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Tech versus tradition – ‘Golf’s Holy War’

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Few institutions are as reverent of their own history as sport. And few sports achieve the level of self-reverence of golf, thanks to the game’s lengthy history and cultural reputation. Tradition is important, whether we’re talking about the larger picture or the specifics of the game itself.

And yet, technological evolution is inevitable. If there is an element of competition involved, there will always be those seeking ways in which to give themselves an advantage. There will always be someone pushing the envelope in ways that clash with the conventional wisdom.

That clash is at the center of “Golf’s Holy War: The Battle for the Soul of a Game in an Age of Science” (Avid Reader Press, $28) by Brett Cyrgalis. It’s a look at the rapidly diverging worlds of golf instruction, one rooted firmly in the ways of the past and one seeking out the bleeding edge, one that explores the perceived pros and cons of both approaches while also spending considerable time with those who would espouse a particular school of thought.

It’s a book about golf, yes, but one that also seeks to be about more than golf, using the sport as a way into a discussion about our relationship with technology writ large and what that means not just for the future, but for our engagement with the past.

On one side, we have the old school coaches, the sage dispensers of hard-earned wisdom regard the power of one’s mentality in improving their swing. On the other, we have the new tech-driven consortium, the people who believe that the key to success is embracing as much data as possible. Cyrgalis uses a pair of long-ago books as proxies in this conversation – for the feelers, 1972’s “Gold in the Kingdom”; for the thinkers, 1969’s “The Golfing Machine.” These books stand in as representative of the almost diametrically opposing ideologies.

From there, we’re down the rabbit hole, following two very different paths that are ostensibly leading to the same place. Two journeys with one seemingly simple, yet staggeringly difficult goal – teaching the perfect golf swing.

We get a look at some of the high-tech facilities that have sprung up on the hard data side, opened and maintained in cooperation with equipment manufacturers, all of whom recognize that improving a player’s on-course performance can and often does directly correlate with spending off the course. Outfits like Titleist and TaylorMade invest in analytic tech across a broad spectrum, all of it with the singular intention to sell more golf balls or golf clubs. But while these innovations may be the product of corporate profit pursuit, they’re no less impactful or insightful for the nature of their origins.

We also spend time with some of the old guard players and coaches who view the game through a much more spiritual lens. These are the men that are devoted to and bound by the game’s generational traditions; for instance, Cyrgalis spends a lot of time on Ben Hogan, delving into his belief systems and routines and tracing the lineage of that “learn by feel” attitude up through the years.

In “Golf’s Holy War,” swing coaches, each of whom arrived at their current vocation via a different route, are often at center stage. Some viewed the game as a Zen koan to be contemplated, others as a math and physics problem to be solved. But all of them seek to instill in their students that ideal swing, the one that flies predictably and true.

But at the book’s center, whether we’re talking about little-known figures tucked away on the fringes or the biggest players in the world, is the notion of past versus future. It’s golf-specific, sure, but the truth is that the conflict between the functionality of how things have been done before and the potentiality of how they might be done going forward exists … everywhere.

Cyrgalis is meticulous with his insight, offering up the two sides of the coin with nary a preference for heads or tails. He approaches the game and its practitioners with a reverent curiosity; his genuine desire for understanding colors everything. And he makes his stories compelling – the book is not only well-reported, but well-written. They say golf is a good walk spoiled, but this book is good enough to be unspoilable.

“Golf’s Holy War” isn’t for everybody, of course. This is a niche book, aimed at those with an enthusiasm for and interest in the sport of golf. However, if this book is for you, then it is really FOR YOU. Anyone who wonders about the best path to golf excellence and the people devoted to leading you down it should take a swing at this one.

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 May 2020 08:05

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