January 6, 2008

A golfer's worst nightmare

My friend Jim has a recurring nightmare. "I've had it a bunch of times," he told me recently. "I'm a guest at a very fancy club, the only guest in the foursome. They ask me to tee off. I put my ball on the tee, but when I address it, I'm in the club's grillroom, which is full of people eating and drinking. At the very end of the room, there's a door that opens to the first fairway. I'm supposed to thread my tee shot through all the people and furniture and out that door. When I hesitate, for fear of killing someone, the other three guys and most of the others in the grillroom laugh. I stand there paralyzed, just like [name withheld] with the full-swing yips."

I've had similar dreams. In one, I'm trying to tee off from the seat cushion of a leather easy chair, which seems to be either inside a clubhouse or, sometimes, outside, on a tee box. Every time I shift my feet, my ball moves on the cushion, and I have to keep replacing it. When, finally, I get the ball perched the way I want it, I realize that the chair's back and arms are going to block my takeaway, and I have to start again. In another version, I'm supposed to hit my tee shot down a narrow street lined with cars, and I freeze. "The golfer is so habituated to humiliation," John Updike has written, "that his dreaming mind never offers any protest of implausibility." Inevitably, the only solution is to wake up.

Dreams like this always run aground at the moment just before the dreamer is to be tested. The toughest shot in a round of golf is the first one, and that's the one my trembling subconscious doesn't let me get to. Mulligans were invented to give golfers in the waking world a trick for slipping past the same snag: If you know you have a second chance in your pocket, your first shot loses enough of its menace to let you swing. In dreams there are no do-overs. Your fears loop endlessly.

My father-in-law, a psychiatrist, says that anxiety dreams actually serve to reassure us: When we dream that we're back in school and facing a test we haven't studied for, what we're really doing is reminding ourselves that we have faced and passed many such tests. That's sort of comforting, and might even be true. On the other hand, he doesn't play golf.