Writer-pundit Malcolm Gladwell has achieved acclaim for piecing together unusual narratives that question the foundations of modern American society. In the season two premiere of his podcast, “Revisionist History,” he attempts to look at privilege in the sport he believes is “crack cocaine for rich, white guys.” But he fails to do so with his acclaimed thoroughness.
I played the podcast on my way home from the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. I’m just starting to get into golf, and much to Gladwell’s chagrin, I just purchased my first set of clubs.
“I hate golf,” boasts Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and bestselling author whom Time magazine dubbed one of its 100 most influential people. “And hopefully by the end of this podcast, you’ll hate golf, too.”
Gladwell begins a self-serving, near-socialist diatribe by painting a picture of a lush, manicured private Los Angeles golf course enclosed by a chain-link fence. Runners are restricted to a narrow path outside Brentwood Country Club because, apparently, Los Angeles neglects to sustain Californians’ active lifestyles by providing enough parks.
When he stays in his friend’s pool house in L.A., Gladwell also runs outside of Brentwood. Because he doesn’t often see anyone golfing on the course, he believes it would be better turned into a public park where he and others could run. There lies Gladwell’s motivation for hating golf. He literally says he is on a “quest to figure out why Brentwood Country Club isn’t just a big park that I can go running through.” Dues-paying members aren’t using it, so it seems only fair that he should.
If I Want It You Should Be Forced to Give It to Me
Gladwell can’t get away from the idea that he is owed the ability to use someone else’s land. He suggests the solution to the obnoxiousness of golf is to mandate public use of private property. Perhaps on weekends, private courses should be required to offer leisurely Sunday strolls through the park.
He adds that the famous private St. Andrews course in Scotland has a public path for walking and running. If backward, hierarchical Britain can turn its golf courses into parks for the public, why can’t we in egalitarian America mandate that private citizens and clubs provide this same service? Because private property rights are apparently no longer in vogue, Gladwell decides that golf should be hated. He, with his vast city planning wisdom, thinks top-down government requirements would be a more efficient way for him to win some green space for California rather than case-by-case persuasion.
I assume Gladwell also believes that, when he isn’t using his friend’s pool house, the government should redistribute his pal’s wealth by opening his or her home to any homeless person in need of a bed. That only seems fair.
Continuing to use arguments that don’t support his goal, Gladwell claims that California golf club owners used television icon Bob Hope and his love for golf to hoodwink the electorate into preserving low taxes through frozen property value assessments. Paying low taxes doesn’t make someone a villain, and it certainly isn’t enough of a reason to use eminent domain to repurpose a golf course.
What Gladwell forgets, when he interviews a philosopher on taxation, is that lawmakers and voters in California have perpetuated the ability for golf to receive these entrenched benefits. This isn’t golf’s fault, and these narrow cases shouldn’t be to mar the name of the sport nationwide. His issue with California’s tax code has absolutely nothing to do with hating the game of golf.
Let’s Examine Some Extreme Cases
As he assuages his envy for members who can enjoy the luxurious Brentwood Country Club, Gladwell also consults with Lee Biggerstaff, assistant professor of finance at Miami University. When Biggerstaff was a doctoral student, he matched information about some top CEOs from the U.S. Golf Association’s public database with information about how well their businesses were doing. According to his research, for which he wouldn’t give Gladwell the line-by-line due to the data’s sensitivity, there is a direct negative correlation between hours CEOs spent playing golf and the success of a business.
If you’re a Fortune 500 CEO playing 18 holes one out of every three days, the most extreme golf routine presented, sure, there may be more productive uses of your time. But Gladwell doesn’t give any credit to golf’s value for the average businessperson who might use some friendly competition and rounds of golf to persuade clients to join his or her firm or close a deal on the 17th fairway. He also doesn’t ask for the specific criteria used for a lack of CEO achievement to validate the researcher’s claim that excessive golfing truly leads to this conclusion.
One of Gladwell’s bestsellers “Outliers,” examines extreme cases that defy trends. In this book, he devotes a section to what made the Beatles, Bill Gates, and other innovators great. So, Gladwell presents Anders Ericsson’s 10,000-hour rule, which says that to become an expert, like the Beatles or Gates, you must practice the right way for 10,000 hours. This effort is what it takes to become an expert and the key to success in any field.
Because perfecting your swing, learning how to avoid sand traps and place the ball in the sweet spot on the fairway is only for “rich, white guys” who have manipulated the tax code for too many years, golfers don’t get fawned over when they try to become an expert. Ten thousand hours at the range or on the putting green does not make you an expert, Gladwell says. It makes you an addict due to self-destructive tendencies.
But anyone who spends 10,000 hours doing the same thing to build up the experience necessary to be successful will encounter trade-offs. The same is true with any choice. There are opportunity costs. As a teenager, when Gates was logging hours programming computers, he could have spent time learning more about history, literature, or math. I’m sure John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s mothers at one point prayed they would get stable jobs in Liverpool instead of playing gigs abroad in Hamburg while honing their art. Ultimately that decision was theirs, and they did quite well. Likewise, the decision to play golf belongs to these CEOs, and if they aren’t performing their boards of directors should hold them accountable.
The notion that golf is a waste of time for business executives is ancillary at best to Gladwell’s goal of making people hate the game. Rather than examine what outliers there might be, he takes the study at face value and applies it to his predetermined narrative. While Gladwell is typically wary that correlation and causation are not equivalent, this time he eschewed that caution for the easy jab at golf.
Gladwell never ultimately achieved his goal for this aspiring golfer. Throughout the 34-minute episode, he meanders around tangential, isolated anecdotes and relies on bored stereotypes. He never provides validity to his bold claim that people should hate golf. Instead, he uses under-researched trends and disparities in California’s tax code to try to win people over, mostly because he wants to run on some gorgeous golf course for free.
This podcast is a betrayal of the brand Gladwell has built of well-reasoned arguments that dig deeper than the surface and provoke the mind. Unfortunately, Gladwell believes he’s made the case that we all should hate golf. He hasn’t.