We get an insider’s look at Tiger’s struggles in Hank Haney’s The Big Miss.   Thanks in no small part to Jaime Diaz’s fine ghostwriting, the book is a great read, and high on the bestseller lists.   Haney himself comes across as a man of many contradictions.   He affects an aw-shucks, Mr. Nice Guy persona, and yet clearly loved the limelight of being Tiger’s teacher (and has busily milked it with his dreadful “The Haney Project” on the Golf Channel and now this book).  He claims not to be defensive about comparisons with his predecessor, Butch Harmon, but includes a long appendix supposedly showing that Tiger did just as well under his tutelage.  And Haney professes admiration for Tiger, while depicting his former employer as cold, selfish, and arrogant -- and a cheapskate to boot.  With friends like Haney, as they say, Tiger doesn’t need enemies; he has his share of those already between his jilted caddies and mistresses.
My favorite moment is the tale of the popsicles   According to Haney, when he’d stay with Tiger, they’d watch tv in the evenings.  Tiger would sometimes fetch a popsicle from the freezer during commercial breaks.   Not once, Haney reports, did the golfing god ever offer to bring one for his houseguest.   Haney admits it may sound petty to make much of this, and, in fact, it does a bit.   But it’s just another example of what Haney judges to be Tiger’s rudely imperious self-centeredness, not to mention his banal alpha male obsession with hardcore military training and always having the upper hand.  The Big Miss is the doorman’s revenge, Haney’s payback for the poor way he felt Tiger treated him while Haney collects some hefty book royalties in the bargain.  It’s not a flattering portrait of Woods.
Golfwise, Haney recounts Tiger constantly mulling over swing mechanics.  When his teacher made suggestions, he’d accept some, dismiss others.   Clearly, Tiger, like the rest of us, enjoys fiddling with his swing, and the pleasure that comes with the prospect of fixing something broken and imagining that our best still lies ahead.   And yet, of course, the former Zeus of the golf world must also hate it that his powers have diminished at least for now; he seems to hold himself to a standard of perfection that may now be more hindrance than asset in his quest to regain his divine form.  It was Tiger’s pursuit of something yet better that led to his split with Haney.   Now he has still another coach, Sean Foley, and one wonders how long this one will last.  Coaching Tiger is like being one of Henry VIII’s wives, an uncertain proposition that can end on the chopping block.    
I recall a story about Giotto, a genius of the paintbrush and not the fairways.  To pick a painter for a large Vatican commission, the Pope sent messengers to Italy’s most famous Renaissance artists for a sample of their best work.   Giotto, when the emissary arrived to his Florence studio, pulled out a sheet of paper, drew a perfect circle on it, and then handed it to the man.  Is this all, the puzzled courier asked?  Take it to your master, replied Giotto, and he’ll understand.   And the Pope, indeed amazed that Giotto had drawn such a circle by his eye alone, awarded him the commission. 
But even Giotto, also an architect, surely knew that it’s actually impossible to draw a circle that’s truly faultless down to the very last millimeter.  He sent his off to the Pope anyway.
What you can do with your own astonishing talent, if you’re a Giotto or a Tiger Woods, may be close enough to perfect to proceed without worrying too much about it.
I’m not sure Tiger has quite learned the same lesson.

A bit of promotion: my new book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal is now available in print and for Kindle and other e-readers.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Is Tiger Back?

I always loved the climax of The Odyssey.

Odysseus, the legendary King of Ithaca, returns at last after surviving the perils and temptations of his long journey back from Troy. It had taken him ten years to get back from the war; he finds that a host of boastful young pretenders have taken over his house, giving him up for dead as they drink, preen, and press their affections upon his wife, the steadfast Penelope.

Sports superstars are our modern-day mythological heroes, the Odyseusses of this postmodern age. When injuries or other troubles put them out of action, we wonder whether they too will ever rule their sport again. What about Peyton Manning after his neck surgeries? Can Manny Ramirez still bash it out of the park? Evander Holyfield take to the ring for one last title bout? The likes of ESPN, sports talk radio and the rest of the media machine that cultural critic Kevin Quirk labels “SportsGlutUSA” have made such speculation into a 24/7 business.

There's been plenty of such chatter, of course, about Tiger over the last couple of years. The double whammy of the great golfer’s personal woes and bad left knee led some pundits to insist that he would never again be a top player. Perhaps the most incautious of these observers, the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, seemed to take a strangely vehement pleasure in declaring that Tiger’s knee was irreparably damaged; his swing hopelessly flawed; and his game that of a has-been more suited to the Nationwide than the PGA tour. The one-time king of golf, Chamblee insisted, was dead, the new Tiger a shadow of his former glorious self.

But recall, then, the ending of The Odyssey. The weary yet wily, resilient Odysseus returns to Ithaca at last, disguised as a beggar. Finally, at the palace, he reveals himself to the stunned assembly by stringing his great old bow and sending an arrow through ten axe-heads. He and his son Telemachus confront the arrogant, bullying suitors, slaughtering them all. Odysseus takes command again of his island realm.

