Ray Weschler on Basketball vs. Golf

Proposed: Generally speaking, great basketball players are almost always great athletes, but there is no particular reason to concede that great golfers are.

My own proposed 10 skill-sets required of a great athlete and their relative importance in basketball and golf (Notes/comments to follow):

1. Stamina10+2
2. Hand-eye Coordination86
3. Strength74
4. Speed70
5. Mental Focus/Concentration85
6. Performance under adverse conditions92
7. Diversity of simultaneous athletic requirements82
8. Resistance to Stress (Mental and Physical)82
9. Leadership/Ability to inspire/ Mastery of team dynamics80
10. Agility/balance52
Totals: 78+25

These numbers are in large part, though not exclusively, derived from two basic observations:

1) The professional basketball player does what he does (runs, dribbles, rebounds, shoots, passes, defends, etc…) while in grueling and intimate one-on-one or one-on-several contact with OTHER great basketball players who are determined to stop his progress, literally every step of the way.

2) The professional golfer, meanwhile, plods leisurely through his game, not only completely unimpeded by a countervailing athletic force, but also facing no truly great physical challenges, save possibly the strength required for the initial swing (The critical mental skill-sets that are required for the rest of the swings on each hole are a thin reed upon which to place the mantle of "great athlete," for indeed, to draw such a conclusion would imply that great chess players, surgeons and air-traffic controllers could qualify as such, and that simply can't be right).

Quick Responses to some of Dave's Points:

1) Even by his chart's own weightings, basketball outscores golf 128-77, and if one focuses in on only the physical criteria, the gap is over 2-1 in basketball's favor (59-29).

1b) I'll confidently stand by my own weightings, but I sincerely question some of Dave's. For example, I assign a 10 to basketball only for stamina. My guess is 99.9% of the general public would be winded after 5-10 minutes if thrust into a pro basketball game, and that is why I gave it the highest possible score.

Dave, however, gives 10s to golf for such criteria as balance and body coordination. But how can this be taken at face value when one compares golf to those sports that truly require extraordinary amounts of those criteria? (i.e.….parallel bars and rings in gymnastics, doubles figure-skating, hurdles, down hill skiing, to name a few).

2) Dave admits that his dictionary defines "athlete" in the context of physical criteria such as strength, speed and stamina (And in fact all dictionaries do essentially the same). He then goes on to add a list of several mental criteria that he feels comprise part of great athleticism. While I can certainly concede that mental criteria such as focus, intimidation and even strategic intelligence are critical and perhaps even necessary compliments to physical greatness, I think it's a stretch to suggest that fully half of what makes a great athlete is mental.

Regardless, there is NOTHING in golf that is nearly as mentally taxing as most truly demanding sports. Frankly, it defies common sense to suggest that hitting a little white ball into a hole in the ground with a golf club requires more mental stamina or acumen than, for example:

i) Hurling a baseball 90+ miles an hour toward a strike zone (Or hitting that 90+ miles an hour pitch!)

ii) Jumping a Triple-Lutz while performing with a partenr on the ice

iii) Returning rapid-fire Ping-Pong or tennis volleys

iv) Driving 200 miles an hour around a race-track


v) Shooting a basketball from 20+ feet out, almost always while being ceaselessly harassed by opposing players

Can anyone seriously deny that these five athletic goals, more or less randomly chosen off the type of my head, are infinitely more demanding than any particular goal in golf? If you have doubts, ask yourself what percentage of average people could do them, say, after practicing for a few hours or days.

In the case of golf, the difference is simply a question of degree. Why great golfers could perhaps reach the beloved hole in three or four swings, the average person could also reach that same goal, though admittedly it may take two, three or even more times as many swings to do it. For the sake of argument, let's hypothesize that Joe Average would be only 30% as effective as an excellent pro golfer. Nevertheless, I think we can agree that most people could eventually get the ball in the hole.

Now lets look at the other mental-intensive sports goals; You can make your own HONEST guesstimates:

i) The number of times out of 100 pitches that the average person could get on base facing a Randy Johnson fastball: My guess is less than 1% could get one or more hits (I've read in various sources that hitting off a top-notch pitcher is considered the most difficult task in all of sports, though I personally think #ii below tops it).

ii) The number of people who could learn to perform a Triple Lutz: My guess is less than .1% could EVER accomplish it.

iii) The number of times the average person could return a Pete Sampras serve: My guess is less than 5%.

iv) The number of times that the average person could make it around the Indianapolis 500 racetrack without being way behind the very last car in the competition (and thus, by definition, without killing themselves): My guess is about 1%.

v) The number of times in 100 attempts that an average person could shoot a basket from 20 feet out while being guarded by a typical NBA player like Rick Fox: My guess is less than 1%, and in fact the vast majority could probably never even hit the backboard….

3) I'll stand by my original statement, in which I implied that most great basketball player could learn to at least play reasonably decent golf, whereas virtually no golfers would last more than a couple minutes in a professional basketball game before fans started wondering what the fuck was going on.

Of course, that's not really the point. I'll go one step further and say that the mental AND physical skills that are both required and exhibited by top basketball stars are so much greater those required or shown by great golfers that the former would probably destroy the latter in just about ANY sport that you can think of, from football to tennis to track (I'll even concede that when I refer to great basketball players, I mean most players as exemplified by the likes of Bryant, Iverson, or Spreewell, but not necessarily the amazon-centers like Shaq, whose game dominance is so strongly dependent on their sheer physical size that it's possible that they have few transferable skills).

4) Just by looking at him, I get a pretty strong feeling that Tiger Woods is probably a very good athlete. Yet this is because of the way he looks, and not because of anything he does on the golf course. And when I look at the vast majority of other great golfers, I don't even see athletes at all.

Instead, I see people playing a cute popular game that is glorified among the out-of-shape bourgeois corporate executive class, precisely because it is so relatively undemanding that it is the one declared "sport" that so many can participate in without feeling like the over-paid, pot-bellied old farts that they are. Call me harsh if you must.