Flattened Golf: Updike on the Televised Game

Like many, I just spent a healthy portion of last week taking in the British Open via my laptop and television. Between the barrage of Rolex commercials and kitschy Mastercard ads—nothing speaks of the Old Country like a credit card slogan recited with a Scottish accent—there was an undeniably great golf tournament on display. As we know, the vast majority of people that witnessed the crowning of the Champion Golfer of the Year did so not at Carnoustie, but from their own couch. It is with this in the background, that I’d like to take a look at a John Updike essay titled, fittingly, “Television Golf.”

In it, Updike—who I consider a foremost fairway philosopher—writes of the experience of watching golf as a devoted but decidedly amateur player himself. As a couch-bound patron, Updike sees certain real benefits televised golf brings us. He also takes notice of the limitations of the medium.

First, the good. Updike points out that viewing a tournament on TV provides unmatched views of the action. He goes so far to say that no other sport’s spectators benefit more from the game being televised than golf’s. Instead of attending the competition in person where you might be, “scurrying from here and there among the ropes and marshals and straining for a peek over the heads of hundreds of other spectators,” the domestic golf-viewer, “sits at ease and sees shot after shot in close-up.” By the end of Sunday’s viewing:

one rises up from the sagging couch bloated with golf, dazed and bedazzled by the beauty of the game, the slickness of the greens, the smoothness of the swings . . . the lavishness of the purse, and the manicured glory of the eucalyptus trees, or Georgia pines, or royal palms, or whatever they were.

And yet, says Updike, something significant is absent from televised golf: “the third dimension is missing.” The scale and proportions of the game are lost, that is, the “serene space of it all.”

According to Updike, much of golf’s joy is being there where the golf is happening. It’s “the walks and waits between shots, the textures and smells of out-of-doors,” the feel of the place and that unique experience of time one gets from the game. Provocatively, Updike argues that televised golf does something similar to a “pornographic film,” it “reduces golf to a two-dimensional spectacle.” It contorts, reduces, and flattens something that is so much more:

In its tendency to show golf as a series of putts that go in the hole or not, television presents a complicated, pleasurable activity stripped of foreplay, feeling, and the vast terrestrial and atmospheric context.

Updike moves on to theorize that many of us watch golf on television with hopes of improving our own games. The pros share some common traits worthy of our esteem and emulation. Comfortingly, however, “television golf offers a reassuring variety of workable styles.” We might even wonder why some of the idiosyncratic swings on tour lead to such great effects, but we stand consoled by the variety of tempos and techniques, hopeful our own could be as effective someday.

But as Updike ruminates, in time we might wander from the golf to another station or even let ourselves doze off with a nap. And here is the key difference Updike highlights between the pro golfer playing on television, and the once-a-week golfer on his duff: “the men who excel at golf do not let their attentions wander.” He also diagnoses the non-professional golfer—clearly here thinking of himself in this mix—as having a “secret will to lose.” Sort of like self-sabotage. Yet, the pro never rebels “against repeating the same workable swing.” So it is that, “even when we switch them off, they keep on playing. And that is why they are inside the little box making millions, and we are on the outside making a deep dent in the davenport.”

Comments

macbook-2558216_1920I think Updike’s overall thrust rather provocative, and in some very real ways, insightful. I would say his critique of the very medium of television—and the way golf is covered through it—is illuminating. It does in fact present a flattened and less rich version of the actual happenings on the course. It can’t do otherwise. There have been improvements in coverage, I think though. These don’t surpass the inherent limitations of television as medium, but the use of the medium has improved.

In particular, I have to give credit here to Fox’s coverage of the recent U.S. Open. Especially when uninterrupted by commercials, I thought Fox let the tournament breath, documenting the deliberations of players and caddies. It also seemed to capture the scene of Shinnecock, communicating something of its beauty and scale. The added audio sensitivity did provide for the novel sound of the ball rattling around the cup, but this oddity was far outbalanced by the added access to the thoughts of players and caddies. (I also say this having been very put out by the way Fox covered its first Open at Chambers Bay—did you know Jason Day suffered from vertigo there?—let’s just say they’ve shown great improvement.)

