Rabbi Gellman: The Spiritual Significance of Turf Grass

Please let me teach you the spiritual significance of poa grass. Agronomists call it Poa annua L. Golfers have more profane names for poa when its afternoon bumpiness causes a putt in the heart of the hole to dance off like Tinker Bell evading Captain Hook.
 
Fancy golf courses have declared all-out war on this hardy annual bluegrass, despite the fact that it loves heat, happily endures drought, makes beetles and grubs nauseated and gladly takes over bare spots where no other grass will grow. In every way, poa is the perfect golf course grass except one. Poa is not pretty. Unlike the luxuriant and carpet-like deep green of bent grass in the North and unlike the aqua green of Bermuda grass in the South, poa looks crappy. It looks desiccated and dead until summer has fully arrived. When it finally does green up, poa is splotchy and often bumpy in the afternoon. Those other grasses look like somebody painted the land perfectly green. Poa looks like somebody cut down a meadow and then went to lunch.
 
The fanatic attempt to control poa, like the attempt to change the course of a great river, is doomed to failure. Poa is far too hardy and the other grasses far too feeble, and yet every year, elite private golf clubs pour tons of chemicals over this hardy fescue in an obsessive and ecologically corrosive campaign that resembles Bill Murray's military pursuit of the gopher in the supreme golf movie, "Caddyshack."  
 
The U.S. Open was just completed at Torrey Pines North in San Diego. As in 2002, next year it will be contested at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y. These are public courses, and they are covered in poa grass (Torrey has another wild grass called kikuyu that is equally wild and diabolical). Rees Jones, a brilliant golf architect and lover of poa who volunteered his services to get both courses ready for Open play, did not do a thing to change the grass in either place. He wanted the most refined golfers in the world to be tested by the least refined grass.   
 
Today's professional golfers, and by extension private club golfers, have become spoiled by modern turf science. They believe it is their inalienable right to have a perfect lie everywhere their balls come to rest on a golf course. This fantasy entitlement has no place in golf. When the Scots invented the game, and until the triple-cut mower was invented and hybridized grasses were created, golf was played on real meadows where the real cows and their real excrement were both real hazards. John Updike, my favorite golf rat litterateur, has written longingly for those days when golf resembled hiking more than riding and drinking, and when golf courses resembled the earth more than some animated picture of the earth. Now, I am not arguing for a return of cow pies to the fairways, but I was actually thrilled to see that when Tiger Woods had to make his putt for birdie to force a playoff, the bumpy poa grass was a big factor adding to his difficulty. He said it was "like playing Plinko." Actually, it was like the way it used to be to play golf.
 
Golfers who play public courses are not turf snobs. They are happy to have any place to play the game they love and gladly endure unraked sand traps, weeds in the fairway and poa, poa, everywhere. It is not at all a coincidence that the two golfers left at the end of this year's Open had grown up not in tony, perfectly maintained private clubs, but on the public courses near their homes. Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate are poa people, and that is why they were there at the end.
 
Poa is the grass of the people, grown on the golf courses of the people. Now, even public golf is not cheap. The USGA has a program called First Tee to help all kids get into golf, and Tiger has changed things. He does not look like the white country-club kids, and his ripped body definitely does not look like the lumpy pros of old. However, this game I love is sadly still out of reach to many poor kids. I could ride my bike in Milwaukee to many fine public golf courses, but most places today just don't have the land or willpower to support taking a few hundred acres of land off the tax rolls and then spending millions for a golf course. I understand why many of you are not feeling my pain here, but I love real golf played in publicly accessible places. I believe golf teaches important values, like how to kick a ball out from under a bush and then say with convincing surprise, "Oh, here it is!" What place other than a golf course can parents send their kids where they are walking in the fresh air for several hours and never once zapping an alien? Public golf is special to me, and this is why the U.S. Opens at Bethpage and Torrey Pines were so special to me. In more than a century of U.S. Opens, they are the first two truly public golf courses to ever host the open championship of American golf. OK, Pebble Beach is public if your definition of the public includes folks with a spare $495 (not including golf cart) to lay down for a single round of golf.
 
So please forgive me if I look beyond the high drama and suspense of this last Open and choose as my hero not Tiger Woods, who freely admitted that, because he essentially won it on one leg, this was his greatest victory. Forgive me if I also look beyond Tiger's dogged competitor, Rocco Mediate, who showed that a 45-year-old guy ranked 156th in the world could at least still tug on Superman's cape. Forgive me if I look beyond David Fay, the brilliant director of the USGA, who had the stones to sell Bethpage and Torrey as unproven sites for the Open to the "swells" on the USGA board and thus produced the two most successful Opens of all time. No, my hero is the grass, that damned poa grass that taught the great spiritual lesson of this great competition and of the lives we lead between rounds: Nothing is perfect.
 
You can learn this life lesson in many ways. I learned it from the grass.

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