Sports

STREET TIGERS

Urban golfers don’t see why you need grass or nerdy shirts to play the game. Grab a club, a tennis ball and head for the nearest road.

JOHN INTINI August 2 2004
Sports

STREET TIGERS

Urban golfers don’t see why you need grass or nerdy shirts to play the game. Grab a club, a tennis ball and head for the nearest road.

JOHN INTINI August 2 2004

STREET TIGERS

Urban golfers don’t see why you need grass or nerdy shirts to play the game. Grab a club, a tennis ball and head for the nearest road.

Sports

JOHN INTINI

A SMALL ARMY of trendsetters—equipped with second-hand drivers—is waging a war on golf. Tired of snooty country-club attitudes, goofy clothes and expensive green fees, they’re taking the game to the street-hitting balls down fairways lined with cars, on greens flanked by office buildings and at garbage bins and fire hydrants that serve as holes. Dubbed urban golf, cross golf or extreme golf, this new twist strips blue-blood pretensions out of the 500-year-old game. “Why do you have to play golf on green grass?” asks Brian Jerome Peterson, 40, an urban-golf aficionado in Arizona. “Why not play in the desert or in the snow if you want?” Crazy talk to purists, but Peterson isn’t some lone maverick. In recent years—thanks in large part to Tiger Woods—golf has been taken up by a younger, more down-market and ethnically diverse crowd. That shift is causing some friction on the greens. “Today, a lot of younger people don’t have a clue how to act on a golf course—the proper way of repairing a ball mark or exiting a green,” says Muncie Booth, director of golf at two Vancouver courses. “It used to be an evolution of playing with your dad, some friends and then a team in school. More people now just want to get out and play right away.” Precisely, urban golfers say. And so, many are choosing to forgo courses altogether and forming Fight Clubs of sorts for devotees of the swing. Natural Born Golfers, a cross golf organization, has chapters in nine cities, including Paris, Kuala Lumpur and San Francisco—though so far none in Canada, even though this country has the most golfers per capita in the world. Based in Hamburg, Germany, NBG regularly hosts tournaments sponsored by the likes of Microsoft and Volkswagen, recently attracting 1,200 applicants for one in Berlin. The group’s logo, a skull with golf balls in the eye sockets, makes clear this isn’t your dad’s game. Other tournaments are popping up across

the U.S. and Europe. In May, 64 competitors—including Irish pro Ronan Raffertyconverged on a trendy London suburb for the inaugural Shoreditch Urban Open. Hitting special leather balls stuffed with cotton that don’t fly as far and are less likely to cause damage, players roamed more than a dozen streets blocked off to traffic but with the pubs open. “It felt like any other Open,” says organizer Jeremy Feakes, 32. “But the crowd around our greens just happened to have pints in their hands.” That wasn’t the only difference. Players were allowed to improve their lie by one club length if a ball was too close to a “roadside hazard,” like a car. And after every shot, competitors picked up their balls and placed them back on a playing mat—a sort of portable tee box. But

‘WE worried about rats. Some holes in the pavement are quite deep, we didn’t want people putting their hands in.’

as in regular tournament golf, everyone had a caddy for the par-72 course (with holes ranging between 43 and 200 yards). “We didn’t want the players belittled by having to carry their own mats,” says Feakes.

In fact, he tried to keep things as true to the real game as possible. Feakes and his “greenskeepers” placed five-sq.-m. pieces of carpet over holes (water valves) in the pavement. “We put a little cup inside the hole so the ball wouldn’t get lodged in there,” he says. “We were also worried about rats. Some of the holes were quite deep, we didn’t want people putting their hands all the way in.”

Most urban golfers, who tend to be young and male, still prefer the early versions of the sport, when the only rules were to have fun and not hurt anyone. These players tend

to tee off late at night or on sleepy Sunday mornings when the streets are quiet. Scores are rarely kept. A hole might be a tree, a mailbox or a spot on a wall. Peterson’s first experience with the game dates back to 1992 in El Paso, Tex., when he and a couple of buddies grabbed some clubs and “just started whacking a tennis ball toward the Westin Hotel,” he recalls. “We headed past the jail, the courthouse and the federal building. Cops even chased us a bit.”

Unlike street racing—another elite sport reinvented by urban youth—street golf isn’t illegal, but having a good rapport with the police certainly helps—especially when things get a bit rowdy. “We had the cops show up late one night saying they had a noise complaint from someone worried about a bunch of kids on the street with crowbars,” says Matt Spiro, 35, who lives in El Cerrito, Calif.

Before taking up urban golf, Spiro says he always hated the game. “I used to work as a valet at a golf club when I was in high school and couldn’t stand the assholes who showed up to play,” he says. “But when my friends and I hit our 30s, we needed a more grown-up sport but still something we could play in an immature way.” To keep things simple, Spiro and his friends use tennis balls and old clubs salvaged from junk stores. “You hit one of those off the ground a few times and it just shatters. That’s why we keep a couple of extra clubs in the bag next to the flashlights—how else will we be able to find our balls at night?”

All this sound a bit odd? Well, then consider a recent story in the New York Times about a 35-year-old civil engineer from New Hampshire who’s spending his summer crossing Mongolia with a three-iron. He divided the country into 18 holes and plans to complete the par 11,880—which plays 2.3 million yards—by the end of July. Not too urban, but even less country-club. And for these guys, that’s exactly the point. 171