Words by Matthew ChominskiPhotos by Tristan Spinski
Light / Dark
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
Dante Alighieri begins his Divine Comedy lost, confused and afraid—needful of a guide. In his enduring masterpiece, a 35-year-old Dante finds that he’s gone astray. He is both author and protagonist, poet and pilgrim. Coming to his aid is the ancient Roman poet Virgil, whose work had been a great inspiration for Dante. Having been sent on a mission of mercy, Virgil seeks out Dante and finds him in his paralyzing arboreal prison. Through turns harrowing and glorious, Virgil guides Dante to the very cusp of Paradise, though not before trekking through the spiraling hopelessness of Hell and the arduous ascent of Purgatory.
Now, I am not Dante, nor do I presently find myself in an impenetrable forest. But who hasn’t “midway in our life’s journey” experienced at least a subtle and just-below-the-surface existential restlessness as we made the bend around the 30-year mark? At just such a time, I found myself climbing the dark wooden steps of Baldwin’s Book Barn, a rustic bibliophilic shrine to the written word nestled away amongst the pines of Chester County, Pennsylvania. I was looking toward the middle of life: in my early 30s, married with a small gaggle of kids. It was here I realized I had committed one of golf’s deadly sins.
If I were to confess, it would go something like this: Having strayed from the game for years, now in the midst of the relatively new demands and joys of married life and fatherhood, I was bending again to golf’s seductions. I knew the game mainly in my adolescent innocence. That is, junior golf, lazy rounds in the summer, lunches in the clubhouse with golf friends, all before I knew what a luxury the game was. Now I found myself trying to fit in unnoticed range sessions on my way home from work. The rush home after a round was suddenly full of both gratitude and dread for a wife having stayed back with the kids while I hit a ball around a big park with a stick for four hours. Some husbands chase younger and less-consequential women; I had allowed myself to be seduced by the older, wilier and less-forgiving mistress that is golf.
Like Dante in the forest, I pushed my way through the old wooden stacks in the Book Barn, settling in before the golf section. Before me sat some Rotella, big coffee-table books with aerials of courses I’ll never see, let alone play—even Leslie Nielsen’s Bad Golf My Way. And then: a sprightly little tartan-covered volume with the name Updike on the spine. I knew the name; maybe I’d read a bit of him. With this dim remembrance, I grabbed the volume, and though I found the title off-putting—Golf Dreams—I parted with the $6 and left the creaking steps of the Book Barn with an unexpected guide in hand. After this chance encounter, Updike would become, and remains, my golfing Virgil.
In time, I’ve come to know more of my guide. Born and raised in the center of Pennsylvania, my own beloved home state, Updike would go on to be, perhaps, America’s man of letters. His prodigious output included reviews, criticism, poetry, short stories and, most famously, novels. These would earn him the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, among myriad other honors.
All of this is fine and good, but for me it stands in the background of my continuing relationship with him and his singular appreciation of the game. Though his golf writings may be less celebrated and seem to some a one-off, Updike remains for me the writer whose perception and prose have shone the most crucial light on the mysteries of the game. He is a delightful master of language, his lucid wordplay pulling back layers of the game, helping his reader understand more fully why so many, as he says, “lose themselves in the bliss and aggravation of the sport.”
Thinking of Dante again, so much of what Virgil does for him has to do with vision—how Dante sees and, in seeing, understands. For me, as I wrestle with loving the game and my life outside of it, Updike has become a similar guide. Fumbling forward in the pilgrimage of life, Updike stands ready to help a golfer see more clearly the path ahead and possibly the elusive meanings hidden in the heart of the game. It’s not a matter for me of finding a true golf-family balance, for there can be no balancing such unequal weights. But if Updike is right, and I think he is, golf is a necessary break from the relentless hum of daily life. In fact, played the right way, with the right spirit, golf enriches it.
So let us take one of those necessary breaks and indulge in a trip with my guide through the game’s tragic comedy. I suspect Updike will prove Virgil-esque, shining a light on the wonder, joy and humor of the game while not remaining untouched by its agonies.
“Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”
As Virgil leads Dante through the first stretches of Hell, it becomes clear that one of its chief sufferings is an utter lack of hope. This sinking despair is well known to the golfer, something we’ve all too often keenly felt. It’s the hopelessness that accompanies what feels like only a slightly bad swing that has in fact gone far worse than one could ever have expected, or thought the laws of physics would allow.
