OpinionMarch 15, 2010

The Game And The Realities Of Mortality

"I grow old, I grow old," J. Alfred Prufrock laments, "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

I don't know if T.S. Eliot played the game, but I do know that, somewhere in middle age, golfers begin to see Prufrock's handwriting on the wall, to have a particularly acute sense of time passing. Part of that comes from the empirical aspect of the game -- everything gets measured and tallied. And part of it is the flip side of loving a sport you can enjoy well into old age.

If you're a basketball player, boxing enthusiast or ice climber, chances are you'll give up your passion at an age that is closer to 50 than 100. But all of us know people who still play golf in their eighties and beyond, and all of us hope to be among that crowd someday. And yet, the closer we get, the more obvious it becomes that our abilities are draining away. Yes, it's nice to feel more mellow than the club-throwing youngster on the next fairway, and yes, we might compensate for lost distance with a finer touch around the greens, but it takes a lot to make you feel good about a 170-yard drive when you can still remember hitting one the occasional 270. It requires a certain kind of dignity and equanimity to invite a nephew or granddaughter to join you for 18 holes and watch him or her blasting a wedge the same distance you're hoping your new 3-hybrid will travel if the wind is just right and you catch it clean.

People react in different ways to growing old, and golfers are no exception. I have a friend in his seventies -- former single-digit handicapper and still a good player -- who, when you say, "Good to see you," likes to respond, "It's good to be seen." In other words, he's experienced enough of life to be happy about being on the turf instead of under it. And he plays that way, too, accepting the lost distance with grace, not too intimidated by the longer hitters to play for a quarter a hole, not too envious to compliment a good shot.

And then there is the other approach: Some guys refuse to move up a set of tees no matter how slowly they're knocking it around. And it seems like half their sentences begin with an unprintable word followed by, "I used to be able to..."

If we're not there already, someday all of us will be saying, "I used to be able to." We might not wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled, but we'll have more trouble tying our shoelaces, and we will certainly feel a little sting of sadness at the sight of a tee ball that seems to head south almost as soon as it started heading north.

What to do about all this is one of the great eternal questions brought up by the great game. Say "yes" to it, the Zen masters would advise. Play in the rain sometimes. Maybe introduce a child, grandchild or younger friend to golf and siphon some enjoyment out of their pleasure. In the end, we can soften the blow, but we can't dodge it.

I was fortunate, when I first became a fanatic, to belong to a small club with a contingent of older players. Fortunate to tee it up in the men's league against golfers called Beevo and Babe, guys in their seventies and eighties, who'd lost their length but preserved their love of the game and their sense of humor.

Two summers ago, on another course here in western Massachusetts, I was fortunate to play nine holes with a 93-year-old former club champion a few weeks before he passed on. He needed a cart, could barely hear, had trouble pulling clubs out of his bag. But on the brutal downhill par-3 ninth, 160 yards to a narrow green guarded with sand, thick rough and dropoffs, he hit driver to 10 feet and sank the putt. One over par on the tee, I hit 8-iron, but rearranged the bunker a couple of times, then three-putted for a 6. He said something nice about the way I'd played the other eight holes, and I said something complimentary about his birdie. In his day, he'd beaten all comers on that difficult course, and so there was a wry twist to his smile, a subtle undertone of sadness to the moment. We shook hands, and I never saw him again. But I think about him all the time, hoping I'll get to where he was then, but not really wanting to.