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The Masters

“Golf ,” Bill Pennington recently announced to New York Times readers, “is a game of order with a 140-page rule book that is a vast compendium of what the golfer is not permitted to do.” He says this in the context of the Masters, played at Augusta National Golf Club, a basilica of prohibition so restrictive that, Pennington says, “it is a wonder the place was not named the Country Club of No.”

I have here an email from these Chinese eunuchs, via mural painted in the mid 1400’s. They’d like to have a conversation about vast compendiums and what people are permitted to do without them. The depicted eunuchs are advising Emperor Zhu Zhanji as he plays Chuiwan, an early form of golf. This emperor is a smart one: Golf is a culture of denial, and he’ll learn far more about that from a eunuch than his frat bros.

Denial does not sit well with Americans, who hate being told what to do so much we formed our own country over it. Therein lies the mystique of Augusta, with its intriguing roll call of thou-shalt-nots. (Food. Cell phones. Backwards hats. All prohibited.) Any place that refuses Bill Gates as a member simply because he announced he’d like to be one slows our steps as we walk past its padlocked door. It’s a dignified train wreck of antiquation, Augusta, and so we pause to study it.  Like a woman on the subway wearing a giant flowered hat and hoop skirt, you can’t not stare at the Masters.

A culture of denial knows no rank. Mary, Queen of Scots played a few days after her husband was strangled in 1568, a social eyebrow-raiser thought to implicate her in the crime. As a result of the murder charges brought against her, she was stripped first of her freedom, then her clubs.  

We now expect our leaders to voluntarily deny themselves golf in a time of crisis, even if a strangulation charge isn’t involved. While golf has been the distinct mark of the Oval Office since the Taft administration, we now live in an era in which not-golfing is considered proper Presidenting. George W. “Watch This Drive” Bush was hammered during the Iraq War for showing up on the links; so was President Obama during an Ebola outbreak. Both quietly put their putters away.

But here’s what’s most striking about a culture of denial: One of the reasons we stare at it is we’re expecting it to crack. Tiger Woods, thought a bastion of restraint, became a one-man parable the second he was outed as a serial adulterer. The king of the sport of denial, as it happened, denied himself not.

And so once again the athletic world turns its attention to this anachronistic Castle of Forswearing All Non-Dignified Pleasures, barricaded by its pristine moat of no-coolers, no-strollers, no-radios. We don’t like to be told “no,” but rather than throwing a tantrum, we scalp passes on eBay.

The Emperor would have approved.

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