CultureJune 15, 2017

Here's where Malcolm Gladwell misses the mark with his take on golf

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
CBS Photo ArchiveNEW YORK - AUGUST 4: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airing live, Wednesday August 4, 2016 in New York. With guest Malcolm Gladwell. (Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

Malcolm Gladwell is one of modern culture's most enlightening thinkers. The author of bestsellers "The Tipping Point," "Blink" and "Outliers" brought his eccentric storytelling to the podcast realm last year with the critically-acclaimed Revisionist History series, which, as his website puts it, aspires to "Reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood." Back for Season 2, Gladwell's episodes deals with golf. Or more aptly, his hatred of it.

Teased as Gladwell's take on "crack cocaine for rich white guys," our interest was piqued. While we love the sport, those of us who work in golf are not blind to the game's problems, both longstanding and lingering on the horizon. Surely someone as smart and as engaging as Gladwell would help frame these issues in a new light. But when it comes to his qualms with golf, Gladwell seems to miss the mark.

Robert A Tobiansky

Let's start with his first premise. In Gladwell's estimation, there are too many private golf courses, land which could better serve the population as a public park. He stands outside some of Los Angeles' exclusive clubs, pointing to their fences and bemoaning the fact that this precious parkland is kept from the people. But is this an argument against golf or private property in general? Couldn't one make the same argument against beachfront homes, or condominiums built on a hill? More pressing is that Gladwell fails to mention that these private clubs are the exception rather than the rule, since 75 percent of American golf courses are public facilities.

Gladwell proceeds to discuss CEOs who play golf, using a grad student's work on the leaders from the top 1,500 public businesses who play. The study finds that a quarter of these individuals have a GHIN handicap, averaging 15 rounds per year -- or a little more than one round a month. The assessment identifies that the top 10 percent of this quarter -- 36 CEOs from 1,500 -- average 37 rounds a year. The grad student correlates this to struggling business, stating the difficulties of running a successful operation while infatuated with a time-consuming recreation.

But really this is more a quarrel with flawed time management than golf as some sort of mind-clouding pursuit. Do golf obsessions interfere with more important responsibilities? Sure. But the majority of golfers struggle to fit their passion for the game into a hectic schedule. In other words, it's the rare golfer who has the time or the resources to pursue the game as an obsession.

Al Seib

Furthermore, golf is hardly an idle pursuit. Scientists have found that the sport can improve your cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic health, increasing life expectancy by five years. Researchers have also discovered there are mental benefits, as golf can reduce reduce the risk of anxiety, depression and dementia, while helping a person's wellness, self-esteem, and self-worth.

Additionally, is 20-to-30 rounds a year that unforgivable? It's a comparable time allotment to other entertainments or endeavors, and like taking a client out to a sporting event or show, the golf course is often used to facilitate business.

Yet, we still were preparing for Gladwell to solidify his stance against golf. Instead, in his final argument he goes down a rabbit hole on property taxes.

Gladwell takes umbrage with California exemptions that allows golf courses to pay a small percentage rather than a variable tax like other properties. To Gladwell, golf courses are getting a free pass from paying their social dues, bemoaning the money that state and city governments are missing out.

Similar to his objection on golf-infatuated CEOs, Gladwell's outrage is fixated on the wrong entity. For the game is far from alone in receiving peculiar government regulations. Baseball's antitrust exemption is one of the most criticized doctrines in our nation's legal structure, and the stadium deals brokered between professional sports teams and their local governments continue to be a taxpayer burden. This is not to defend these policies, but let's just say golf has plenty of company when it comes to flaws with the tax code.

Mike Coppola

Moreover, Gladwell fails to paint the complete picture of golf's relationship to government. As Mike Stachura illustrated in his piece on golf's challenges in Washington, there are a host of federal regulations that hamper the sport from receiving desperately needed funding due to mischaracterization and ill-matched legislative language. Restrictions that dwarfs Gladwell's perceived undue benefits.

And it's not as if golf doesn't do its share to give back. According to the We Are Golf lobbying coalition, golf as a fundraising vehicle has raised nearly $20 billion for charity; annually, the game helps generate $3.9 billion for philanthropic causes, almost all of which are unrelated to the golf industry.

This is not to totally dismiss the issues brought forth, but they're inconsequential compared to the sport's more pressing matters. Skyrocketing fiscal investment, time constraints, it's dicy past with exclusivity, environmental conservation...these are the concerns at the forefront of golf's present and future. Gladwell's qualms are merely simplistic drops in the bucket.


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