They are playing golf at Augusta today and that is occasion enough to connect the ancient game with the season of the azaleas and a writer who both loved golf and wrote about it – if didn’t always play it – with the grace of a poet.
The late, great John Updike is best remembered for his novels, but golfers who love the language, as well as the game, remember him for his singular ability to write exceedingly well about golf, while capturing the feel of the individual confronting the game.
Asked to write about golf as a hobby Updike said it wasn’t. “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.”
Everyone who has played golf knows that feeling.
Updike wrote like a Masters champion, but like most of us played like a duffer; an 18 handicap duffer who could put into words what it means – against all odds and despite any real ability – when you finally strike the perfect shot.
“Once in a while,” Updike wrote in 1973 in a piece for The New York Times, “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.”
Michael Bamberger, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, wrote a sweet little piece in 2009 about playing a round of golf with Updike. The great writer had written Bamberger a fan letter – he liked a book Bamberger had done – and suggested a game. What a thrill.
So, golfers everywhere will wonder this week if Tiger is really back? Will a European – or an Argentine, or Irishman – capture a loud green jacket this Sunday? While Bobby Jones’ ghost stalks the fairways in Georgia, John Updike’s ghost reminds us of the eternal grace of the simplest, yet most difficult game.
“There was clearly great charm and worth in a sport so quaintly perverse in its basic instructions,” Updike once wrote. “Hit down to make the ball rise. Swing easy to make it go far. Finish high to make it go straight.”
If only we could do it as well as he wrote about it.