SPORTS/ESSAY

Passion play

LORNE RUBENSTEIN May 24 1993
SPORTS/ESSAY

Passion play

LORNE RUBENSTEIN May 24 1993

Passion play

SPORTS/ESSAY

LORNE RUBENSTEIN

The squishiness of the green, still sodden ground beneath my spiked feet; the earthy scent of the now-fer tile soil and the spray of water as my club head contacts the ball; the flight of the ball towards the green; or, often, its helter-skelter path, wind-borne, clasped to the welcome breezes blowing spring warmth onto the course. These are some of my impressions of early games of golf each spring. Every year for 30 years I have taken to the game anew, wondering what the season will bring. Still, the passion remains for a game that Winston Churchill once derided as being like “chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.”

Ah, but Churchill was misguided. What did he know of the energizing feeling that courses through a golfer’s body when he contacts the ball on the sweet spot of the club face? How could he even dare to speak so maliciously of a game in which even the most horrible hacker can sink a long putt across the hollows and humps of a tricky green, knowing for a moment that he or she is feeling just like Jack Nicklaus or Nancy Lopez? More golfers than ever are celebrating an illogical love of a game in which even the great Ben Hogan, master of the swing, said that he hits only a few shots each round that come off as he imagines.

Can so little success anywhere, on any field of play or in any walk of life, offer such rewards as a golf ball perfectly struck? Golfers know. And never mind the golfer’s standard rueful lament. Asked after a round how he played, a golfer can quite rightly answer: “I didn’t play my usual game today. Come to think of it, I never play my usual game.”

But who needs “usual” games anyway? Golf, and especially late spring golf, when hope still is writ large in the golfer’s mind, is about reaching for the unusual, the outer limits of what the golfer can do. We golfers are exhorted to “extend" the club head, to “swing to the target.” Spring golf stretches our vision, pulls us out of our winter selves, huddled for warmth, at last. But winter also propels us forward for golf. The very hibernation it imposes makes the anticipation of a spring round keen indeed. Awakening, sensate again, we believe in ourselves. Against com-

mon sense, encouraged by thoughts sharpened over many a winter’s night, the golfer believes that he can still play to his potential. That is the promise of the game, the lure that brings the golfer out spring after spring. An odd round down south during the winter does not count. That’s a holiday round. Now comes the real thing, in spring.

But what is the real thing? With no apologies to Churchill, or to George Bernard Shaw, who sneered that golf is “a typical capitalist lunacy of upper-class Edwardian England,” the fact is that golf is not some backwater foolishness where only the lightweight, the fat cat and the dopey participate.

Many golfers are fit, and more than a few read books, attend plays, keep up with the news and even make worthwhile contributions to society beyond advising fellow golfers where to place their elbows on the backswing. There is high art and bizarre science enough in striking the ball to satisfy most anybody, and even to capture the imagination of people who, mistakenly thinking they are politically correct, call golf “an old man’s game.”

No, no, a thousand scorecards no. Think of something Brendan Gill wrote about his father in his memoir Here At The New Yorker. Gill’s father was “a brilliant surgeon and physician. ... He hunted, fished, hiked, chopped wood, planted trees, and painted houses, bams, sheds and every other surface a brush could reach. But his favorite outdoor activity was golf. The game amounted to a passion with him.”

Passion. Now there’s a word often heard in connection with golf. Go figure: “Passion,” used to describe a game in which nobody even hits one another, or runs after a ball. The word means “strong emotion; outburst of anger; strong enthusiasm.” Roget comes up with such synonyms as “desire, distress, eloquence, fervor, mania, torment, zeal.” Golf does inspire these feelings. It might seem

crazy, but there’s a fellow who shall go unnamed here who has said that his self-esteem rises and falls with his golf. He’s an orthopedic surgeon whose family life and career are going beautifully. But he can’t figure his golf game out. He can’t play his “usual” game.

This fellow, and millions like him around the world, know what a gentleman named Douglas Bertram Wesson meant when he titled his book I’ll Never Be Cured and I Don’t Much Care: The History of an Acute Attack of Golf and Pertinent Remarks Relating to Various Places of Treatment. Exactly. Who cares? Life is fraught with problems, so why should a golfer not be allowed the simple pleasure of an early evening on the course, alone or in company. How good it feels when a warm drizzling rain tickles one’s head. The white flag on the green ahead may be barely discernible as it slaps the air in the dusk, but a shot hit just so will reach the green, and perhaps cuddle up to the flagstick. Is this a dream, only a dream? These spring rounds can make the dream real.

But perhaps it does not matter if the shot is good. Maybe the walk is what matters, the opportunity for silence, for reflection. A round of golf can be a communion with one self and with nature. Truly, though, the game is rarely played this way nowadays. Most public courses are jammed, and buzz with carts. People accuse one another of playing too slowly. Golfers diligently add up their scores as if they are checking stock quotations; they are too concerned with their scores. The game becomes a sombre affair.

To care too much about score is to lose the rhythm of the game. Judging our shots, we can miss the essential pliability of golf, the way it bends us every which way. Golf is really not about judgment, but about acceptance. The essence of the game is that a player drives the ball in the middle of the fairway and lands in a deep, ugly scar of a divot left by a golfer ahead. Accept it. This is the game: golf is played outdoors on grass. It is not possible to control the environment. Let the pliability of the game encourage a suppleness within yourself.

This is what the late George Knudson, Canada’s deeply introspective and mightily gifted golfer, alluded to when he suggested that the golfer “give up control to gain control.” That is, the player ought to stop thinking about what to do with the golf club at every segment of its route away from and back to the ball. Said Knudson: “Let yourself swing.”

Perhaps that sounds too much like Zen golf. But we will risk any accusation of limp thinking because we know that we find almost an altered state when we bounce on the rolling turf, and when we are aware of the high grass swaying in the rough and when we wrap our fingers around a velvety grip and when we swing the club to and fro and when we fall into the grace of the game, an outing that sends us inward.

If we play sensibly, we can discover the sensuality that lurks everywhere on the course. Thinking about slow play, Knudson once said: “I don’t know what all the concern is about. Slow play just means that you’re going to spend a longer time in a nice place.” Take a book along on the course, then. Read a poem. Chat with your companions. Swing, swing, swing. Walk in the woods.

Knudson’s comment can be a code for the game. Spring has been here for weeks, but the season still feels fresh, and we are renewed. As for me, I have scratched the itch long enough. I want grass clippings stuck to the soles of my shoes, mud on my golf ball, dirt on my club face, the club in my hand while I turn it round and round until it feels right. Care to join me?