An evolutionary scientist explains the attraction of golf.
What is the appeal of playing golf? Why do thousands of men and many women turn out at the weekend to spend 4 to 5 hours chasing a small white ball around a 5km track such that golf has the highest participation rate of any sport in the world?
To seek answers, I met with the leading evolutionary scientist Professor Eva Obvious to get her take on the tragic attraction some get from the game of golf.
Professor Obvious explained to me, “Starting 1.8 million years ago in the Palaeolithic era and continuing for 90% of human history, the primary activity for humans has been to secure food sources through hunting and gathering.
“Golf has strong resemblance to the hunting activity that was central to human society for these hundreds of thousands of years. The environmental signals and associated human behaviours necessary for successful hunting have become embedded in our instincts and laid down in the very centre of human DNA.”
She went onto to explain the very slow pace of evolution, “Evolution or changes to DNA takes hundreds of thousands of years to occur and so today we are essentially the same genetically as our Palaeolithic forebearers.”
She explained to me that we tend to think of the big cats or maybe eagles as skillful hunters, but early humans were creative, athletic, precision hunters that used tools and collaborative behavior to get results. In modern society, these highly honed skills are now only put to use in war and sport.
She continued, “The critical things that a hunter in the savannahs of ancient Africa would look for is an open grass area to channel game animals into a narrow strip such they could be surrounded by members of the hunting team and killed. Open grassy tracks with water and sand attracted more animals and were the preferred hunting areas.”
I took it from her comments that the hunting tracks of early humans were very similar to the golf holes of today.
“Yes indeed”, Professor Obvious replied, “but in exaggerated form. Just as we would say a cartoon of a beautiful woman would be an exaggeration of a real woman, so golf holes represent an idealised version of a real world hunting track.”
Human hunters, often in groups of four, started with long spears to weaken the animal, then used clubs for the kill and if needed small flints or knives for the final cut of the meat. “There is a direct analogy to the different equipment carried by the golfer. Note that the equipment is still called ‘a set of clubs’ to this very day,” Professor Obvious added.
In fact, she explained, the most skilled hunter with considerable luck could kill an animal with a single throw of the spear from afar, which is the ancient equivalent of a ‘hole in one’.
Experts calculate that most hunting parties would have sought to bring home 6 animals to their group. For each animal captured, the experts have modeled that a group would, on average, have had to initiate 3 chases. It is no coincidence that this provides for 18 chases needed from a hunting trip which is the exact number of holes on a golf course today.
So, as you stand on your favourite golf tee assessing the open grass stretching ahead of you, in friendly competition with your mates, remember that you are channeling deep-seated instincts stretching back to man’s first steps from the trees to the savannahs. Good hunting!