Nov 122009

Golf Dreams is John Updike’s brilliant collection of stories and essays about the game of golf. In the title story, Updike describes a golf dream — a dream in which targets mysteriously recede, hazards materialize out of thin air, balls change into cylinders, and clubs develop an odd flabby appen­dage which prevents them from contacting the ball crisply. Nonetheless, he observes, the dreamer “surrenders not a particle of hope of making the shot.”

After all, are these nightmares any worse than the “real” drive that skips off the toe of the club, strikes the prism-shaped tee marker, and is swallowed by weeds some twenty yards behind the horrified driver? Or the magical impotence of an utter whiff? Or the bizarre physical comedy of a soaring slice that strikes the one telephone wire strung across three hundred acres? The golfer is so habituated to humiliation that his dreaming mind never offers any protest of implausibility. Whereas dream life, we are told, is a therapeutic cari­cature, seamy side out, of real life, dream golf is simply golf played on another course.

Updike himself had an 18-handicap — which probably meant more to him than being lauded by the NYT as “the most gifted writer of his generation.” He loved the game. In an essay called “The Bliss of Golf,”  Updike recounts:

I never touched a club until I was twenty-five. Then, on a shady lawn in Wellesley, a kind of aunt-in-law showed me how to hold her driver and told me, after one swoop at a phantom ball, that I had a wonderful natural swing. Since that fatal encouragement, in many weathers inner and outer, amid many a green and winding landscape, I have asked myself what the peculiar bliss of this demanding game is, a bliss that at times threatens to relegate all the rest of life, including those sexual concerns that Freud claims are paramount and those even more basic needs that Marx insists must be met, to the shadows.

The immensities of space, beside which even polo and baseball are constricted pastimes, must be part of it. To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, con­templated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small. As it moves through the adventures of a golf match, the human body, like Alice’s in Wonderland, experiences an intoxicating relativity — huge in relation to the ball, tiny in relation to the course, exactly matched to that of the other players. From this relativity is struck a silent music that rings to the treetops and runs through a Wagnerian array of changes as each hole evokes its set of shots, dwindling down to the final putt. The clubs in their nice gradations suggest organ pipes. . .

And the bliss of the swing. The one that feels effortless and produces a shot of miraculous straightness and soar. “I’ll take it,” we say modestly, searching about with a demure blush for the spun-away tee. Just a few shots a round keep us coming back; what other sport offers such sudden splendor in exchange for so few calories of expended energy? In those instants of whizz, ascent, hover, and fall, an ideal self seems mirrored. If we have that one shot in us, we must have thousands more — the problem is to get them out, to let them out. To concentrate, to take one’s time, to move the weight across, to keep the elbow in, to save the wrist-cock for the hitting area, to keep one’s head still, down, and as full of serenity as a Zen monk’s: an ambitious program, but a basically spiritual one. . .

The high point of Updike’s collection, in my view, is the short story “Farrell’s Caddie,” which, fortunately, is available on-line here. It is indeed short — so take a minute.

If you are wanting to learn how to play golf, this is probably the wrong book. Harvey Pennick’s Little Red Book might be what you need. But if you are wanting something more substantial, Updike is matchless. “Golf’s ultimate moral instruction,” he says, “directs us to find within ourselves a pivotal center of enjoyment: relax into a rhythm that fits the hills and swales, and play the shot at hand — not the last one, or the next one, but the one at your feet, in the poison ivy, where you put it.”


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