Opinion: Thinking of the Function of Golf Criticism at the Present Time

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Recently, I came across some rather interesting lines of golf commentary, which may or may not be direct attacks on BTC. Even if they aren’t explicitly directed at us (though they seem to be, since there are not many Canadian-focused golf websites), they nevertheless condemn much of what we have stood for and have attempted to impart since Drew and I relaunched his site a little over a year ago now. As a result, I feel directly compelled to address these comments. 

After-all, academia and the field of philosophy (especially the French climate of the mid-twentieth century), to offer just a few examples, have been built upon such backs and forths, gives and takes, between different thinkers and schools, sometimes polite and cordial, other times vitriolic and nasty. Perhaps my favorite of these pieces is Matthew Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”, a response to some dismissive comments made by William Wordsworth, the most prominent literary figure of the era, in regards to the worthiness of criticism, especially when compared to original creation (even though Wordsworth, himself, produced a large body of both). Though I am not a Victorianist by trade, nor a massive fan of the majority of the work its writers produced, Arnold is a rare figure from the period whose work I truly admire and enjoy. The editors of Norton Anthology of Victorian Literature claim that “in response to rapid and potentially dislocating social changes, Arnold strove to help his contemporaries achieve a richer intellectual and emotional existence,” and that he conceived criticism “as a potent force in producing what he conceived as a civilized society.”

Namely, on a course tour for one of Canada’s most known and historic venues, this site essentially accuses anyone who lists their criticisms of this hallowed golf course to have too much time on their hands, to be opposed to fun, and, in turn, that they should be shunted and exiled from whichever group they find themselves playing or drinking in, for after a while they will simply shut up. 

I’ll also set aside the fact that the article reads dismissive, even openly hostile, towards anyone who cares deeply about the whys, whens, and hows of golf architecture and history.

But before I begin perhaps it’s best to bring up Mordecai Richler’s famous dictum that, to paraphrase, “there’s no point writing anything if it isn’t going to piss a few people off,” which this piece might do. Or, as David Foster Wallace surmised, “that literature should disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed.” And this is very much how Drew and I first met and bonded: as much over our joint obsessions regarding the provincial peculiarities and curiosities of Canadian golf, as our frustrations concerning the decades and decades of architectural malpractices we’d witnessed happening all across the country, combined with the widespread silence and the blind eyes that, in most cases, had been turned towards them. 

In truth, returning the claims that had made my blood boil, this dismissal of the critic has been the exact opposite reaction I have encountered on most occasions when I have brought forth mine regarding a golf course, whether that be a nationally known one or a local one. A well-calculated and thought-out bit of criticism usually makes people stand and listen. And, speaking to a few of our readers since we began, it is also the exact thing that people tend to enjoy most about our website: namely, that unlike pretty much every other website dedicated to golf, we are not afraid to list our criticisms, or to disagree with something we have read elsewhere. We don’t merely waive pompoms, provide our nihil obstat to every combination of tee boxes, fairways, and greens we come across.  

If others want to do that, that’s fine – there’s plenty of broadband available on the internet, ample ink. Of late, I’ve seen a few other platforms claim that every golf course has something to celebrate, or features to cherish – and I tend to agree. But although one may like a hole, or three, or a green, or a certain feature, or a stretch, that doesn’t mean the entire product, when taken as whole, isn’t substandard, or perfectly standard, or well below the standard it should have been, which has so often been the case in Canada. In fact, even the most god-awful golf course will still usually have one or two good holes among its eighteen.

However, I don’t think that such single-minded cheerleading necessarily helps forward the Canadian golf scene, a golf scene that still, unfortunately and unequivocally, lags behind the United States’, the U.K.’s, France’s, and Australia’s, among others. 

You can sit back and blindly cheer – but, in my estimation, that’s not helping anything. And we need the help, despite the brighter days to come. Thankfully, there are a host of exciting projects by young, engaged, and historically sensitive firms on the horizon, something that Drew will delve into further in an upcoming piece.  Yet there’s still a ton of work to do, mysteries to uncover, wrongs to right. 

