Never to sleep, always to dream

By John Updike Illustrations by Bernie Fuchs
February 03, 2009

Tiger Woods did not always win majors with ease; after his narrow victory in the 1999 PGA, he slumped and sighed as if he'd been carrying rocks uphill all afternoon. His suddenly weary demeanor reminded me of a curious physiological phenomenon: One is never tired while playing golf. Afterward, yes, and beforehand, very possibly, but while the score is mounting and the tees and fairways and greens are passing underfoot, fatigue is magically held at bay. I have flown overnight to London, taken the morning commuter plane from Heathrow up to Edinburgh, and driven several hours through a winding chain of Scots villages to a golf course, delirious with jet lag. But once I stepped with my group of groggy Yanks onto the springy turf of the first tee, a rejuvenating exhilaration set in, dissipating fatigue as does the sun the mists of morning. We frisked around like a pack of schoolboys, and only after the 18th hole, in the creaking leather armchairs of the clubhouse bar, partaking of lulling liquors, did we feel our years again.

And in this country, too, the after-effects of a short night's sleep and a premature arising are suspended during play. How can this be? The answer can only be that golf is so entertaining and various in its challenges that the life-giving spirit is wholly engaged; weariness finds no cranny whereby to enter. Think of an average par 4 as a duffer plays it. First, the perilous, all-important drive, which can evade any fairway no matter how wide, and can be sliced, hooked or toppled into any patch of rough no matter how out of the way. Then, once the wee orb has been maneuvered with one blow or many to within, say, 170 yards of the green, there is the iron shot, demanding not the drive's sweeping motion but a sharper, more simultaneously upright and downward swing, ideally culminating in a smart divot and a soaring, straight shot. If ideality does not become reality, a chip of some length is left, requiring crisp contact and a judiciously partial swing. Then, if the chip is not skulled across the green, or chunked into more short rough, or shanked sideways into a bunker, there remain, most likely, two putts--the long putt, requiring a slippery mental image of lagged distance and estimated break on the swales and humps of the green, and the short putt, a testing little snake with its own fangs of dire possibility.

At every point on this progression the mind is challenged by fresh problems; it is as if a sculptor were to move around his studio carving first in granite, then in soapstone, then in tight-grained wood, in friable plaster, and finally in butter. Each substance demands its own technique, its own backlog of previous experience and helpful admonitions to oneself. Don't overswing. Don't hurry from the top. Turn your back. Keep the triangle of the arms and chest. Don't grip too tight. Don't baby it. Pick your spot, and trust it. Get it to the hole. Don't overread the break, or underread it. Each touch of the club on the ball is a test, and a chance for redemption. A good iron can redeem a mediocre drive. A good chip can redeem a poor iron. A good putt can redeem a bad chip. There is fresh hope at every juncture, until the ball rattles into the cup and sends us on to the next tee, where hope springs up as readily as dandelions in April.

Oh, to be sure, other sports have their variety, too. In tennis, there is the forehand, the backhand, the overhead smash and the drop volley, all with a different grip. Baseball skills schizophrenically encompass a pitcher's, a batter's and a fielder's. Still, only golf sets up its challenges in such a tidy row, a telescoping succession like that of Russian dolls nested one inside the other. There is space between each shot, providing time in which to contemplate and conceptualize. The classic and best way to play is to walk, coming up on the ball from behind with a firm and thoughtful tread, rather than zigzagging at it with a cart partner's chatter in your ears and his ball cluttering your perspective. Connecting the dots is the method of golf's puzzle, the prize going to the fewest connections. The course is a diagram in your head, and you are the dot, moving along in as straight a line as you can manage.

If the course is one you play often, you have hit most of the possible shots well enough at some time or other, and one of the stimuli keeping you awake is this rivalry with your best self. Golf at its measured pace permits an electric excess of mental activity. Your brain pours a rain of advice down upon your body, like a seasoned old coach who is at first patient and fatherly with a dull-witted athlete, then louder and blunter in his sideline advice, and finally livid with frustration. Who could sleep in such a racket of inward stricture? And always the next shot lures us on, making the heart race with hope, even though the ball be found in the rough beneath a tangle of running raspberries, or in the woods behind an arched beech root, or in the sand nested within its own concussion crater. But recovery is not utterly impossible, the green is but 120 yards away, a deliberate slice might well curve into the handbreadth of space between two stout trunks. So: Keep the head down and the hands ahead of the clubhead. Pow! The ball vanishes--no, there it is, skipping along on the cartpath, taking a fortunate kick right off the bunker rake, dribbling onto the green, settling close to the hole, from here it looks like a gimme. Your buddies cheer. Another addition is made to the sparse, ragged annals of your wonderful shots.

Even in the depths of a dismal round the possibility of a miracle lingers.

Despair relaxes the swing, and things look paradoxically up. Many a long putt wanders in for a nice quadruple bogey. Many a soaring wedge caps a succession of tense foozles. The possibilities are always there, and keep our energy high. There is never a juncture where the adrenaline can stop flowing. And who could be bored or long disconsolate amid the spreading scenery that unfolds around us, the heedless wildlife that twitches at the edges of our journey, the silvery clouds that cap it? Who could be tired with so much to think about, so much to hope for, so much to laugh about, so much to redeem? Space brims all around us, and vastest of all is our room for improvement. I have, I confess, sometimes wondered how some of my more retired friends can play golf every day without any sign of surfeit. Well, the man is the same, and the course is the same, but the golf is never the same. Those wakeful synapses keep firing.