Much can be learned about our fellow citizens from their experiences in the game of golf. It’s not just whether they play or not, it’s how they play – their thought patterns, responses to disappointment, willingness to gamble, etc. In the case of John Updike, we are offered a more intimate look at the inner dialogue of an extraordinary man and ordinary golfer. Conflict, self doubt, compassion, and sensitivity to the suffering of the common man – the same themes that dominate many of Updike’s great novels – are observed consistently in the descriptions of his 30+ year love affair with the game. Credit to David Owen and Golf Digest for selecting and reprinting these excerpts.
It was years ago, on a little dog-leg left, downhill. Apple trees were in blossom. Or the maples were turning; I forget which. My drive was badly smothered, and after some painful wounded bounces found rest in the deep rough at the crook of the dog- leg. My second shot, a 9-iron too tensely gripped, moved a great deal of grass. The third shot, a smoother swing with the knees nicely flexed, moved the ball perhaps 12 feet out onto the fairway. The lie was downhill. The distance to the green was perhaps 230 yards at this point. I chose (of course) a 3-wood. The lie was not only downhill but sidehill. I tried to remember some tip about sidehill lies; it was either (1) play the ball farther forward from the center of the stance, with the stance more open, or (2) play the ball farther back, off a closed stance, or (3) some combination. I compromised by swinging with locked elbows and looking up quickly, to see how it turned out. A divot the size of an undershirt was taken some 18 inches behind the ball. The ball moved a few puzzled inches. Now here comes my great shot. Utterly demented by frustration, I swung as if the club were an axe with which I was reducing an orange crate to kindling wood. Emitting a sucking, oval sound, the astounded ball, smitten, soared far up the fairway, curling toward the fat part of the green with just the daintiest trace of a fade, hit once on the fringe, kicked smartly toward the flagstick, and stopped rolling two feet from the cup. I sank the putt for what my partner justly termed a “remarkable six.”
Basically, I want to be alone with my golf.
I don’t mind my partner and opponents being there – they are, in a sense, part of the necessary scenery – but to have a couple of youthful (usually) strangers also in attendance turns the game into a mob sport. My golf is so delicate, so tenuously wired together with silent inward prayers, exhortations and unstable visualizations, that the sheer pressure of an additional pair of eyes crumbles the whole rickety structure into rubble. What is the caddie thinking? keeps running through my mind, to the exclusion of all else. And, How he must hate me! Or perhaps, with the last foozled 3-wood, I have passed into a netherworld beneath his contempt. My wish to please the fellow becomes obsessive and counterproductive, one of golf’s magic maxims being that the harder you try, the worse you play.
Imagine writing a poem with a sweating, worried-looking boy handing you a different pencil at the end of every word. My golf, you may say, is no poem; nevertheless, I keep wanting it to be one.
The truth is, I wish golf were half as popular, the way it was when I took up the game 30-odd years ago. For in those decades, in the area where I live north of Boston, the number of public golf courses has increased not at all, and courses that used to be a breeze to play have become simply hellish.
I was lucky enough to have been allowed to join, before the boom became quite so thunderous, a private club. It had been a relaxed sort of place – a shaggy old layout where Willie Anderson had won an Open or two when Teddy Roosevelt was president (of the United States, not the club). You could walk the 18 without seeing more than that number of other golfing groups. The same guy who cut the lawn in front of the veranda was the greenkeeper, and the sun and the chinch bugs were pretty much allowed to have their way with the verdure, and the underground pipes installed in the days of Bobby Jones had become pure ferric oxide, but, on balance, who terribly cared? On a balmy summer day, there was still nothing in the world to come between you and par except your own ineptitude. Golf’s gift to the spirit is space; and the space in this case was organically designed and blessedly, blissfully underpopulated.
Alas, progress has found us out. The old course is a treasure, and the secret is out. Golf is booming, and yet something has gone from the game, something of naturalness and ease.
Golf used to be kind of a breather, and it has become more and more hard breathing.
I confess that I have gotten so caught up in the gimme game that, rather than risk missing a four-footer, I have asked my partner to putt out so that I could slap my now-meaningless putt triumphantly away. I have even inwardly prayed that my opponent sink his long putt so that the testing one in front of my would no longer matter. I want my putts not to matter becomes the bottom line, and if this isn’t the formula for golf gutlessness and the crunch-time yips, then Jack Nicklaus never won a major.
December always holds some mild-enough days. The foursome, thinned perhaps to a mere threesome or twosome, meets by the boarded-up clubhouse, exhilarated to have an entire golf course to itself. There are no tee markers, no starting times, no scorecards, no gasoline carts – just golf-mad men, wearing wool hats and two sweaters each, moving on their feet. The season’s handicap computer has been disconnected, so the sole spur to good play is rudimentary human competition – a simple best-ball nassau or 50-cent game of skins, its running tally carried in the head of the accountant or retired banker in the group. You seem to be, in December golf, reinventing the game, in some rough realm predating 15th-century Scotland.
The last swing feels effortless, and the ball vanishes dead ahead, gray lost in gray, right where the 18th flag would be. The secret of golf has been found at last, after eight months of futilely chasing it. Now, the trick is to hold it in mind, all the indoor months ahead, without its melting away.
Golf camaraderie, like that of astronauts and Antarctic explorers, is based on a common experience of transcendence; fat or thin, scratch of duffer, we have been somewhere together where nongolfers never go.
One is never tired while playing golf. Afterwards, yes, and beforehand, very possibly, but while the score is mounting and the tees and fairways and greens are passing underfoot, fatigue is magically held at bay. I have flown overnight to London, taken the morning commuter plane from Heathrow up to Edinburgh, and driven several hours through a winding chain of villages to a golf course, delirious with jet lag. But once I stepped with my group of groggy Yanks onto the springy turf of the first tee, a rejuvenating exhilaration set in, dissipating fatigue as does the sun the mists of morning. We frisked around like a pack of schoolboys, and only after the 18th hole, in the creaking leather armchairs of the clubhouse bar, partaking of lulling liquors, did we feel our years again.
And in this country, too, the after effects of a short night’s sleep and a premature arising are suspended during play.
RIP John Updike 1932-2009
Photos: David Owen and Henry Horenstein/Corbis