Returning to the very first piece I wrote for this site, I referenced Northrop Frye’s (very much Canada’s greatest social critic and intellectual in my view) famous claims that “historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the revolution”, and that “there is in Canada, too, a traditional opposition to the two defects to which a revolutionary tradition is liable: a contempt for history, and impatience with the law.” I stated that such a fear of revolution, an inborn conservatism inherent to the Canadian mindset, has harmed the evolution of golf architecture in this country – strangely, it seems as if the conservatism that has prevailed at most historical clubs in Canada isn’t for its actual roots, but rather what their elder members (who are usually those in positions of power now) grew up playing and the vogues of their younger periods (i.e. the dark-ages). The weird fetishes for trees and for architecture that supposedly provides a fair but strenuous challenge, hard pars and easy bogeys. Aside from Toronto Golf Club (and even then, some critic may deride the work done by Martin Hawtree) and Laval-Sur-Le-Lac’s Blue Course, I would argue that there has not yet been a restoration in Canada that has come close to accomplishing what has been done at countless historical venues in United States, whether that be at Oakmont, Old Town Club, Pinehurst #2, etc. Canadian renovative and restorative works have been, by and large, half-hearted jobs, plagued by a lack of ambition, of commitment. 

Lorne Rubenstein, in a recent piece detailing his experience in Florida, wondered why golf architecture couldn’t have genuine critics, like music, movies, books, etc, do. And it is a valid question. I have a few answers as to why we haven’t yet – the general sensitivity of the golf sphere (in other words: the fear of losing the access that the practice of golf journalism inherently necessitates) and monetary interests being foremost among them. These reasons are very much what Matthew Arnold diagnosed as harming English criticism of the 19th century: “for what is at present the bane of criticism in this country,” he asks, “it is that practical considerations cling to it and stifle it. It subserves interests not its own. Our organs of criticism are organs of men and parties having practical ends to serve, and with them those practical ends are the first thing and the play of the mind the second.”  

I understand both reasons I previously gave, especially the latter; speaking from a personal stand-point, as we’ve begun to partner with a few firms and brands, sometimes I find myself hesitant to include the more poignant bits and sharp quips I did when I began writing for the site, when stakes were relatively low since I knew next to no one in the golf sphere and, in turn, no one in the golf sphere had heard of me (not that that many have heard of me since, but I digress). Moreover, to write thoughtfully on the subject of golf architecture, to offer one’s genuine criticisms and analyses of it, is quite difficult to do. After all, as I once stated to a friend, if you’ve read Robert Hunter’s The Links you’ve pretty much read every golf book on architecture ever written, before and since. The crux of the issue, when you really get down to the grist of the mill, is that there are only so many ways to describe a hole, its strategies, etc. So, instead, most revert to story-telling, using architecture and history as a vehicle, because every person and place ultimately has one; or otherwise, and most annoyingly to me, writers revert to the thesaurus (or to google) to find as many fluffy, flowery, imprecise, and often antiquated terms to try to make their writing sound different. The kind of writing that uses “utilize” rather than “uses”, or “automobile” instead of “car” – the kind of writing that Hemingway was mocking a hundred years ago now and which probably has him rolling in his grave. 

Ultimately, the very best essays fall somewhere between universally accepted dictums (i.e. a thesis such as “we should end world hunger”) and an Alex Jones-esque hot take. Arnold states that the goal of criticism should be “to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.” Yet, to create this new current of true and fresh ideas, the old current must be overwhelmed, long-standing views and outlooks reprogrammed, a process that isn’t always easy and painless. Here I am picturing Alex Delarge undergoing the ludovico technique in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, surrounded by white-jacketed scientists, his eyes pried open, his head unable to turn away from what he is being forced to watch on the screen. “It is the business of critical power,” Arnold emphasizes, “in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself as it really is.” And, in turn, he proceeds, such criticism “tends to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas prevail.” 

And, as we’ve grown as a site, that is precisely what we’ve tried to do: to see and report on Canadian golf in itself as it really is, which is not how it should be, a harsh truth. Ultimately, we don’t do it because we enjoy having to or get a kick out of criticizing someone’s work (frankly, I wish it was all well and dandy but alas), but because we dearly love Canadian golf, its history, its actors, and we want it to be cared for in the way it deserves. We want it to get to where it should be, to not be a backwater anymore. And the only way to do so, I believe, is to risk ruffling a few feathers, saying some things that may not be fun and jolly. The significant momentum our site has gained, if you allow me to brag for a second, seems to hint that the very opposite of what the offended site that inspired this piece claimed is, in fact, true.


1 thought on “Opinion: Thinking of the Function of Golf Criticism at the Present Time

  1. As a regular reader of your website, if you truly believe in what you are doing (which I think you should), I would you suggest you just ignore this type of criticism. You can’t control what others might say (and who knows what their motivations might be), you can only control how you react to it. By responding, you are just giving your critics a platform.

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