Followed the way one follows a play--with an eye for drama and the interplay of the characters--sports can pay dividends even to people who hadn't been watching when something happened. John Daly's victory in the Professional Golfers' Association Championship earlier this month existed, for me, the way few sporting events have this summer--though I hadn't seen him hit a single stroke. Other people were talking about him so much and with such delight--golfers and nongolfers, sports fans and sports dabblers--that the photos in the newspapers came to life like some image of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. There was Daly, his club curled back over his shoulder as if he were some Neanderthal Goofy in a Walt Disney short, a late entry into the tournament and, I was told, a long hitter capable of reaching 600-yard par fives in two shots. A small legend grew up around him, based on details both colorful and fanciful. His motto, it was said, was "grip it 'n' rip it," in reference to his driver, and it was also said that his swing was so fast and furious it couldn't be captured in slow motion (not true, as it turns out). Yet here he was, part Cinderella, part Paul Bunyan, winning the fourth and final grand-slam event of the golf season in a cakewalk. It was an entry into big-league sports that matched--and in some ways even topped--Wilson Alvarez's no-hitter in his debut with the White Sox.
The problem with paying such intent attention to sports, however, is that it can easily work to the disadvantage of the weekend athlete. The same way Daly displayed himself to be a courageous, rash, and--on this occasion--blessed golfer, most of us display much less flattering aspects of ourselves on the field of play. For instance, a friend of mine was recently told during a company softball game that he ran the bases "like a sportswriter." I'm not quite sure what that means, and it may even have been meant as a compliment, but it sent him into a funk of self-analysis for days. My game of choice during the workweek is racquetball, a sport where function is greatly stressed over form, where what one does is far more important than how elegantly one does it. Yet I went off on vacation this week and really devoted myself to golf for the first time this summer, and in the process of playing poorly for most of the week I discovered some things about myself that weren't so pleasing to know. What's worse, everyone around me came to know them too.
Because golf is a game where form is function; how seriously one takes the sport, how disciplined one is in applying the rules, how one walks from shot to shot, are all an inherent part of how well one plays. That's the reason golf's adherents place it above all other sports: because it puts the character so clearly and brutally on display. To those who think golf a sissified game any application of the word "brutal" to the sport is ridiculous, but nothing could be more brutal for the golfer than a poor round because nothing could be more damaging to his or her psyche. In my job I take pleasure in the precision of my presentation, taking care in all things that apply to it. How can I not, therefore, go out, swing easily, keep my left arm straight, and score well on a golf course? Yet golf history, golf lore, and the typical round of golf are all filled with incidents where the entire sport seems about to slip between one's fingers. Whether it's Bobby Jones picking up and walking off the course in anger at his first British Open at Saint Andrews, or Roberto de Vicenzo signing an incorrect scorecard to blow his shot at a playoff in the Masters, or the weekend player leaving a lame sand shot in a bunker, golf is a game where the mind--and the temperament--are always threatening to betray the body, or rather, where the body is always threatening to bare the mind's shortfalls.
Right at the beginning of his book The Bogey Man, George Plimpton described his golf swing as the complex grinding of a machine gone awry. I sometimes feel the same way--especially after hitting a long, hooking drive that I almost missed completely except for some instinctive lunge at the base of the back at the last instant--and every golfer, at every level, shares the sensation now and then. It's the sensation of a person trying to watch him- or herself in the finest details of each movement, and not quite succeeding. That's the main problem with golf: It encourages self-analysis without always rewarding it. Out on the course, a golfer can find the mind feeding on itself at the expense of the body. Golf is the autoimmune disease of sports.
I do not have the time to be a serious golfer; sometimes I don't have the time to be even a weekend golfer. (Sometimes, in my line of work, you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you; lately the woods in my region have been full of grizzlies.) Thus, I've developed the unfortunate attitude that golf is simply a reflection of my state of mind at any given time. I've stepped onto the course for the first time in months and played quite well--for me, shooting in the 80s. On those occasions, the world is right, the trees are beautiful, the birds are singing, and golf is simply the excuse one uses for moving through the landscape. At other times, however, my grip feels wrong, my stance is wrong, there is no rhythm to my swing, I have no sense for the greens, and I can look up on the seventh hole to find, with a start, that the leaves on the trees are green, thus proving the adage that golf is a good walk ruined.
Is it mere coincidence that I play best when I feel most comfortable, play worst when I hate myself most? This is just one of the many questions that can drive a golfer crazy.
In any case, I stepped onto the course at the beginning of the week just trying to play the round and grow accustomed to the layout. That's what I had done at the company outing earlier this summer, when I played quite well--well enough to give myself the confidence to devote precious vacation time to golf. And indeed, at one point on that first nine holes of the week I put together four straight pars, quite a feat for a not-quite-weekend golfer who aims to play bogey ball. An eight followed, however, and that led the way to an utter collapse on the back nine, prompting one of my delightful playing partners to say, "I didn't know they ran a gas line out this far."
The next time out was worse, as my score ballooned to over 100, and my group was locked in a death spiral. Just as when a baseball team goes bad everyone begins playing badly, in this foursome bad shots were followed by bad shots. One person made fun of another duffing a shot into a bunker, then did the exact same thing a couple of holes later and grew silent and sullen. I cursed, threw clubs, at one point wanted to punch myself in the face, all in full view. It was here that, late in the round, I looked up and around at the trees and the surrounding farmland, and the leaves on the trees across the course suddenly became so clear it was as if I had been placed in front of one of those small, precise, ancient Japanese masterpieces where every leaf on every tree is discernible.
So I took a day off, went home, read the summary chapter of Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, by Ben Hogan and Herbert Warren Wind, and went back out again. While I, again, didn't hit the ball well, I was determined not to mind-- nobody hits the ball well without practice, and I hadn't practiced, and there was no way to alter that now--and to balance this mellow approach I was equally determined not to piss away any stupid strokes around the green. It was all right to mis-hit something out in the fairway after standing too long over a shot I had no confidence in making, as long as I stayed in the fairway and didn't dub one into a sand trap trying to make a shot I couldn't make; around the green, I had to have an idea of what I was doing, and I had to come close to doing it, and so I watched myself walk to the ball, and make the proper waggle, and putt with the same pendulum stroke each time, and cheer the fine shots of my playing partners. And so I scored better, down into the low 90s on a tough course, something I was ready to accept if not exactly brag over.
At the end of the round, I felt as if I had held myself together to avoid a near-total mental collapse. If that is not quite what I go on vacation intending to experience, it is, nevertheless, one of the small joys a not-quite-weekend golfer can take pride in.
One good thing about vacations, they can keep one away from a host of afflictions plaguing one's favorite sports teams. I experienced the Sox' collapse from afar, and was glad I did. The Sox were just beginning to captivate me when I went away, but their awful experiences against the Tigers, both in Detroit and back home, didn't seem so painful when read in box scores that were strangely unfamiliar, in a newspaper that wasn't delivered to my doorstep, in Associated Press wire copy that was objective, distant, and unemotional by definition. It was like going to the magic mountain to take the cure for pennant fever. The final test was returning home healthy--just in time for the start of football season.
The Bears will finish 10-6, winning their division, and will be mercifully put to rest in their first playoff game.