It’s a long and tender quiet the evening lays over you during a round of solitary golf. I prefer to walk, to carry my own clubs, to sweat out the residue of the world beyond the yellow stakes. I wave as I near other golfers, mostly men, mostly overweight. They ride in carts and drink lite beer and don’t bother putting anything inside three feet. The shadows lengthen on the fairways as the light starts to pale, which bathes everything with a comforting glow. At midsummer, this kind of light lingers far longer than you’d think as if the clouds have learned to hold the sun’s charge. Sometimes I won’t finish until nearly nine o’clock. By then I’m all alone, even the groundskeepers and the rangers having locked up and headed home. Solitude in this place that’s not quite nature but wants badly to be.
I’ve never been a terribly good golfer, and each year I seem to forget one more nuance of swinging a club. I dip into the 70s no more than a couple times a year now, leaving me nostalgic for the flexibility and coordination of my youth. But golf is one of those rare endeavors that you can both enjoy and be decidedly mediocre at.
I play public courses, always have. This isn’t merely a statement of economics. It’s a decision you make. I’m a public course guy, much like I’m a public school guy. I can easily talk to other public course guys, point them to the correct bush when theirs drives run astray, complain about the aeration holes on the greens when we bump into each other in the parking lot. Something about an ill-kempt city course speaks to me. It’s probably a line of code written into my sturdy Midwestern DNA. What was it Charles Baxter said? All the beauty of the Midwest seems to be on a budget? Truly.
I grew up playing a handful of public courses in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Summer mornings, my mother would drive me and my best friend Jaffa to the course, where we would often stay all day, getting in upwards of 36 holes. (For Christmas, our parents would splurge and buy us junior memberships, which cost $100 and gave us carte blanche. Even now it seems like a lavish gift.) This was back when most woods were actually made out of lumber and when no one knew what tungsten inserts were or why you would use titanium on anything other than the space shuttle. Our sets were gouged and mismatched, but we probably cleaned them more often than we washed our hair. We laughed a lot, made lots of little competitions, perfected our lies far too often and offered gimmes freely—freely, that is, until the 18th hole loomed and we realized we trailed by a stroke or two. Gimme-golf, I learned, is a slippery slope. Do it long enough, and you might as well stop putting altogether. Jaffa and I both rode gimme golf to low scores. When it was convenient, which is to say when I was standing over a four-footer, we ignored the moral implications; other times we grew self-righteous. Sometimes this led to arguments followed by long silences. We were teenagers, which means anger peaked frequently but then dissipated by the end of the hole. Grace, the game has taught me, means saying “wonderful shot” when you’d really prefer to brain your partner with a 7-iron.
Jaffa was the gregarious, outgoing type, and he would often attach us to other groups who let us hang off their carts, who bought us hotdogs or the occasional beer. Without his magnetic personality, I wouldn’t have met the hundreds of kind and interesting people I met. I don’t know how many thousands of hours we spent together on the golf course, witnessing good behavior and bad, near-perfect shots and many wet ones. It bred a strange sort of intimacy, one that formed out of seeing each other at our most savagely honest. Try hiding the ecstasy of a well-struck three iron or the agony of a missed par putt. Try doing it when you’re thirteen years old.
When evening finally loomed, my mother would pick up us up. By then the day’s sweat had ossified onto our scalps, and we would sit in the back seat and break down our rounds, shot by shot, pointing out situations we would handle differently the next day. We would always score better the next day. Tomorrow, you think, I’ll flatten out my swing plane, take a stronger grip, breathe. Tomorrow I’ll putt every putt, no gimmes, no mulligans, no excuses. I won’t need them. By the time we got home, we were ready for more. We jammed a Folger’s can into the ground of an empty field, trimmed a green with hedge clippers, and kept playing. We made up challenge games, flopping lob wedges over street signs and running speed golf. We counted strokes under the street lights, eventually having to tail the back edges of the dark and go home, all while explaining to each other small tweaks we had made to our stances and ball position, how were certain we had things figured out now. This time was different, Jaffa would always say. No more slices, no more bladed worm-burners. More than 20 years removed, what I remember about these days is laughing with my friend, taking ourselves too seriously, talking with a clipped sort of jargon that only we understood. I remember, too, a manic hunger to hit the course the next day.
There’s a lot I adore about golf, but perhaps the most profound quality is that it breeds a constant optimism in you. All golfers know—flat fucking know—that we’re going to shoot the round of our lives when we’re driving to the course. We know that we can carry 260 and clear the drink. We know we’re going to get up and down from the bunker, that there’s no way we’ll three-putt. Not today. The absolute certainty should be disconcerting, but it’s not. It’s a wonderful sort of naiveté. It’s a return to the bravado of boyhood. Even now, all these years later, that’s how I feel as I hack my way around the course. I’m a child again, walking through a summer day with my friend, and neither of us has ever experienced rejection or that teeth-kick that life has in store. When I walk the course I can pretend not to know how harsh that teeth-kick will be for Jaffa, how it’s looming just around that next dog-leg, because when you’re walking the fairway, especially alone and near twilight, you know in your bones that whatever comes next will be good.