This bogey-riddled agony can seem a dark wood—an experience often found among the course’s trees—as we seek our waywardly struck ball with frantic forlornness. It is here, with despair covering our exploration, that we feel, as Updike recounts, the “hellish effortfulness of a bad round.” We feel in our bones “the grotesque disparity between a drive that eats up two-thirds of the fairway and the ten-yard dribble hit with an almost identical swing.”
In the preface to Golf Dreams, Updike confesses to an especially arduous and dispiriting recent period of his golfing life. He stands bewildered: “I don’t know what went wrong.” As he looks back on his decades of writing about the game, he sees that even in his youthful “comedy of complaints there ran always a bubbling undercurrent of hope, of a tomorrow when the skies would be utterly blue and the swing equally pure.” Now, in the waning years of his game, this hope “seemed one more youthful vision gone glimmering.” He laments, “My romance with golf stood revealed as hopeless.…From my golf dreams I had at last awoken.” In this new reality, the game begins to feel obligatory and a suspicion creeps in “that golf had stolen my life away.”
He surmises, “Clearly, it was a hell faithfully answering Dante’s description: circles of sinners frozen forever in an earned, ungainly agony,” where he, in this perditious season of his golfing life, is left “perambulating these circles this hellish summer.”
Rounds such as these will certainly be populated by any number of poor strikes of the ball. Bless those golfing souls who have one, maybe two characteristic misses. Misery follows the golfer who knows the panoply of bad shots. Updike provides us a catalogue of this
ineptitude: “The duck hook, the banana slice, the topped dribble, the no-explode explosion shot, the arboreal ricochet, the sky ball, the majestic OB, the pondside scuff-and-splash, the deep-grass squirt, the cart-path shank, the skull, the fat hit, the thin hit, the stubbed putt.”
He wasn’t finished: “The soaring slice that crosses the highway, the chunked chip, the shanked approach, the water ball, the swamp ball, the deeper-into-the-woods ricochet, the trap-to-trap blast, the total whiff on the first tee, the double-hit putt from two feet out.”
I must confess a dark, self-deprecating joy when reading this taxonomy of misses. It’s comforting to have in Updike a companion who knows and shares the multiplicity of dashed hopes on the course. For me, the duck hook is the most dispiriting miss. There is nothing redeeming in its complete waywardness. To finally emerge from the domestic frenzy of sippy cups, kids taking far-too-short naps, shitty diapers and only slightly answerable questions about the nature of existence from 6-year-olds, then see this precious opportunity to wander the fairways blown in a blink with a vicious duck hook is to feel joy truly dashed.
But this is not the full story of a golfing life. Through the grind of the game, there really is hope, the sun peeking over the mountain. For Dante, this path forward is Mount Purgatory; for Updike and myself, perhaps golf’s greatest bliss is found in the hope of the next round.
“Such waves of yearning to achieve the height swept through my soul, that at each step I took I felt my feathers growing for the flight.”
Golf is fashioned to lampoon our pride, to puncture any air of superiority. As long as we don’t crowd them out with bluster and complaints, golf has lessons of humility and gratitude to teach. To Updike, if in the world we are met with flattery and illusion, “only golf trusts us with a cruelly honest report on our performance.” Playing the game has made my impatience unmistakable, plumbed the depths of self-doubt and painfully revealed the fecklessness of my ability to focus. As Updike sees it, “people are naked when they swing—their patience or impatience, their optimism or pessimism, their grace or awkwardness, their life’s motifs are all bared.”
With golf, “the feedback [is] instantaneous and unrelenting—the ball cannot be browbeat out of the place in the poison ivy where we placed it, or euphemized up from the water into which it just so sickeningly plonked.” Golf is a “square shooter,” chastening us with its rich “variety of disappointments…with so many rebuffed desires.” Or, to borrow a football phrase: The scoreboard don’t lie.
The fact that we’ve all hit seamlessly perfect shots as well makes the game beautiful and beguiling. We’ve all hit that ball: “Right up the middle, or right on the pin, or right into the cup. The ball whistled off the grooves and bit on the green with backspin, or else bounded down the fairway with overspin. And it felt effortless. So, why not do this every time?”
Since we’ve clearly shown the physical aptitude, “the reason must be characterological.” We fear our bad golf shows us to be, in fact, bad people. At the least, bad golf shots uncomfortably reveal our anxieties and self-doubt, not to mention our forgetfulness of hardscrabble wisdom. At minimum, they highlight how easily our mental and emotional bullshit can conspire against our physical capabilities.
