My relationship with golf has lasted longer than any other in my life. I started playing when I was 13 or 14, so I’ve played for at least 47 years. The closest competing relationship is my marriage, and it’s lasted 40 years. I’ve lived in a dozen towns and many more houses than that. I went to 8 schools before college, to 3 universities, and I never worked at one place for more than 6 years. I’ve called many people in many places my friends, but most are lost in the past. Golf is a thread that runs through it all.
Different places, different people, but always golf. Some places my friends played a lot of football, and I played. Friends in other places were more cerebral, and I b.s.’ed with the best of them. I shot pool ’til dawn, studied all night, worked 24/7, messed around a lot. I saw patients, taught, spent hours and hours in pointless meetings, and finally walked away. Golf was always waiting for me, even if abandoned for a while.
Phases of my life are marked by images from the course. There’s the first tee at that first course I ever played. It was a par 3 course, and I remember the great friend I played that hole with. There’s the round when I was an undergrad when I hit all of my putts 50% too long, no matter what I tried. I played that round with my roommate, now an architect in Cleveland if the internet is to be believed. There’s that first drive in Florida when I played with my new university colleagues. They thought their new dean might be a real golfer, but I corrected that impression by the third hole.
It’s beautiful holes at sunset, walking the fairway with friends lost and gone. It’s standing on that first tee at dawn, listening to a friend in his early 50’s tell me about the cancer he knew would kill him. A few years later, it did. It’s laughing so hard I can’t see to hit my putt while my buddies chatter behind me. And it’s driving through new and unfamiliar towns, looking at golf courses and wondering how hard it is to get on. Some I played, and some I never did.
I like to do different things now than when I was 14. I like different food, different drinks, different books. I still watch the Dallas Cowboys (in color now) but it’s like a bad habit I can’t break. I miss Tom Landry, Dandy Don, Roger the Dodger. But when it’s Sunday at The Masters, I’m just as transfixed as I was that first time.
I’ve often wondered what it is about golf that has held me. Why has it stayed when so little else has? I can find only one answer. John Updike once said that he was “curiously, disproportionately, undeservedly happy on a golf course.” Although I may rant and rave about my game, trudge fuming to the car after a bad round, and wonder if I’d be happier if I quit, I know the answer every time I stand on that first tee and watch Cowboy Roy throw the balls to set the order in wolf. I grin, dig a tee out of my bag, and feel “curiously, disproportionately, and undeservedly happy.” And in that moment I rediscover a 14 year old kid, standing on that first par 3 with his best friend.
I wonder how he’ll hit it?
(Quote from “U.S. Golf”, a speech by John Updike at the One Hundredth Anniversary Celebration of the USGA. Reprinted in Golf Dreams, by John Updike. Sunrise photo by Charles Prokop.)