Four-Letter Fouls

Forgive the golfers: Sometimes, you've just got to swear


Michael Reaves

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The thing about a swear word is that it's actually the most neutral possible way to express your frustration verbally. Words have power, and there should be at least a self-imposed limit on what a decent person says even in his or her worst moments, but let's take the f-bomb. That word, when shouted out loud in frustration, doesn't target any single human or any group in a specific way. It's not a call to violence; it's not racism. It's just a combination of four letters that English-speaking society has decided, over time, is a deeper, more profound, and more pissed off way to express that sometimes life is stupidly aggravating and we're over it. It's like shouting "I curse thee, bitter world, and lo do I also curse mine own self!", but with way more brevity and bite.

This week at the PGA Championship, we've got ourselves a swear-fest. Rahm's doing it, Rory's doing it, Hatton's doing it, and even Spieth, normally a wholesome "oh, Jordan" kind of guy, got caught tossing out an f-bomb. It goes without saying that the more you're on TV, the better chance you have of getting caught, so if these guys are letting loose, you can bet that on a bear of a course like Oak Hill the overwhelming majority of the field has spat out a curse at some point. If the f-word was a brand, it would be having a tremendous week for pure exposure. It would be sold out in the swear store.

It's important to recognize that the f-word or any of its diluted cousins only have the power we give them. They represent something, but are not the thing itself. But because they represent that shadow-world somewhat powerfully, I'm fine with anyone who adopts a no-swearing policy; if you think it's too crass, I can't argue with you, because those words have come to be associated with a certain degraded sense of morality. But uttering them is not the same as mistreating another human, or double-dealing, or hypocrisy, or any mortal or even venal sins. In other words, if you're allowed to judge someone for swearing, it's only fair to let yourself be judged right back for the value you're assigning this particular indiscretion. Nobody's wrong; it's all in the game.

What I can say from personal experience is that one particular word, the old f-bomb, has taken on such roguish gravitas that using it in moments of anger on the golf course has become a sweet catharsis. Hit a bad shot? Saying "dang" doesn't quite cut it. You wouldn't give a starving man a single Dorito, and allowing me an impotent "gosh darnit" will only whet the fury. For a certain kind of rage-head, moaning out an "oh golly" is no cure, but a gateway drug to parking your cart in a greenside bunker and assaulting the flagstick with your least favorite wedge. Why should a professional golfer, playing for actual money and in possession of actual talent, be any different? If anything, they should be worse. I'd even argue that a quick five-second string of f-words and a few spicy variations, on rhythm, serves as a release valve that prevents worse action, like, say, snapping a club or hurling your caddie into a pond or maiming a photographer.

The truth is, the circles I frequent don't include many people who have a real problem with swearing. I run with a crowd of low vulgarians, talented cursers always make me laugh, and on this front I'm probably close to an anarchist. I have two daughters, and while I will arbitrarily and hypocritically punish their swearing before age 14-ish due to ingrained societal norms, and will insist even after that they keep it clean in certain contexts, I really don't care if they eventually join the ranks of the foul-mouthed. All I ask is they do it with style and a certain crude elegance … they can watch "Veep" or "Succession" if they need pointers. But I realize not everybody has these same (absence of) values, and I respect that.

HOWEVER. As pertains to the gentlemen currently being drenched by rain on an unbearably difficult course at a high-pressure major championship, I think even the sticklers should find some forgiveness in their hearts. They're playing for keeps, it's pure misery on the course, and if they screw up, me and all my media vipers will be asking them "what went wrong out there?" from our nice dry press center. We can permit these guys a few obscenities on their march of despair, no?

It's not easy to be a gentleman these days, and you have to admire anyone who can pull it off consistently in the public eye. Nor can I deny that there are people who really value that kind of probity, and I admire it, too. But we're not all built the same way, stress has its demands, and even the most upright among us should now and then extend grace to the graceless. This is one of those moments; let the boys holler, let 'em swear, and chalk it up to our great and human inability to keep it all in perspective. Put it this way: If the f-bomb wasn't necessary, we would never have invented it in the first place.