Not Your Dad's Golf (But Maybe Your Great-Grandpa's)

What does Walter Hagen have in common with a group of novices, swinging golf clubs through downtown Portland? More than you might think.

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The Portland Urban Golf Club.     Photo: Scott Mazariegos

"Urban golf is totally inclusive, which is weird, because this is still golf we're talking about."

It's an overcast Saturday afternoon in Portland. A man in his late 20s with or without a beard rides his fixed-gear bike down the street, a pant leg rolled up so as not to get caught in the spokes—and then OUCH. A tennis ball hits him right in the spine. He looks back, and there's a group of people dressed in some over-the-top argyle outfits cheering and holding their golf clubs in the air. 

It's just another Saturday in Portland—and someone saved a stroke by nailing the biker.

The Portland Urban Golf Club was formed by Scott Mazariegos back in 2005. An interaction designer with Adidas by day, Mazariegos was bored with his standard rec-league kickball team when he came up with the idea of mapping out a golf course in the streets of an industrial district in Portland. (Urban golf traces its roots back to early-90’s Germany. Mazariegos stressed that he didn’t invent the sport.) Lampposts, couches, and anything else they can find are used as holes, and tennis balls replace golf balls because, again, this is a golf course, literally, in the middle of a major American city.

The group started back in 2005 with around 20 or so members, and now a regular round—18 holes, usually starting around 3 p.m. on a Saturday; they used to start at noon, but, as Mazariegos said, “It turned out to be a very long day of drinking”—brings out anywhere from 40 to 150 members depending on the occasion.

Cops showed up that first day because, you know, there were people playing golf in the streets of downtown Portland, but after seeing that the golfers were playing with tennis balls, the officers let them be. A few of them even wanted to join in, according to Mazariegos.

“There are holes that are your standard, down-the-road, dog leg to the left, dog leg to the right,” Mazariegos said, as if anything at all about this is standard. “A hole can be anywhere from a block to five blocks, depending on what and where we’re playing.” Some holes are trickier, involving overpasses and barbed-wire fences. Currently, the Portland Urban Golf Club has 22 designed, mapped-out courses, with four more in the works.

There is no par, and most people don’t keep score. When the group first started, the vast majority of the golfers had never played golf—or any other sport—before, so they gave out trophies to whoever had the highest score. “There’d be these people who’d never even gotten off the couch,” Mazariegos said, “and they’d get a trophy at the end of the day.”

The group stops at a bar every three holes and then moves on to the next trio of alleyways and chain-link fences. Some take it seriously—bets get placed, beers get bought—and others don't really care about anything other than just being there and being a part of it all. You get to deduct a stroke for every public transportation vehicle hit, every bike rider clocked, and every time your ball gets run over by a car. Seriously.

“The interesting thing about urban golf,” Mazariegos said, “is that you can go out and play, and you can be sitting next to a mechanic, who might be sitting next to a lawyer, who might be sitting next to some office person. It’s this crazy range of people, this social group coming together for three hours.”

Urban golf is totally inclusive, which is weird, because this is still golf we're talking about.

GOLF ISN’T JUST A game for investment bankers and country-club members, guys with names like Brandel and Brandt. It started off as a game where not-rich guys hustled each other, hacking chipped and scuffed balls down ragged fairways, drinking and smoking their way through each round, piecing enough money together to make a living or supplementing whatever else they made from their day jobs. It was easy enough to play. All you really need for a round of golf is some open space, a club, and a ball.

“Golf is a sport you can play when you’re five years old and when you’re 95 years old,” said Richard Moss, author of Golf and the American Country Club. “You can play if you’re a woman; you can play if you’re a man. Men and women can play together. The handicap system allows everybody to compete together. These are profoundly democratic, inclusionary features of the game of golf.”

Democratic to its core, golf—the way it’s typically played—hasn’t changed, but somewhere along the way, the image of the game started to warp, the velvet rope was latched onto the stand, and high-level golf became the country-club-looking game it is today.

“Its exclusionary image—the country club—was a good idea economically, and it’s about the only way golf could be pursued, except for municipal courses,” Moss said. “But once golf got associated with country clubs, membership requirements, no Jews allowed and all that, it took over from the inherent democratic nature of the game.”

“Only 10 percent of the rounds in America today,” said George Kirsch, history professor at Manhattan College and author of Golf in America, “are actually played on private country club courses.” Except, when the average person tunes in to a Sunday round of a major tournament, he or she sees greens that must’ve been cut by men on their knees with tiny scissors and hears the hushed tones of announcers who sound like they’re in church. Everyone’s wearing polo shirts and pleated slacks. The atmosphere’s anything but welcoming—and it’s the one constantly projected out to the public.

While, as of 2010, there were 11,500 municipal golf courses in the U.S. and there are over 2.5 million kids, ages 7-18, in the PGA’s First Tee Program, if anything, the highest level of the sport has been progressively country-club-ified, becoming even more of an exclusive guild. “It’s much more difficult to make it today,” Kirsch said. “If not through the country clubs, you have to be sponsored. Even Tiger Woods had it. You have to be privileged to some extent.”

While it's maybe an over-generalization to say this, the fact that the golf world's most-prestigious course still doesn't allow female members tells you everything you need to know about the current state of the sport. The image of the golf world has no doubt helped to create a situation where, most of the time, if Tiger Woods isn’t lurking near the top of the leader board, the sport might as well not even exist for 95 percent of the country.

IS A GUY IN a Santa suit whacking tennis balls down the streets of downtown Portland with rusty a four-iron going to fix all of that? Absolutely not. But it sure is a welcome breath of fresh, smog-ified city air. At the most basic level, we play sports because they’re fun. They’re games after all, but it’s maybe not so easy to see a sport that requires collared shirts and can cost hundreds of dollars per round as objectively fun. And the exclusive culture that has coalesced around golf makes that imaginary fence even harder to see through.

Urban golf is a game that’s built around stops at a bar every quarter-dozen holes and involves hitting buses with tennis balls. It’s not easy, not by any means, but it’s also not a place for any kind of athletic transcendence that’ll make you question human physical capability or whether or not, in fact, you just saw a man defy four different laws of physics. In a lot of ways, though, it is hearkening back to the pioneers of the game that produced Tiger Woods, a man who has defied every scientific law—and some others—multiple times.

“When people play urban golf, they’re really being true to the tradition of the game,” Moss said. “This has really been relatively common. People have invented their own little golf courses and played by their own little rules and just had a hell of a lot of fun.”

Again, everyone can play golf—whether it’s at a country club, in the streets of Portland, or on a college campus with a Frisbee. You can’t play soccer with your grandma, but you can play a round of golf with her. You wouldn’t know it, though, if you just watched the four majors every year and read about the $350 greens fees at the TPC Sawgrass, a public golf course. So maybe the golf world can take a look at what’s going on in Portland and remember how the sport got its start, remember what actually makes golf something worth pursuing.

“You might not be playing with $1,000 worth of graphite shafts and five-layer golf balls on a fancy golf course, but you are playing golf,” Moss said. “It’s the simplest game in the world. You go from one site to another site and you count the strokes.”

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