April 9, 2012:
When I was sixteen or seventeen I used to go over to the golf course on the other side of town and try to get caddying jobs, hoping to make a little money. I didn't play golf, didn't know much about the game, and couldn't recommend a particular club for a particular shot. I was good only for carrying bags. Not a job I was born to, obviously. And I came to dislike golfers, most of whom, in my admittedly limited experience, seemed to be unusually rude, or often in sour moods. Worse than that, they all had money, yet many of them didn't tip. It was my first real experience of the upper middle-class. I didn't like them. After that I was never tempted to play golf, or to watch it on television. And that continued through most of my adult life. Watching golf is like watching grass grow, I was told many times, and I agreed.
But then I chanced across the end of a tournament on TV one Sunday afternoon when I was channel surfing and stopped to watch one of the leading players--I think it was Phil Mickelson--seal up a victory on the last hole, where he needed only two putts to win, and then watched in amazement as he blew up and three-putted the hole, even though his last putt was less than a foot from the hole. And this was a guy who was really good at this game. I was impressed. Here was something I could relate to--blowing it big time when it counted. Who doesn't do that from time to time? I certainly have. I finally realized that this was an interior game, maybe the most interior of all. Your only opponent is yourself, your nerves, the level of your skill. Your opponents are fighting their own demons; you're fighting yours. The fact that so many pros in the game use sports psychologists doesn't surprise me. Huge amounts of prize money are at stake, you're trying to get this little white ball into a cup that's located three or four or five hundred yards away, the fairways are surrounded by trees, deep rough, there are sand traps, water hazards, and thousands of people may be standing around watching your every move, and par must seem like at least one shot too cruel. Not to mention below par.
After that when Pace, our neighbor, invited me over to watch Sunday afternoons, I often went. Pace plays golf and she's very good at it, usually winning tournaments in her age group. We're of an age, so the age group is not at all young, but still she bangs through a course in the 90s and sometimes less, knows the professionals both male and female, and it's fun to watch the game with her. And then there's the beauty of the courses. I watched a good part of the Masters this past weekend, saw Bubba Watson win in a playoff and watched the tension pour out of him after he sank his last putt in tears he couldn't control, sobbing in his caddy's arms, and it was quite moving. I know what that feels like. Every time I turn in a story I wait with that kind of tension in me to hear that it's acceptable, that they like it, they're going to publish it and pay me for it. Performance is all. And all this took place in one of the most beautiful settings in America: Augusta National, in Georgia. It just takes your breath away; as an example of landscape design, I think it's nearly unmatched: rolling greensward, majestic old trees, everything beautifully groomed. It reminds me of the eighteenth-century English landscapes designed by Capability Brown. It reminds me of Paradise. It feels like Paradise, too. Golfers have a code of conduct that's unusual in sports: they're polite, they report their own infractions of the rules even when they're inadvertent, even when they're unseen, they step over or around the line between their opponents' balls and the holes when they're on the greens, they wait patiently for others to line up their shots, and they generally speak well of each other. Temper tantrums are frowned upon; indeed, they're fined for them. It's stately, dignified, and yet all this intensity is wrapped up in all that formality. That's what art is, intensity wrapped up in beauty and formality. And this Paradise even has its Adam, its fallen man, in the great Tiger Woods, the best of them all, the ur-golfer, who lost his cool and his mojo when his wife caught him cheating on her, not just with one woman but with many, and apparently came after him with one of his own golf clubs. Tiger has yet to recover from his fall; one wonders if he ever will.
Okay, I'm not an idiot. These are country clubs, after all, not utopias, and the country club mentality is one of the banes of this country's existence; it feeds the elitism, the isolationism, and the arrogance of American wealth. Augusta National still won't admit women to membership. The first time Tiger Woods played there, in a tournament, they wouldn't let him in the gate the first day he came to practice. The sport is international and you see people from all over the world on the course now, including V. J. Singh, who's Polynesian, and any number of Korean pros. More blacks will appear, I imagine, as more reach a point where they can afford the game.
But make no mistake, golf is hardly a sport representative of the racial mix in this country, or the economic mix. Still, it has become one of my favorite sports to watch, and I make no apology for it. All that intensity, that interior passion, masked, managed, contained and put to the service of a golf swing. That's what writing can be like at its best: the passion you bring to a subject, and to the craft, contained, restrained, directed. You will sometimes see a pro make a 35- or 40-foot putt on an impossible curving line across an undulating green and pump his arm when it drops. I have done the same when I've gotten the words right. I do it at my desk, but these guys get to do it in these gorgeous settings. Yes! you exclaim to yourself, and you thank the gods for your luck at being able to do what you do, and for the gift, and the time, to practice your skills.