Sunday, April 22, 2001


John Updike knows well the warrens of a golfer's mind

By Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Updike has a way of making golf sound lyrical, magical and altogether heaven sent, which could explain why he's such an accomplished writer of fiction.

        “She's awfully pretty,” he wrote recently. “All those green curves and snug little sand traps.”

        Updike was in town Wednesday, kicking off UC's short story festival. I cannot tell you about Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of four classic Updike novels. I know of the middle-class tensions Updike portrays in the four Rabbit books, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize. But not much.

        When it comes to literature, I'm fond of pictures.

        But I can tell you about golf.

        It ain't pretty.

        If you don't play the game, I'd suggest you keep it that way. If you do, God help you.

        Here's the non-fiction: Golf is not magical. Golf is systematic torture applied democratically. Golf doesn't care whose ego it smashes.

        People who play golf are masochists. They're gullible clucks, for whom one good shot a round keeps them sniffing at golf's door, begging for another whacking.

        They find themselves in front of department store mirrors, practicing their swings and checking their spine tilt. They fret about “pronation” which, I'm told, has something to do with the wrists. (It sounds like what the KGB does to spies on weekends. Talk, or we'll pronate you.)

        Golfers see Jack Nicklaus win the '86 Masters with an incredible display of putting, and they can't get to the golf shop fast enough, to buy the same putter Nicklaus used. As if.

        The solution to golf is, there is no solution. It's like blackjack. When you think you have golf figured, golf is raking your chips across the felt and cackling at you.

        It's the slot machine of sports. Only the best players ever understand why their shots behave the way they do. The rest of us don't have the time. We like to play, though. For us, teeing up a golf ball is like throwing a quarter into the one-armed lady. We even wear a glove.

        As for John Updike . . .

        “I've never seriously thought about giving it up,” he says.

        He has played for more than 40 years, since he was 25. Updike played for years with a regular foursome, until the regulars started dying. Now, he gathers with a few friends at a private course north of Boston.

        Updike even published a collection of essays called “Golf Dreams” detailing his life on the links. I don't ask him if writing it was therapeutic. I assume it was.

        “I just played a week in Florida,” he says. “I didn't get better. But I began better. I began by playing fairly well. Then it slowly leaked away.”

        I offer him my golf motto: “I never want to get good enough that I get mad when I don't play well.” It's either the greatest rationalization for lousy playing, or the ultimate copout. I don't care. It keeps me off the shrink's couch.

        Updike counters with a story:

        “Once I was having a very bad day. I skulled a couple shots into the rough. I was so damned mad, I took the 3-wood like I was hitting an ax into a stick of pine. Just whacked down on it. That ball took off, just beautiful, landed three feet from the hole. It was one of the great shots of my life. It was done in a blind rage.”

        Rabbit Run. Rabbit Redux. Rabbit at Rest . . . Rabbit Rage. It could work.

        There is a lot to like about golf, but not a lot of it is found where my ball usually lands. I ask Updike for advice to ease my pain.

        “Swing easy,” he says. “Don't try too hard, don't force it. Have faith in the good swings of the past. Work it through, even if it doesn't feel exactly right.”

        That's advice to be applied all across life's board, isn't it? Have faith in the good swings of the past. Yes.

        “And,” Updike says, “there's always the next shot.”

        Right, Rabbit. That's what I'm afraid of.

       Contact Paul Daugherty at 768-8454; fax: 768-8330.


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