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Born to Golf?

Posted Jun 19 2010 12:00am

Regardless of how many other industries thrive here, there’s no debating that on the Monterey Peninsula, golf is king.

People make pilgrimages here from all corners of the globe to play at our numerous world-class resorts, and hotel rooms all over town sell out months in advance of the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Whenever there’s a big tournament in town, the traffic snarls and tourist swarms are enough to make locals avoid venturing out of the house until the frenzy dies down – unless, of course, they’re part of the frenzy themselves.

And whenever the U.S. Open comes to town, all the insanity gets ratcheted up exponentially.
Such is the case this weekend, as Pebble Beach hosts the 2010 championship. And for our local newspaper, the tournament isn’t simply a weekend event – it’s a cause for week-long coverage of every conceivable story line you can imagine.

It also eclipses any other sporting news that might take place during the days leading up to the big show. This week, Giants and A’s reports were confined to the back pages of the sports section. The NBA Finals received cursory coverage. World Cup results were buried in the box scores.

So if you’re the author of a measly running column, you definitely shouldn’t expect much in the way of promotion.

Our regularly scheduled column slot was on Thursday, which also happened to be the first round of the Open. I figured there was a pretty good chance that the column wouldn’t run at all – but my friend Mike and I gave it a shot anyway.

To improve our chances of getting published, we came up with an angle that was golf-related, but still allowed us to tell a story that had running as its primary focus. Honestly, I think it was a pretty clever stretch on our part; you can see if you agree after reading the article that follows below.

Nevertheless, our column was indeed bumped this week in favor of golf coverage, so this one hasn’t yet seen the light of newsprint. It might appear at a later date – but since the tournament is going on this weekend, I figured the timing was right to post it here anyway.


Running Life 6/17/10 “Born to Golf?”

Think you know who invented golf? If you’re like most observers, you believe that the sport as we know it was invented in Scotland in the late 1400s.

Some historians also note that the ancient Romans played games with sticks hitting stones on the ground, but this pastime had no link to modern day golf. Others attribute some influence to activities called kolven in Holland and chole in Belgium that involved sticks and rudimentary balls or stones - but for the majority of golf purists, the pursuit of hitting round objects into slightly larger holes in the ground is strictly attributed to the Scots.

However, with all due respect to those historians, we have another theory: maybe golf was created by a band of runners.

Chris McDougall’s book describes the reclusive Raramuri, indigenous people of the treacherous Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico. Raramuri are the world’s greatest distance runners, whose “superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity.” These natives were so reclusive that they were not discovered by the outside world until the 1500s by the Conquistadors, who mispronounced the name to call them Tarahumara. (They are still commonly called Tarahumara by outsiders today.)

The name Raramuri means “runners on foot” or “those who run fast”, and the entire culture of the tribe involves running for joy. McDougall set out to chronicle the Tarahumara to understand how they could run for hundreds of miles without getting injured. Among other observations, his documentation of huarache-clad ultrarunners has greatly influenced the recent barefoot running boom in the United States.

And what does any of this have to do with golf? McDougall also observed that the favorite pastime among the Tarahumara is a game called rarjiparo. These contests are typically held between village teams and involve running continuously for 36 or 48 hours over hilly and dangerous terrain. The object is for each team to move a small wooden ball called the rarajipari, made of hard wood from tree roots.

Men kick the rarajipari to advance it, but women are allowed to use an implement called the ariweta – “a ring of strong plant fibres or twigs which are hooked with a curved wooden end which allows the ball to be hit”. They hit the ball, then chase after it – up and down hills, around curves, into the dirt or bushes, and occasionally dropping into holes in the ground. Sounds like a group of amateurs on the back nine, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, Tarahumara villagers gather from miles around to watch these events - a primitive gallery, if you will - and bets are often made involving pelts, livestock, blankets, jewelry, and other items. After a rarjiparo, it is traditional that “winners do not demonstrate arrogance, and the losers show no anger” – as rivals often gather together and spend the next 48 hours drinking tesquino, a corn-based beer, until they pass out. Since the Tarahumara have no refrigeration devices, all of the tesquino had to be finished within the 48-hour party.

So let’s recap: a game that involves using sticks to knock little balls around, which claims specific rules of decorum, features large spectator galleries, and encourages betting, beer drinking, and camaraderie. What game does that sound like to you?

The Tarahumara have been doing this for more than 2000 years. Perhaps they weren’t just Born to Run, but Born to Golf as well - and maybe all the passionate golf fans at this weekend’s US Open owe a tip of the hat to these natural born runners.

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