Different people get differing experiences from the game, which might be the secret to its popularity. There are some universal themes, however, which I will attempt to describe.
A golf “shot” makes a little white ball fly through the air (and/or run on the ground). Before every shot there is an anticipation — what will the ball do? It’s just sitting there. Where will it go? How will it travel? Magnificently? Hilariously? Pathetically? Unless you play with experts, nobody knows.
It’s something like the human attraction to gambling, say, with dice or a slot machine. If the right number comes up or the slot machine hits a little payoff, we get a satisfying hit of dopamine. And if not, a little disappointment, and then another chance at a good or at least decent “shot.” Of dopamine.
Or when a longish putt falls into the hole. Outside of 6 or 8 feet for most golfers, a putt falling in is pure chance. The statistical odds are actually similar to that of dice or poker hands.
But there’s an extra, amplifying factor. We cause the ball to move by a set of personal decisions and physical actions. That creates an emotional investment in the shot — something that expert golfers studiously attempt to avoid, but many recreational golfers relish, perhaps to a fault.
When a “good shot” happens, the emotional investment increases the dopamine hit — and risks despair if we don’t experience a decent or good shot often enough.
A key fundamental of drama and comedy is getting the audience emotionally invested in what’s happening. It’s as old as storytelling around the fire in the cave. Wielding metal “clubs,” hunting for our balls and striking them at targets is not so different. We humans have been fascinated by projectiles since we developed the unique ability to throw rocks and spears accurately. A soaring golf ball calls up some sort of primordial joy about being human.
Bad shots in golf look awful. Mediocre shots (there are a lot of those) advance the ball toward completing our goal (finishing the hole) at least. Good or great shots are amazing. Just a 100-yard pitch, landing within decent putting range, is incredible. The hole’s a football field away!!!
And because luck also plays a part in how the wind or land might affect the ball’s journey, there’s always the spectre of randomness affecting all shots. Surprises can and do happen, and we humans tend to find surprises entertaining. My friends were highly amused recently when I hit a “perfect shot” that struck the flagstick and flew off the green into the trees.
You just shake your head in wonder sometimes.