Features

Editor's Letter

A Return to Swearing

March 23, 2021

The Masters marks the true start of golf season, particularly for those of us in the north. Just as the days grow perceptibly longer right after Christmas, images of Augusta let us see enough green and sun in our own back yards. I don’t know what goes through your head in those first early-season rounds, but here’s what goes through mine.

Not much. Pale forearms and shins confuse me as my own. I try to recall useful swing thoughts, but my head is as muddy as my lie. I can gather just enough dumb faith to pull the club back and watch the ball squirt off to places bad and worse.

“Sh__!”

In mid- or late-season form, even if I’m hitting it poorly, my commentary is more articulate. Mostly internal though sometimes aloud for the benefit of playing partners, after each shot there materializes within me a statement regarding approval, near-term strategic implication, mechanical diagnosis and/or a measure of just how much I hate myself.

Sometimes the dialogue runs all the way to the next shot. I don’t always play with flair, but I can talk it.

Yes, in those spring rounds I can hear the wind whistling through my ears because I am Golf Dumb. The mystery of the game is renewed, but I can’t formulate the questions. So with something like animal instinct, I bellow short expletives. Cows and pigs must experience similar waves of nonverbalized incredulity and disappointment.

Holding my finish at “w____,” one lucid thought that does occur is, I have a fairly clean mouth in the off-season. Family dinners with my young kids and professional meetings with this editorial staff don’t provide much opportunity for “potty talk,” which maybe isn’t all for the best. There’s a ton of scientific research—Swearing Is Good for You by Emma Byrne and What the F by Benjamin Bergen are two such books—that get into the power of swearing to help us tolerate pain, create social trust and more. The historical evolution of cussing across cultures is fascinating. Just ask Nicolas Cage.

Illustration by BloodBros.

Most of us have encountered the golfer who can use the f-word as a noun, verb, gerund, adjective and adverb in one sentence without a reference to copulation. Swear words are plastic, and so their shock is a complex equation of not only what is said, but how, where, by whom and who hears it. Know thy audience. I have said no shortage of gross things in my life, but I cringe to think of times I have summoned the Lord’s name, even if just to grant Him a middle initial, in the presence of a devout golf partner. I have called myself the r-word around a golfer who has a family member with special needs, and for that I’m ashamed.

About as bad as it gets (though it can always be worse) was Justin Thomas at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. Broadcast to millions before being scrubbed from the Internet, it was not a bundle of sticks that cost him a clothing endorsement. References to sex and body functions are one thing, but there’s a line that’s crossed when swears become slurs, regardless of intent.

Greg Fitzgerald, the head pro at The Institute in San Francisco, who is 46 and gay, was in Palm Springs, Calif., that weekend helping run a tournament called the Rainbow Rumble. Drawing golfers age 18 to 80 across the spectrum of LGBTQ, this joyous event took a turn at Thomas’ hot mic.

“About half the people were angry; about half saw this as a positive learning opportunity for the world because Justin Thomas is a good person,” says Fitzgerald, who knows this because he met Thomas in his rookie year. “That that word can still be in his vocabulary shows our society is in a transitional period. We’re evolving. There’s a new kind of straight man who’s competitive, macho, but also educated and watches his words.”

It’s only in recent years that Fitzgerald has been fully out and relieved of the tortuous stress of a double life. Since boyhood, he has found in golf a peace like we all seek. “When we’re playing, most of us are so into our own s___,” Fitzgerald says. “People just need to be aware that what they say could ruin someone else’s game, ruin their time.”

As much as this game drives me nucking futs, this year I vow to be more mindful about my swearing.