The duffed shot lacks that “mustard-seed of faith that keeps the swing smooth and the parts of the harmonizing body all in place.” The pure shot involves trust, a “saintly letting go that golf asks of its devotees.” Yet “most of us cannot let go and let the genie out of the lamp.”
Here Updike truly shows his worth as my golfing guide. From pumping it off the tee to the effortless long iron, from pulling off the unlikeliest of recovery shots to the stuck chips to the perfectly paced putts poured into the cup, over time I’ve hit good shots all over the course. So, why can’t I do it all the time? Or get the bargain all of us would gladly take of simply more often than we presently do? Like so many golfers, when playing by myself I’ll sometimes hit a second ball after a muffed shot. The first is muddled, stuffy and stifled by doubt. Of course, the second is perfect in its simplicity, tempo, feel, flow and freedom. It has the feeling, as Updike so accurately says, of “letting the good shot out.”
Ultimately, he says, golf is “a study in our greed as well as our lack of faith.” We fail to show gratitude for “the skulled wedge that somehow wound up on the green,” and we ascribe our shanks and pulls and wipey fades to something other than our true selves. We equivocate and possess “the burning conviction that it wasn’t you who just hit that shot.” Simply put, though, “it was you, and facing this disagreeable fact is one of the moral lessons of golf.” To go further, golf shows us that we must relinquish the “hope of utter control.” That the free, unencumbered swing proves truest: “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.”
“Just as a man before a glass can see a torch that burns behind him, and knows it is there before he has seen or thought of it directly.”
When we let the good shots out—even just a few times a round—golf reveals its particular joy and bliss. Happiness floods the game when played with the right spirit. And it is this happiness, to riff on Aristotle, that we all ultimately seek in our varied undertakings and endeavors. Updike confesses that even though his own game has flaws, he finds himself “curiously, disproportionately, undeservedly happy on a golf course.”
At another point Updike asks “what the peculiar bliss of this demanding game is, a bliss that at times threatens to relegate all the rest of life, including those sexual concerns that Freud claims are paramount and those even more basic needs that Marx insists must be met, to the shadows?” There is a certain perplexing spatial harmony that must be a part of the joy of golf. Compared to other fields of play, golf’s possesses an unmatched expansiveness. The physical and geometric possibilities open before us from the first tee to the final pin: “To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, contemplated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small.”
Our body’s size relative to that of other bodies within the game is almost out of Wonderland: We stand a giant next to the ball, a dwarf compared to the course, yet of equal stature with our fellow golfer. It’s no wonder golf entrances us like it does.
Then there is the bliss and joy of the golf swing. A purely struck shot yields within the golfer an inner contentment of profoundly simple satisfaction. Our guide knows that, at this moment, there is an impulse in the golfer to hide this joy away, to savor this secret: “‘I’ll take it,’ we say modestly, searching about with a demure blush for the spun-away tee.” We see that, “in those instants of whizz, ascent, hover, and fall, an ideal self seems mirrored.” It is also in these moments that we golfers feel an unmitigated hope, so rare this side of Eden—a hope that we in fact might become a better player. Hitting one good shot means we can hit more good shots.
Golf is a strange mystery, but not anywhere near as mysterious and strange as its practitioners. If a golfer allows for a moment of introspection, questions arise as to why you love the game as you do. Why so much devotion, care and concern? These times of shady puzzlement are best illumined by a trusty, experienced guide. And there is none better than Updike. He’s a fantastic golf buddy, one who will make you laugh and wonder, helping you all the while see more clearly the hope that meets us on the first tee, and beyond.
Updike once entertained this question: “Is life too short for golf?” Specified for my own spot in life, isn’t there just too much going on with work and home and wife and kids? And the drafty windows and, for two years now, the almost-done-but-not-quite-there-yet kitchen renovation? But, says Updike, “men and women need to play, and it is a misused life that has no play scheduled into it.” And with the greater vigor and gratitude found in a couple hours on the course, I find all the more impetus to be a better husband and father. That “ideal self” Updike finds in the free and perfect swing, with its trust and pace and peace, that hopeful self who meets him on the first tee, this is also the better version of myself I need to be more and more.
Or, as my guide says: “Golf turns life inside-out; it rests the overused parts of ourselves, and tests some neglected aspects—the distance-gauging eye, the obscure rhythmic connection between feet and hands. For the hours and days it has taken from me, golf has given me back another self, my golfing self, who faithfully awaits for me on the first tee when I have put aside the personalities of bread-winner and lover, father and son. Golf lengthens life.”