John Updike, Golfer

April 2009

If golfers were allowed to vote for the Nobel Prize in literature, John Updike would have won it in 1991, when The New Yorker published his short story "Farrell's Caddie." Farrell is an aging American businessman on a golf holiday in Scotland. He is assigned a gnarled old caddie named Sandy, who at first seems stubbornly out of sync with Farrell's mediocre game but gradually and almost magically manages "to release him from his stiff, soft, more than middle-aged body." Under Sandy's tutelage, Farrell begins to strike the ball with unaccustomed skill. As he does, it becomes evident that golf is a lens through which Sandy can see more than his swing. " 'Ye'd be better leavin' 'er,' " he counsels at one point, out of nowhere. Farrell thinks he must have misheard. " 'Yer missus,' Sandy clarified, passing over the 8-iron." Later, after Farrell has made his first birdie of the trip, Sandy says, " 'An' steer clear o' th' MiniCorp deal. They've laiveraged th' company tae daith.'"

Updike was a so-so player but an ardent and contented one. He had a regular group at Myopia Hunt Club, north of Boston, and his rounds with those men were among the happiest times of his life. Appropriately, he came to play golf by way of his imagination. Long before he'd actually swung a club (in an aunt's yard, at the age of 25), he was captivated by the golf stories of P.G. Wodehouse, and he "had no trouble, for some reason, in picturing the verdant scene as the Oldest Member sits on the terrace of the mythical Marvis Bay Golf and Country Club." He was hooked without hitting a ball.

Updike helped me with my game. I began playing even later in life than he did, and my wife was as appalled as if I'd taken up human trafficking. But she was a lifelong Updike fan -- during childhood summer vacations on Martha's Vineyard, she would look for him on Lucy Vincent Beach and then spread her towel within sight of his, hoping that she would later discover, in one of his novels or short stories, a description of a gloomy adolescent girl reading an Agatha Christie novel and working on her sunburn -- and when she sneered at my obsession I reminded her of Updike's. By looking at golf through his eyes, finally, she was able to forgive me for the men's member-guest.

"Somehow, it is hard to dislike a man once you have played a round of golf with him," Updike wrote in this magazine. I can think of exceptions, but I know what he meant, and so do you. Golf humbles all golfers, even the superstars, and the humbling improves and deepens them, as well as creating a bond. And Updike on the page was as generous and sympathetic as Updike on the course. You could say, in fact, that he wrote like a golfer -- unlike (for example) Norman Mailer, whose books are all forehand topspin and overhead smashes and jumping over the net. For Updike, as for Farrell's caddie, the game was a window onto things both laughably small and unnervingly large: "Golf's ultimate moral instruction directs us to find within ourselves a pivotal center of enjoyment: relax into a rhythm that fits the hills and swales, and play the shot at hand -- not the last one, or the next one, but the one at your feet, in the poison ivy, where you put it."


December 1993

Basically, I want to be alone with my golf.

I don't mind my partner and opponents being there -- they are, in a sense, part of the necessary scenery -- but to have a couple of youthful (usually) strangers also in attendance turns the game into a mob sport. My golf is so delicate, so tenuously wired together with silent inward prayers, exhortations and unstable visualizations, that the sheer pressure of an additional pair of eyes crumbles the whole rickety structure into rubble. What is the caddie thinking? keeps running through my mind, to the exclusion of all else. And, How he must hate me! Or perhaps, with that last foozled 3-wood, I have passed into a netherworld beneath his contempt. My wish to please the fellow becomes obsessive and counterproductive, one of golf's magic maxims being that the harder you try, the worse you play.

Imagine writing a poem with a sweating, worried-looking boy handing you a different pencil at the end of every word. My golf, you may say, is no poem; nevertheless, I keep wanting it to be one.

Of the last caddie in my experience, I learned, as we strode along together that (a) he had a degree in business administration and was looking for a job in the depressed Massachusetts market; (b) he had been up until 3:30 the night before, drinking; (c) his girlfriend had once read one of my books; (d) he wanted me and my partner to win the match so he could carry our bags for another day of the tournament; and (e) he expected to receive rather more in payment than the posted fees declared. When I mentioned the $20 a round that was the official charge, he couldn't suppress a laugh right in my face. So, in addition to my golf worries I had to shoulder concern over his job prospects, his state of fatigue and hangover, his girlfriend's literary life and his tip.

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