If tennis is Catholic, golf is Protestant

March 27, 2013

"In tennis there is infinite salvation, as in Catholicism, whereas golf is Protestant and predestined."

So says Dexter, an Episcopal minister who runs a New England prep school in "The Old Boy," A.R. Gurney's 1991 drama that has been revived as an off-Broadway play. Golf doesn't factor into the storyline aside from serving as an interesting metaphor. Dexter says the above quote after another character, Harriet, says, "In tennis, every game, every point is a new chance. As opposed to golf where if you make a mistake on the first hole you carry it with you throughout the round."

In typical Gurney fashion, that statement has a double meaning. Harriet is the controlling, divorced mother of Perry, a shy teenager who resists going to Episcopal school. While she desperately wants her son to love tennis, he's instead drawn to art, the theater and opera music. He eventually comes out as being gay and succumbs to AIDS. A disgraced Harriet pays everyone to cover up her son's cause of death, saying instead that he accidentally overdosed.

In the same way that tennis absolves imperfections and allows people to escape from their mistakes, Harriet wanted Perry to move past his attraction to men. She'd known all along he was gay, and she wanted him to leave that behind and move onto the next match. But he seemed stuck on a golf course, where his "flawed" sexual feelings haunted him throughout his life. While he wanted nothing more than to ignore that double bogey he made early on, he was eventually forced to face it and yielded to it at the end of his round.

Gurney's depiction of golf isn't far off, though he clearly doesn't know about match play.