The Semiotician and the Golf Course

Did you hear the one about the post-structuralist and the mafia don? She made him an offer he didn’t understand.

This post about semioticians and golf courses makes the opposite premise, namely that it is the semiotician who doesn’t understand. Start with a golf course that is shuttered due to Covid – 19, so it has none of the usual written signifiers intended for golfers. The semiotician for some reason happens on the empty course and tries to make sense of it. We’ll assume that he or she has been too busy studying semiotics to give any attention to such patriarchal pursuits. Maybe s(he) is a semiotician from a different planet. But if (s)he is from a different planet, she does not approach the course from above, thereby getting an over-arching perspective, but must make sense of it from the ground. Finally the semiotician, deprived of written signifiers, must look for physical characteristics of the course (the signified) that are its signs.

The first thing a semiotician would notice is that the course consists of a series of long, narrow open fields, with features such as trees and streams along the edge of the fields (though she would soon notice that sometimes streams also cross the fields). The fields often have paved pathways, generally at the sides of the fields as well.

The semiotician might then notice that the fields contain different types of grasses. Along the sides there is long grass comparable to a backyard that is mowed bi-weekly or even less often. There are also large expanses of very short, spongy and well-maintained grass. Finally, every field at one end contains a roughly circular area of grass that is a deep green colour and almost feels like a carpet. Most of the circular green carpeted areas contain one or possibly a handful of circular holes, roughly 10 centimetres in diameter, filled with sand.

At the end opposite the circular green carpeted area, each field contains a series of flat-topped mounds. What is unusual about the flat-topped mounds is that they have numerous holes in the grass, as though they had been repeatedly attacked by gophers. (The spongy green expanses also contain such holes, but much less frequently.)

The last physical feature of the golf course is irregular, sometimes amoeba-shaped, sand patches. These sand patches are sometimes scattered along the side of the long, narrow fields, but most often cluster around the circular green carpeted areas.

The semiotician might then notice that the fields are staggered and reversed in direction, in that the flat-topped mounds for one field are reasonably close to the circular green carpeted areas of another field.

A final clue for the semiotician would be that on the circular mounds there are numbers, generally between 150 and 600, set in plaques in the ground. The units for the numbers are not indicated, but the semiotician might be able to deduce that, when it is possible to see the green carpeted area from the flat-topped mounds, the numbers are roughly proportional to the distance between the carpeted area and the mound.

My question now is this. Just as scholars attempt to “read” zen gardens or Chinese gardens, could the semiotician “read” the unused golf course? Would she hypothesize that the fields are used for some sort of game involving the bashing of small spherical projectiles with instruments of wood or metal between the mounds and the sanded holes in the green carpeted areas? Or would that require too many conjectural leaps?

This may all seem fanciful or far-fetched, but I think it is enlightening to remove signifiers and cultural knowledge and then construct a process of deduction that a semiotician would use to make sense of a golf course. Fore!

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