March 3, 2009

John Updike (1932 - 2009)

"Golf can best be defined as an endless series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle." -- Anonymous

This is an essay written by John Updike, the celebrated American author who recently passed away. He was a life-long church goer and avid golfer. It pretty much explains my own passion for the game. Enjoy.

From The New York Times, June 10, 1973 --

GOLF by John Updike

I think I have been asked to write about golf as a hobby. But of course, golf is not a hobby. Hobbies take place in the cellar and smell of airplane glue. Nor is golf, though some men turn it into such, meant to be a profession or a pleasure. Indeed, few sights are more odious on the golf course than a sauntering, beered-up foursome obviously having a good time. Some golfers, we are told, enjoy the landscape; but properly the landscape shrivels and compresses into the grim, surrealistically vivid patch of grass directly under the golfer's eyes as he morosely walks toward where he thinks his ball might be. We should be conscious of no more grass, the old Scots adage goes, than will cover our own graves. If neither work nor play, then, if more pain than pleasure but not essentially either, what, then, can golf be? Luckily, a word newly coined rings on the blank Formica of the conundrum. Golf is, let us say, a trip.

A non-chemical hallucinogen, golf breaks the human body into components so strangely elongated and so tenuously linked, yet with anxious little bunches of hyper-consciousness and undue effort bulging here and there, along with rotating blind patches and a sort of cartilaginous euphoria -- golf so transforms one's somatic sense, in short, that truth itself seems about to break through the exacerbated and as it were debunked fabric of mundane reality.

An exceedingly small ball is placed a large distance from one's face, and a silver wand curiously warped at one end is placed in one's hands. Additionally, one's head is set a-flitting with a swarm of dimly remembered "tips." Tommy Armour says to hit the ball with the right hand. Ben Hogan says to push off with the right foot. Arnold Palmer says keep your head still. Arnold Palmer has painted hands in his golf book. Gary Player says don't lift the left heel. There is a white circle around his heel. Dick Aultman says keep everything square, even your right foot to the line of flight. His book is full of beautiful pictures of straight lines lying along wrists like carpenter's rules on planed wood. Mindy Blake, in his golf book, says "square-to- square" is an evolutionary half-step on the way to a stance in which both feet are skewed toward the hole and at the extremity of the backswing the angle between the left arm and the line to the target is a mere 14 degrees. And 15 degrees. Not 13 degrees. Fourteen degrees. Jack Nicklaus, who is a big man, says you should stand up to the ball the way you'd stand around doing nothing in particular. Hogan and Player, who are small men, show a lot of strenuous arrows generating terrific torque at the hips. Player says pass the right shoulder under the chin. Somebody else says count two knuckles on the left hand at address. Somebody else says no knuckle should show. Which is to say nothing about knees, open or closed clubface at top of backswing, passive right side, "sitting down" to the ball, looking at the ball with right eye -- all of which are crucial.

This unpleasant paragraph above, strange to say, got me so excited I had to rush out into the yard and hit a few shots, even though it was pitch dark, and only the daffodils showed. Golf converts oddly well into words. Wodehouse's golf stories delighted me years before I touched a club. The story of Jones's Grand Slam, and Vardon's triumph over J. H. Taylor at Muirfield in 1896, and Palmer's catching Mike Souchak at Cheery Hills in 1960, are always enthralling -- as is, indeed, the anecdote of the most abject duffer. For example:

Once, my head buzzing with a mess of anatomical and aeronautical information that was not relating to the golf balls I was hitting, I went to a pro and had a lesson. Put your weight on the right foot, the man told me, and then the left. "That's all?" I asked. "That's all," he said. "What about the wrists pronating?" I asked. "What about the angle of shoulder-plane vis-a-vis hip-plane?" "Forget them," he said. Ironically, then, in order to demonstrate to him the folly of his command (much as the Six Hundred rode into the valley of Death), I obeyed. The ball clicked into the air, soared straight as a string, and fell in a distant ecstasy of backspin. For some weeks, harboring this absurd instruction, I went around golf courses like a giant, pounding out pars, humiliating my friends. But I never could identify with my new prowess; I couldn't internalize. There was an immense semicircular area transparent, mysterious, anesthetized, above the monotonous weight-shift of my feet. All richness had fled the game. So I gradually went back on my lessons, ignored my feet, made a number of other studied adjustments, and restored my swing to its pristine ineptitude. Crass success had bowed to man's unconquerable will.

Like that golf story of mine? Let me tell you another: the greatest shot of my life. 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."

In this magical experience, some deep golf revelation was doubtless offered me, but I have never been able to grasp it, or to duplicate the shot. In fact, the only two golf tips I have found consistently useful are these. One (from Jack Nicklaus) on long putts, think of yourself putting the ball half the distance and having it roll the rest of the way. Two (from I forget -- Mac Divot?): on chip shots, to keep from underhitting, imagine yourself throwing the ball to the green with the right hand.

Otherwise, though once in a while a 7-iron rips off the clubface with that pleasant tearing sound, as if pulling a zipper in space, and falls toward the hole like a raindrop down a well; or a drive draws sweetly with the bend of the fairway and disappears, still rolling, far beyond the applauding sprinkler, these things happen in spite of me, and not because of me, and in that sense I am free, on the golf course, as nowhere else.

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