Another nice development since Updike’s time is online coverage. I do like being able to follow a particular group, or small set of groups, around the course. It provides for a greater enmeshment into the experience. Now, of course it is not anywhere close to the experience of playing a course, or even following a group in person. But, given what it is, a televised event, improvements have been made to slightly soften Updike’s critiques.

Given all this though, I think his criticism does not in fact undermine the worth of televised golf. What it does, though, I think, is give us a better sense of what that worth in fact is, and why even though we enjoy watching golf on television, we still look for so much more from the game.

 

(Golf) Pilgrim’s Progress

In Tom Coyne’s new book, A Course Called Scotland, we join him on pilgrimage to the heart of the game through the home of the game. Coyne sets before the reader a story to satisfy the golfing soul. As Coyne ambles along the Scottish coastlines in search of the secret to the game of golf, the reader’s joy is in seeing how much more than that the author finds along the way.

Pilgrim

The pilgrim’s path is never just about the miles put underfoot or the terrain traversed. It’s never just about the sacred sites. The pilgrim is also never just about this one individual pilgrim. The pilgrim’s physical journey is a sign and catalyst for an interior one. The external and internal, though distinct, are inseparable. They challenge each other, give context to each other, enrich each other. The pilgrim’s path is a penitential one, the stripping away of all that proves to be an obstacle to authenticity, fullness, and joy. The pilgrim’s progress is not measured primarily in geographic spans, but by way of interior transformation.

The pilgrim is also a living symbol. An existential claim about the human condition. And the claim is this: we are often disoriented, adrift, strangers in a strange land. We are incomplete and so we desire, we long. We are restless. And we can either wallow in this condition, convincing ourselves it’s good enough or we can seek a remedy. Restless and lost, the pilgrim seeks the place that will still the heart’s longings. Where is the pilgrim trying to get? Further up and further in. Into the heart of things. To the source. The inn at the end of the world. (Because of its profundity, there can’t be any one image for this Thing.) It is the pilgrim that, as a condensed symbol, embodies this image of humanity’s lot.

In A Course Called Scotland Tom Coyne is this pilgrim.

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I am in agreement with Coyne, I abhor “golf-is-life aphorisms,” as he puts it. The bad bounce into the bunker as metaphor for life’s tough breaks. It can come off as so forced. But that’s not what this is. Golf like all rituals—for every game is a ritual—is a focusing lens. By fashioning games, we give ourselves venues within which we test ourselves, sift through ourselves, come to know the human condition a little better. Some of these focusing lenses are more refined and rich than others. Tic-tac-toe doesn’t stir the heart. Golf, however, inspires a romance.

Nothing less could compel Coyne to undertake a walk around a course called Ireland. Nor yet, a two-month sojourn in Scotland, as he does in this book. There is a very specific goal in mind on this quest: qualify for the Open Championship. This is what every step and swing is moving toward. As the book’s subtitle suggests, though, Coyne is even more so in search of the secret to the game of golf. And where to look but the game’s home? As Coyne puts it: “This was golf’s Mesopotamia, its Jerusalem, and its Cooperstown—either I found golf’s soul here, or I was a fool for looking.”

Soul

The choice of the word “soul” is an interesting one. It’s not an uncommon one when referring to the inner essence of the game. While evocative, it is a bit ambiguous. Here I think the older, Latin word for “soul” is of help: Anima. The soul is that which animates, vivifies, gives life to a particular living being. It gives the thing its identity and is that thing’s living principle.

So what is that which breathes life into golf? What animates it? It’s an odd, perplexing, mysterious conjuration, golf is. Like all games, golf is an artefact of human creativity. And even though countless groups and individuals have conspired with nature to shape this thing we call golf, I think the reality is that the soul of golf—that which animates it—is the soul of man.

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The funny thing, though, is that the game can shape, focus, and instigate us. Even though it consistently confounds us, the golfer has a sense that there’s something more to the game than putting the round thing in the other round thing in as few swipes as possible. The horizons of the course—especially those of the Scottish variety described by Coyne—beckon us beyond the everyday. The very scale of golf—so much grander than most other games—can, at times, open onto at least the possibility of the transcendent. The game itself points beyond its own contours. At times, it seems to hint at something more, though it itself can’t tell us what it is.

