Putt for Peace

Memorial Day brings Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament, a pairing of two polar opposites, golf and war.

The Memorial heralds the U.S. Open in two weeks, which this year will be staged before the courtiers, legislators, and soldiers of Washington, D.C., at Congressional Country Club.

Golf is so unnecessary, but pleasant, and war so terrible and yet seemingly so inevitable, that one hesitates to confront the stark difference between the two, as though to celebrate peacetime might jinx it.   

It's a recurring conflict throughout golf's history. One of the earliest recorded references to golf is from an edict King James II of Scotland issued against it in the mid-15th century, fearing golf might divert his subjects from practicing archery.

Students of the game also know that there is nothing at all new about golfers dressing in blazing, eye-popping colors: golfers originally wore bright reds and plaids to make themselves visible to hunters and archers. Remember when golf was anything but cool, in the late 1960's? Look at old photographs and videotapes of Vietnam-era golf, showing plenty of fierce hawks arrayed more like peacocks, and you'll see how easy they made it for anti-golf snipers.

A recent Golf Digest story recounted the late CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow trying to play out of a sand bunker when he heard that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor: he later said he never quite got out of it. Something solitary and selfish about the game of golf becomes anathema in time of war: in World War II, no U.S. Open was held between 1942 and 1945, but there was a World Series.

Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson politely rebuked Eisenhower for the hours he spent on the links, but no one questioned whether a World War II general had earned the right to play. Perhaps another reason fewer seemed to mind was that Eisenhower was only a mediocre player. On the other hand, John F. Kennedy, playing a round out of the public eye during the 1960 presidential campaign, hit a spectacular approach on a par-3 and called out for the ball not to drop in the cup for a hole-in-one. He was afraid that his prowess on the links would leak to the public. (That Kennedy was the best golfer to live in the White House was at the time a well-kept secret.) 

The latest turn of irony comes with the ascent of the son of a Vietnam combat veteran to the very top of golf. If you're trying to figure out why golf seems to be so fashionable with so many people right now, perhaps there's a reason that goes beyond this charming young star's formidable makeup. It could be argued, as though he hadn't had enough going for him, that what Tiger Woods best represents -- more than a vindication of his own immense talent, or a defeat of racism, or the power of a good family, is a redemption of the promise of peace.