Be the Ball

If you watch a game, it’s fun.  If you play it, it’s recreation.  If you work at it, it’s golf. Bob Hope

This coming week, will Tiger redeem himself—or at least his game—with a win at Augusta, the site of his first major win?  Will a slumping Mike Weir stun commentators with an out-of-the-blue win at the locale of his only major title?  Will Sergio García win his first major by golfing like it’s 1999, when he finished Augusta as Low Amateur?  Will Phil (like Tiger, no last name needed) successfully defend his title?

Who cares?

That’s what golf widows are thinking: I know because I was one.  Waiting at home for an absent golfer was excruciatingly lonely; watching golf on TV with a present-in-body-only companion only slightly less so.  Golf was a four-letter word, a time-consuming, expensive addiction disguised as a game.

Yet despite golf’s flaws, obvious to outsiders, enthusiasm for the game and for television coverage keeps growing.  How can we make sense of this?  As a former golf widow, someone who came to golf late in life, perhaps I can explain.  Perhaps not: we must not expect too much.  Golf has defied explanation for centuries.

They say golf is like life, but don’t believe them.  It’s more complicated than that. Gardner Dickinson   

Like the other great mysteries of life—sex and death among them—golf must be experienced to be understood.  For years I held firm against pressure to take up the game to entertain customers.  You only play against yourself, they said.  Does that make it easier?  I didn’t start until I was 40, someone pointed out.  That window of opportunity was already closed for me.  The walk is good exercise. Thanks, I work out. It’s nice just to be outside. In the rain? The worst day on the course is better than the best day in the office.

One thing I do know: when you want the straight goods, go not to a salesman but to Mark Twain.  Golf is a good walk spoiled. That was good enough for me.  If I had needed a more cutting denunciation I could have gone to Winston Churchill: Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.

But what I would not do for my career, I was now exhorted to do for love.  We can golf together, he said.  Aren’t I too old for this?  You have no bad habits to unlearn. And so it began, with lessons.

There are three ways of learning golf: by study, which is the most wearisome; by imitation, which is the most fallacious; and by experience, which is the most bitter. Robert Browning

Previous bitter learning of games that require hitting a ball with a stick had methodically eliminated most of them.  Softball and badminton: gone by junior high.  Bowling—with its ‘hit the sticks with the ball’ variation on the theme—and pool—with its added challenge of vector analysis—gone soon thereafter.  And tennis?  Ah, tennis: the lessons, the clothes, the arcane scoring system, the balls screaming at my head.  By age 30 it was all over.  Two decades later, as I stepped into that golf studio the score stood at ball-and-stick games: five; Isabel: l’oeuf.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Over the doors to Dante’s Hell

I stand over a piece of artificial turf, staring down at the enemy.  Don’t hit at the ball: swing through where it happens to be, my instructor reminds me.  Bending my knees and placing my club behind the ball, I relax, position my feet correctly, relax, check my grip, relax, check the pressure points, relax, shift my weight and swivel my hips to the right so that my locked arms move back, relax, shift my weight and swivel my hips to the left so that my arms swing forward but not out from my body, relax, pivot on my right foot and rise to an almost upright stance, finishing with the club over my left shoulder in a state of utter relaxation.  What could be more natural?

Naturally, the ball jumps to the right.  Again. A dribble to the left.  Again. Right.  Left.  Then a complete miss, swinging above where it happens to be.  Keep your knees bent. I swing again.  The ball sails straight into the blue gym mat hanging on the wall 12 feet away.  The contact between club and ball is like hitting the sweet spot, the contact between ball and mat makes a most satisfying whack.  My expression reflects both delight and incredulity.  My teacher, patience personified, smiles too.  Again.

Golf is an easy game…It’s just hard to play. Unknown

Outdoors, blue mats are replaced by endless complication: sun blinding me, wind pushing my ball off course, and nasty things to the right and the left, just as Tennyson said.  Even when I finally get to the green I’m not safe.  Against all reasonable expectation, the surfaces aren’t flat: they have mysterious things called breaks.  On purpose.

I’m just grateful I’m not on the Tour: in their world, they have moisture in the air.  TV commentators speak in hushed tones about its effect on putting conditions.  I don’t worry about relative humidity or even wind when I’m putting: I worry about getting my feet lined up with the hole.  So much for getting help from watching the pros: we aren’t even playing the same game.

Although watching TV hasn’t helped my game, even my limited time as a golfer has informed my watching of the professionals, helped me appreciate what they do.  I too have had to hit out of a sand trap; I too have missed the short putt; I too have made the long putt for the win.  OK, not that last one.  But I am close to perfecting a shot called topping, which causes the ball to leap straight into the air, like a cat startled by a snake.

You’ve just one problem.  You stand too close to the ball after you’ve hit it. Sam Snead

Golf encourages us to make fun of our performance: to laugh where we would otherwise cry.  We laugh about all of life’s elementals—sex, death, and, yes, golf.

First woman:  I got some golf clubs for my husband.

Second woman:  That was a good trade.

Quickly now–what was the last baseball joke you heard?  Is there even one soccer joke?  But golf jokes are so well known all you need is the punch line.

All day long it was hit the ball, drag Charlie.

Game.  Hobby.  Recreation.  Sport.  Addiction.  Golf is all of these and more.  It is enticing, impossible, ridiculous, relaxing, impossible, invigorating, frustrating, impossible.  It shows us, and others, how we handle triumph and disaster, Kipling’s two impostors.  It matches us against ourselves, not primarily in an athletic contest but in a struggle between who we are and who we could be, who we want to be.  This is the source of its compelling and enduring attraction.

Since moving my game outdoors, I have not yet hit the ball on the course as well as I hit it inside, against those blue mats.  But the hope keeps me going, just as it does every golfer, even the professionals.  In these last few years I have golfed badly, but I have golfed.  What does this mean for the running score in my lifelong contest with ball-and-stick games?  Is it a victory for golf or for me?

There is a story that Zhou Enlai, a veteran of the Chinese communist revolution, was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution, some 150 years earlier.  It’s too soon to tell, he replied.  I am surprised to find myself agreeing with a communist about anything, but about golf and me…Yes.  That’s it.  It’s too soon to tell.

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1 Comment

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One Response to Be the Ball

  1. My chiro says they are taught to “be one with the bone” — does this apply to golf if you substitute ball, or maybe it’s club…? Tricky game. I also thought Churchill said “a good walk spoiled” — thanks for clearing that up; one needs to have one’s golf jokes straight, like one’s drive…right? (I don’t play. Hit a ball once and it rolled 100 feet.)

    Play while you can; my 92–year-old father woke up my 91-year-old mother last week and asked, “How do you play golf?” (He had played for 50 years and almost scored his age many times.)