The secret golf whispers to us is our own. C. S. Lewis called this our “inconsolable secret.” Lewis describes this as the longing for that which is ultimate:

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of—something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? . . . something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it.

For the golfer, the game—the purely hit iron, the tee shot sent off into the seemingly limitless horizon, the late-Autumn round walked through the gold of sun and fallen leaves—seems to point to this more, though it itself is not the more. Again, Lewis:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

We try to satisfy this longing in so many ways. Success, credentials, sex, drink, busyness, you name it, we try to fill the void. Coyne’s narrative has a deep and moving channel through it recounting his allegiance to counterfeits, most especially booze and the possibilities it seems to hold within. Emerging from this, through some sort of redemption, Coyne puts forward a hopeful image of passing through onto a life marked by a greater wholeness, though not without its acute challenges.

Standing out as more satisfactory matches to the deep longings held within the human heart in Scotland are beauty and harmony. There is also a certain reverence, though the type that is immune to stuffiness. This all seems to be a hallmark of Coyne’s narrative. It’s there amidst the shorelines and newly-minted friendships. It’s there through the quaint towns and stunning coastal roads. It’s there on the beach in St. Andrews with his daughter:

Standing here in front of me was proof, four feet tall in yellow boots, that life was stuffed with the extraordinary. I thought I had to keep fighting and grinding to grab it, but it turned out that I just needed to notice.

It’s at the end of a day stuffed full of golf:

The rush of the day settled into a keen sense of presence, and I felt a full awareness of where I was and the lengths I had traversed and how astonishing life was and how large and beautiful this world could be and how I was going to golf the UK and it was going to be the experience of a lifetime. I felt so much gratitude.

It’s at Askernish. You’ll have to read that one for yourself. It’s worth the price of admission.

 Golf

And for all this, A Course Called Scotland is a golf book. Coyne’s enjoyable narration of his sometimes thrice-daily rounds is read with a twinge of envy every now and then. His ability to set the scene and give the reader a taste of a breathtaking landscape and what it’s like to golf your ball through such beauty is certainly on display.

And through it all, we get to see in Coyne the travails and triumphs a player endures and enjoys so long as the golfer has given something of himself to the game. We see into the various iterations of how someone approaches the game, but by the end of the book we get the sense that Coyne has arrived at that place we all know is the point of golf, though so many of us seldom get out of our own way to get there: joy.

For as good as A Course Called Ireland was, and it certainly was good, Scotland surpasses its predecessor. By turns hilarious and heartfelt, Coyne’s book is confidently vulnerable. Read it for yourself. In doing so you’ll get closer to the secret of golf, which we all know is about so much more.

Walking with Thoreau

To ride or walk? The question is often answered before it’s asked. Riding is the standard at many an American golf course. Yet for those that do walk, there is a certain appreciation for this practice that goes beyond wanting a little exercise. But the question of “why” still remains. Walk or ride, you’re playing the same game, inhabiting the same space, seeing the same things. Is there something to the manner in which you traverse 6,500 yards that makes a meaningful difference to your experience of a round of golf? And if so, then perhaps this is an indication that this phenomenon goes beyond the confines of the course to life as a whole.

I think there’s an intuition here about walking. It’s the job of the philosopher or thinker to explore and expound upon such intuitions. With this in mind, I’m interested in what others have said about walking, and it’s a topic I’d like to return to periodically on this site.

For starters, in this post I’m looking at a Henry David Thoreau essay titled “Walking” (1862). The essay has a few different threads. It has an overarching consideration of the human person in relation to nature and in relation to the whole of society. It comments on civilization, the beauties of the natural world, education and knowledge, history, and addresses a certain lethargy and dullness he sees in the lives of his contemporaries. In this, the dull is the tame. Thoreau wants the wild of the wood, not the cultivation of the city. There’s more to the essay than I’ll comment on here. This post basically tries to figure out if his thoughts on walking—which are always about more than walking—provide any insight into the game of golf and its play.

