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The Sports Guy: The metaphysics of golf

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it actually make a sound? That question, inspired by 18th century philosopher George Berkeley, inquires whether things exist if nobody is around to actively perceive them.

It’s a favorite query of college philosophy instructors and serves as a common jumping-in point to the basic tenets of metaphysical theory. It also happens to be a good lead-in to this week’s sports column.

After all, if the stars align and you accomplish something few others will — say, on a golf course — but nobody is around to witness it, did the accomplishment actually happen?

I ask this question not for myself — my golfing days ended shortly after college when I began having to pay for all those rounds that I’d previously enjoyed for free as the member of high school and college programs with course privileges. My friend and co-worker here at the Tribune, CJ Baker, on the other hand, is quite interested in the answer.

It seems CJ got off work one night recently and grabbed his sticks to head out for a quick post-work round at the Powell Golf Club. Shortly thereafter, he stood atop a hill on the fourth tee armed with an 8-iron  and sent his ball soaring some 160 yards through the air, where it one-hopped its way into the cup for a hole-in-one.

At least, that’s the tale he’s asking us to buy around the office. You see, it seems CJ was playing a solo round. As he looked ahead to the fifth teebox, backwards to the third green and fairway and across a small pond to the nearby sixth green, he realized that he was completely and utterly alone. No witnesses — great if you’re hiding a body, not so great if you happen to shoot the first hole-in-one of your life.

Naturally, I’m a journalist, so I’m paid to be skeptical. Heroic tales of valor on golf courses rank only slightly lower than UFO sightings and exaggerations from hunters and anglers on my career frequency list for whoppers, so what are the odds that the guy I sit next to in an office every day accomplished an ace?

Well, if you listen to the folks who sell hole-in-one insurance for golf tournaments — yes, hole-in-one insurance agent is a real, live job title — the odds of an average golfer scoring a hole-in-one are 12,500-to-1. If you play one round of golf every day on a standard 18-hole golf course, the odds say you’ll get an ace once every eight and a half years or so. 

And I’m supposed to believe this rarity took place when there was conveniently nobody around to see it?

To his credit, CJ produced a photo from his cell phone, but at a distance of 160 yards it was pretty difficult to make out a small white ball in the bottom the cup. He swore his 8-iron would testify to the accomplishment, but the best I could get was a no comment.

None of the other clubs in his bag would corroborate the tale either.

Finally, after much pressuring, CJ set pride aside and coughed up the one shred of irrefutable evidence. He broke down and admitted that he’d carded a 10 on the third hole.

Let’s face it, no golfer willing to lie about a hole-in-one is going to readily admit to taking a double-digit score on the previous hole. Nobody wants to be known as that guy who aced a hole and still was four strokes over par for a two-hole stretch.

So, I present my answer to golf’s most metaphysical of questions. If you score a hole in one and nobody is around to witness it, yes, it really did happen. Even if I happen to work with you. It’s also a great way to avoid having to buy your playing partners a drink back at the clubhouse.

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