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Golf -- our new national pastime?


Beverly Farms, Mass. -- BASEBALL IS in the doghouse this summer, and golf basks in the limelight, at least for this past weekend.

Golf is so popular, we read, that on Long Island, west of the privileged and precious old links of Shinnecock Hills, players arise at three in the morning to get in line for a round at one of the Bethpage State Park public courses.

At the same once-ungodly hour, other addicts are finishing up a round at the new, illuminated nine-hole, 17-acre layout, in the town of Deer Park, called Heartland Golf Park.

The question arises, is golf stealing our national heart away from gritty, greed-sullied baseball?

On television, with the Ladies Professional Golf Association and the Seniors getting tube time along with the regular tour pros, golf is hard to escape on a weekend. Viewers, players, equipment sales, advertising revenue -- the numbers are all up.

In baseball, though some franchises are still whistling a brave tune, the main ascending curves trace fan indifference and the time it takes to play a game. All those changes of pitcher and fussy squints in for the catcher's sign -- the whole game seems so narcissistic, so obsessive-compulsive.

I confess that I, in my New England fastness, have not once this season sat down to watch nine innings, though the Boston Red Sox are, curiously, leading their division.

Whereas golf each weekend exerts its magnetic pull, especially as Sunday shadows lengthen and the leaders, between commercials for Maxfli golf balls and Callaway clubs, line up their $40,000 putts.

Who would have thought, back in the black-and-white days, that tournament golf would televise so well? Golf is certainly the worst spectator sport in the world. You are never in the right spot and if you are, you can't see over the intervening heads.

But television vaults over the crowds and puts us in the right spot again and again, with a flickering sequence of drives and irons and putts that form a single field of action -- a kind of Shakespearean weave of scenes as opposed to baseball's (or soccer's or football's) fixed proscenium stage.

The inaction problem, so conspicuous in baseball telecasts, is solved by shifting to another group, another green.

And golf is so pretty, with its sculpted scenery and nonviolent, nonuniformed participants swinging and tapping along their spectator-lined paths, to the drawled music of commentary in Southern or British voices.

And the PGA players are such gentlemen, so assiduous in their courtesies to each other's putting lines, so gracious in defeat and modest in victory, shaking their opponent's hand in one motion and in the next sweeping their wives and children into their arms while the camera's eye fights back a tear.

Tired of sex, violence and the savage media assault on family values? Watch televised golf for glimpses of Republican heaven.

Still, bulldozers don't turn that baseball stadium into another pitch-and-putt course quite yet. There's room for both these meadow-based sports in our national hearts.

And in our national terrain there's more room for baseball than for golf. For every child with easy access to a golf course, there must be a hundred who can join a baseball game on some weedy lot or other.

Both sports hark back to an America of open space, but baseball was the working man's idyll and golf the domain of the well-off and their caddies. There are evidently enough well-off Americans on Long Island to make public golf a nightmare of crowding and sleeplessness, while the 68 private clubs are as full up as rush-hour buses.

Golf is locked into certain financial and topographical limits. To many among its growing television audience, it must be a purely electronic game. Those polite young pros in pastel slacks are out of this world, in a shaved green corporate-sponsored Oz.

Baseball, with its team interdependence and intimidation factor and latent violence, its razzing and chatter and slides in the dirt, presents a pattern of the life most of us live.

John Updike is author, most recently, of "The Afterlife and Other Stories."

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