Is Golf a Sport? Debating the Myths & Misconceptions

One of the most annoying debates for any avid or competitive golfer is the argument that golf is not a sport. My opinion, and likely most of the readers of this site, is that golf is most certainly a sport by the dictionary definition:

Sport - noun

  1. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

Competitive golf is a physical activity requiring skill and is scored, which certainly meets the definition. The case against golf being a sport, in my opinion, is based on limited or skewed perceptions of golf and golfers. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common misconceptions.

Golf is a Game, Not a Sport

Golf is commonly referred to as a game. But saying it's not a sport seems to be fragile logic at best.

While there can be arguments about the semantics, a game is a physical or mental activity with rules played for entertainment. That means all sports are types of games. The critical aspect of sports is that they are physical activities. Referring to a “golf game” isn’t an admission that golf isn’t a sport. We have baseball games and football games, but that’s never used as evidence to say they are not sports.

Golf Doesn’t Require Physical Exertion

In the definition of a sport, some would claim that golf doesn’t meet the definition of “physical exertion.” I’m not sure how a person could swing a club without physical exertion, so this claim is suspicious from the start. However, the central argument is that golf doesn’t require enough physical effort.

Interestingly, there is no defined level of physical exertion needed to qualify as a sport.

Detractors will point out that the bulk of physical work in golf is simply walking. Walking 18 holes, however, is usually around 5 miles, a definite physical exertion. Even using a golf cart, golfers still tend to walk more than a mile, and all of that is in addition to swinging a club dozens of times (putting excluded).

Compare that to baseball, which is widely regarded as a sport. While baseball has some running, it is typically in bursts of no more than 100-200 feet at a time. Besides that, the majority of the game is spent standing and waiting for something to happen. If that’s enough physical exertion to meet the definition, then why not golf?

Golfers Aren’t Athletes

The fact that golfers, even at the professional levels, come in all shapes and sizes is often used as evidence that these competitors are not athletes, and therefore golf is not a sport. This perception started to change with the rise of Tiger Woods and is crumbling even further with physically impressive pros like Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, and Bryson DeChambeau.

Even looking at golfers like Andrew “Beef” Johnston, though, the strength and skill requirements to achieve a 113mph+ driver clubhead speed certainly should qualify one as an athlete. Some might say that the pros are different and that we should look at the average golfer. Since anyone can play it, it must not be a sport. That’s a disingenuous argument, though, as the fact that there are 40-and-over rec basketball leagues doesn’t make anyone question basketball, so there’s no reason to hold golf to a different standard.

Golfers Can Still Compete When They’re Old

There is nothing that upsets me more in the “golf is not a sport” argument than some who would bring up Tom Watson’s incredible, near win performance in the 2009 Open Championship as evidence in their case. Rather than celebrate an incredibly talented athlete, the thought is that if a 59-year-old was able to compete with golfers half his age, then golf must not be a sport.

While professional golfers can have longer careers than players in other major sports and recreationally, golfers can play for most of their lives. This has no bearing on golf’s status as a sport, especially in the professional ranks. During the 2019 PGA Tour season, tournament winners were 34 years old on average, prime career age for various sports. Citing Watson’s exceptional example also ignores similar cases in other sports, such as Gordie Howe, who scored NHL goals in his 50’s.

Golfers Drink & Smoke Out on the Course

Similar to the “golfers aren’t athletes” argument is pointing to the fact that a lot of recreational golfers drink beer and smoke cigars out on the course as evidence that golf isn’t a sport. As a general rule, though, competitive golfers don’t drink alcohol while playing, and for at least thirty years, smoking during professional rounds has become incredibly rare as well.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, like John Daly, but such exceptions exist in other sports.

This is another example of golf being held to a different standard at the recreational level than other sports. A lot of recreational golf involves drinking, but so do softball beer leagues and casual weekend soccer games. This is also part of the last argument made against golf as a sport, perhaps the most important one of them all.

Most Golf Isn’t Competitive

Back to the definition of a sport, we have “an individual or team competes against another or others.” It’s undeniable that most golf isn’t played in a tournament environment. A lot of recreational rounds aren’t played against anyone else. Still, it's quite common for golfing buddies to play matches against one another like Nassau.

That being said, golf as a whole has to be considered a sport as it can be played as a competition. I would argue that even when I am playing by myself, I keep score and “competing” against myself and how I played previously. In those situations, I believe I am still playing a sport.

That idea does bring up another question; is all golf a sport? In my mind, that’s the more interesting thing to consider and a much more nuanced answer. In this case, if someone is out on the golf course, not playing against anyone, or even really keeping score, then they are not playing golf as a sport. By the same measure, shooting hoops in your driveway is playing basketball, and hitting a ball against a wall plays tennis. Neither of these is playing a sport. However, once you start keeping score, that is most definitely a sport, and golf is no exception.

What are your thoughts? Do you think golf is a sport? Feel free to post in the comments section or on our community forum.

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