Of course, as someone who cares deeply about the environment, I sniff a dilemma. Golf courses are chemical pools, full of runoff and unnatural colors, ponds full of Asian koi and pesticides not so different from Clorox. It’s a Scottish game, but we’ve made it decidedly American. Big and harmful and ignorant. Golf began as an attempt to enjoy nature but eventually morphed into a need to utterly conquer it. Too often courses raze land of prime ecological value, corrupting complex watersheds to feed their own addiction to water. They produce harmful runoff that stunts crops and wildlife habitats in ways we’re only beginning to understand. They now seem to arrive with bundles of overpriced condominiums and sprawling restaurants. That’s the American part. That’s the part where that big, hungry beast known as capitalism takes over, much as it did for small farms a century ago. I heard Ben Percy refer to golf courses as “green oil slicks” one time. I want badly to disagree with him, but I can’t. I’m left to consider the many ways Thomas McGuane and Annie Proulx could scold me for being a golfer. I can only hang my head, offer my own apologies for complicity in mankind’s staggering hubris.
And yet I continue to be a golfer, much the same way I continue to drive a car and print documents when I should probably just email them. I eat potatoes despite the ravaging effects their irrigation needs have had on the silt deposits in those angelic trout waters of Idaho. In no way do I feel that one destructive behavior ever excuses another. I feel guilty about each of these things. But it’s worth pointing out that this is what humans do: we dominate. All other animals tread on their tiptoes. But humans? We trample anything green we see merely because we see it. I’m left explaining it all to myself since I certainly can’t justify it. Replacing my divot won’t cut it, and I know that.
For this and probably a hundred other reasons, I’ve rarely found it prudent to admit my love of golf. It lacks the romanticism of fly fishing or hunting or drinking single malts. It’s not reading Marilynne Robinson into the deep reaches of the night or attending a lecture on race relations America. It’s not writing an op-ed about domestic drone strikes or campaigning for marriage equality. Golf manages to suggest both privilege and frivolity at the same time. Despite the Tiger Woods effect, it’s still an expensive hobby, one that exposes our own stratified class system: those who will never afford the time or the money to play, those who manage to play public course, and those who belong to plush private clubs. I’ve been cognizant of this for a long time, even embarrassed of my own place on the spectrum. Golf has afforded me profound benefits, but I slowly secluded my love of the game off from my professional fingerprint. Silent protest, I told myself for a long time, but that wasn’t it. It was self-preservation.
Then in 2009, I read an article about John Updike, who, much to my surprise, was a devoted golfer. He had a regular game, regular golfing buddies, even wrote about golf. He, too, discovered the camaraderie and the subtle ways it encourages grace. John Updike, golfer. I hadn’t played in years, but I suddenly craved a few free hours to walk the course with Jaffa. This proved one of those elusive pivot points for me. I had always adored Mr. Updike, not simply for his prose or his worldview, but even more for his dedication. He was prolific long after he needed to be, gracious far past the point that it was self-serving in any way. Later that same year, when I learned that Mr. Updike had died, none of the tributes I read of him mentioned golf, which seemed to confirm that he and I shared this private connection. A couple weeks after his death, The New Yorker published a handful of his poems with a note that explained how he had written them in the hospital, quite literally on his deathbed. What a remarkable man, working until the bitter end, as if he simply knew that next poem or essay or story was going to get it right. A golfer’s mentality if I’ve ever spotted one.
Mr. Updike’s love of golf made my own love of the game okay. A devotion to letters did not exclude some more plebeian, selfish interests. He had carved out room for odd contradictions in his life, which meant I was allowed to do the same. I think I appreciated that article as much anything Rabbit Angstrom ever said.
I’m now many years removed from being eligible for that junior membership, and I’ve decided not to feel any measure of shame as I stroll the fairway at twilight. I play rarely, but when I do, it’s usually alone. I enjoy the humidity and the reaching shadows. I enjoy the quiet. I luxuriate in that constant optimism, and I know that I’m going to break 80. Striding up to my ball, I’m a superhero. Only then do I allow myself to grow nostalgic for those summer days as a kid, long before it occurred to me that I should consider what my hobbies said about me.
A few years ago I learned my friend Jaffa was in prison. We hadn’t talked for nearly a decade. When I heard this, I found myself both unsurprised and heartbroken. Good people can end up in prison, too, I suppose. Every round I play makes me think of him, what he’s doing, what he’s thinking. How much has the world closed off for him? Routine and block walls and a scarlet letter tattoo that reads: felon.
And then last year he got out. To my great shame I still haven’t contacted him, though I badly want to. I simply don’t know what to say. That initial embrace, those initial words—they elude me. How could I dare tell him about my beautiful wife and beautiful son and beautiful life? How could we get back the innocent connection of our childhood? We’re stuck in an awful sort of limbo where we search in vain or a wormhole to transport us back to a world of shared experience. If Tom Wolfe is right that we can never truly go home, I’m left wondering why it is that we spend all our lives trying.
What I would do if I were kinder or braver is take him out for a round of golf because a round of golf is a rebirth—a rarity in a world that punishes so much better than it forgives. I’ve spent half a lifetime searching for goodness in this game. Perhaps I’ve found it now. I only wish it had taught me a bit more about courage.
So I’m left to imagine it. We’re strolling the fairway side by side, tracking a couple of crummy tee shots. He’s different, it’s different. But after a few holes he starts talking about what happened, how life got away from him. He doesn’t ask for help or advice, just talks. I tell him how sorry I am, but that’s the point I remember it’s a dream. I know better. We’d let the silence talk because silence in these situations is so full of wisdom and hope.
And that, I think, is what the game teaches us more than anything. Hope. Hope that we’ll putt every putt, hope that we won’t fluff our lies, hope that we’ll eventually find a way to manage golf’s corruption of the natural world. Hope that we’ll break 80. Hope that one day soon I’ll find the courage to pick up the phone, because once I do, once we’re back on the course, I have every hope that the game will begin mending my old friend.
Photo: A Walk in the Rain by Ray Morris