Will Tiger follow this archetypal model by taking back his throne, or at the very least reclaiming some of his magic? He’s played well since last fall, including his victory at the Chevron World Classic. Yes, his putting is sometimes shaky; but the flat stick, of course, is a matter of confidence, and surely that may return, especially now that Tiger is able to play tournament golf regularly for the first time in so long. We’ve certainly seen flashes of the old Tiger of late, most notably at the 18th hole at the Honda Classic - the brute power of the 325 yard drive; the verve of the 203 yard five iron over water; the staring down of his eagle putt with the ball diving into the cup as if he had willed it there. That hole recalled the thrilling drama of Tiger in his glory years.

I shouldn’t overdo the Homeric parallels. Tiger did not resist the charms of his Calypsos – Joslyn James, Rachel Uchitel, and the rest of his hook-up roster; and Elin Nordegren, understandably enough, refused to play the faithful Penelope waiting by her loom no matter what. She demanded the divorce; one financial blog suggested that the Swedish krona ticked up against the U.S. dollar on the day the estranged couple signed their separation agreement, supposedly because of the many millions transferred from Tiger’s American account to Elin’s Stockholm bank. The gossip magazines have had Elin dating a handsome young Wall Street tycoon.

As for Tiger, he doesn’t seem any less imperious in personality for his ordeals. His publicity people have doubtless suggested, as many critics have, that he try to be more fan-friendly, and thus he occasionally tweets and signs autographs for fans. But he turned his famous icy death stare recently on a reporter who dared to ask an innocuous question about a passage from his former instructor Hank Haney's new book done with the veteran golf journalist Jaime Diaz (and, personally, I would read anything the wise and humane Diaz writes). At the Honda, Tiger signed some autographs, and yet did it with such unsmiling gracelessness that it looked as if he’d rather be having a wisdom tooth yanked with no anesthetic.

But we don’t expect much human touch from Tiger. He has given us the brilliance of his game. That’s more than enough. “Dogs,” Odysseus tells the terrified pretenders as he throws off his rags to reveals his fearsome majesty “did you think that I should not come back from Troy? You have feared neither God nor man and now you shall die.” Golf, like life itself, seldom provides simple endings; Tiger will surely have his share of false starts, disappointments and defeats in the coming year. His apparent Achilles injury at Doral this past weekend was not an auspicious sign. Even so, I suspect that sooner or later Tiger will have that Ithacan moment where, if only for a tournament, he once again returns to golf’s heights in a flash of power and brilliance.

It’s only a few weeks now until Augusta.

A bit of promotion: my new book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal is now available in print and for Kindle and other e-readers.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


There are plenty of golf nuts, and, in fact, the Golf Nut Society of America awards a prize each year to the top golf nut of the year. Michael Jordan once won it for skipping the ceremony where he was to receive the MVP award in order instead to play a round with his friends. But, as we golfers know, there are plenty of people who find golf boring or worse. Here's my personal list of top five reasons why people hate golf from a recent interview with the Duke News Service.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


Video by Ivan Weiss (c)

Listen to interview about The Passion of Tiger Woods, golf, and anthropology with WUNC's Frank Stasio on The State of Things

Watch webcast about the book from the Duke "Office Hours" program

Read interview about Tiger Woods and the challenges of cyberethnography


Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Praise of Hillandale

It was announced last
month that the Hillandale Golf Course might soon be closing.

Losing the course would be a sad thing for my adopted hometown of Durham, North Carolina. In a world of gated trophy courses and pricey green fees, Hillandale belongs instead to golf's more democratic tradition. It's an unpretentious public track with very modest fees and a
welcoming atmosphere. You'll find all kinds of people out at the course with its busy driving range and practice putting green. Hillandalers include plumbers and police officers, school teachers, traveling salesmen, high-schoolers and hipsters, and Duke students and residents from the nearby Duke Medical Center.

Hillandale was whites-only back in the Jim Crow era. Now, in the best New South spirit, it
draws a mixed crowd. The course has become an unofficial center for area black golfers; it's the home track for the North Carolina Central University golf team and a corps of retired African-American regulars. Hillandale is also among the only area courses with a female head teaching pro, Fran James. James and the other pros run free clinics for kids and frequently host charity events, including a recent outing for Duke bone marrow transplant patients and their families. Hillandale is itself an important source of employment in a bad economy. Fifteen full and part-time workers make their living there between the pros, greenskeepers, and others involved in running the course.

Also notable is Hillandale's environmental record. Ellerbee
Creek cuts through the course; it had been straightened, probably in the 1950s, into an ugly Army Corps of Engineers-style trench. But in an innovative collaboration with a local environmental group, the Ellerbee Creek Watershed Association, Hillandale superintendent Roy Clark oversaw the remeandering of the creek some five years ago. The results have been spectacular. Trees and native shrubs have grown in along the creek; they add interest and beauty to the course and a bird sanctuary. The work included constructing a wetlands area to catch the oily run-off from I-85 that had previously run straight into Ellerbee Creek. The course itself is the single biggest green space in the central areas of Durham.

The Hillandale closing had been scheduled for October
31. But the Sun Trust bank, which administers the course as a public trust, recently postponed the date. The city of Durham is now apparently negotiating to take over Hillandale.

I hope an agreement will soon be reached and this great Durham spot kept open.

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