Knights of Sauntering

Thoreau wants to address the “art of Walking,” an art he finds so few practitioners of, so few have a “genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING.” Thoreau fancies himself, then, a knight of a “new, or rather an old, order,” that of “Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class.” He laments the craftsmen and shopkeepers sitting in their shops all day. Whereas for himself:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and field, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

Further, it’s not about “taking exercise . . . it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” I’ve made a similar point previously regarding the game of golf. Its uselessness is something that recommends its worth: it isn’t used for some further end. It itself is the goal. Exercise and comradery and a respite from the demands of life, all of this is part of it, but these are not some other, further goals for which we undertake a round of golf.

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Thoreau: All about the 4-hour walk

In this essay, Thoreau stands unimpressed by the society he inhabits. It’s the wild and unruly not the cultivated and crafted he’s after. (He also comes off as rather impressed with himself, which is a bit off-putting.)  So much of his walking-sensibility is steeped in the experience of distancing oneself from society, which according to Thoreau dulls the sensibilities and renders one devoid of life. As he laments: “How little appreciation of the beauty of the land-scape there is among us!”

Thoreau’s ideal is the wild: “Life consists in wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued by man, its presence refreshes him.” Further, he claims “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us.” His “hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” And it is walking that brings Thoreau to this place.

But, Thoreau says, “I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only.” But in crossing the border, “the walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land.”

There’s much more to say for this essay, and quite a bit to critique. But that’s enough for a brief introduction.

Thoreau on the Fairways?

So what of golf? Would Thoreau see this as an arena of life where his thoughts on walking find a home? I doubt it. As a game, golf is the result of human creativity and culture. While it can be a solitary endeavor, the game is in essence a certain type of societal effort. It is the result of a collection of persons connected by something shared in common. The comradery and friendship, even competition, of golf all mark its essence. It’s no mistake that clubs arise for the game’s play, promotion and preservation. Further, its playing fields are cultivated and shaped by human imagination and effort. The golf course doesn’t maintain the untouched wildness for which Thoreau is so desirous. So even walking the course seems to fail to meet Thoreau’s ideal.

Thoreau might also take aim at the private club:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only.

As one that lives close to an underplayed private 9-hole course, I can sympathize a little with Thoreau here. I’m not against the private club at all, but I do like something of the Irish and Scottish practice of having even membership clubs open to public tee times regularly.

This might be overstating a theoretical opposition between Thoreau’s thought and the game of golf, though. Of all games, golf seems the result of discovery. The result of cooperation with the natural world and what it gives. The development of the game on the Scottish dunes is one of accepting the givenness of nature and playing along with it. Surely, it’s the case that a departure has been made from this earlier idyll. Many a course of today’s game is the result of extensive human effort and reshaping of the landscape, sometimes abusively so.

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Nonetheless it remains that unlike the artifice of the baseball or football field, the golfer is found amongst trees and sand and sea. While certainly in the midst of the result of human efforts, the golfer traverses the course facing what the natural world offers. Golf in a climate-controlled dome would be a travesty. When done well, a golf course and its maintaining can be an example of stewardship and caretaking. See Machrihanish Dunes. (Of course, this isn’t always the model and too heavy of a hand can be taken where the natural world is harmed by golf and its practitioners.) I also think there is a more satisfactory anthropology present in the image of humanity as caretaker—gardener—as part of, but also a cultivator and shaper of nature.

Further, the golf course is in some ways a liminal place. An in-between. It’s a departure from the workaday world and an entry into a different sort of existence. Walking emphasizes this and allows one to experience this more fully. While golf is not the wild and untamed of Thoreau it is an alternative to the demands of commerce and business and necessity. It can help the golfer escape the numbing and dulling noise of the modern world. As a game, it is a free activity that, if done with the proper disposition, can provide a respite and recreation. Perhaps walking when playing can help this as a manner of emphasis and experience, a greater way of being enmeshed in the course rather than romping over it on four wheels. The walker is also freer. Where there is a cart-path only sign, the walker goes where he wants.

While Thoreau himself most likely would not have extended his thinking on walking to the world of golf, I do think there is a potential for portions of his thought to be applied to the game as experienced by the walking player.

Fairway Philosopher: Tom Coyne (Part II)

Earlier this week, I started to comment on the recent work of Tom Coyne in this past year’s pages of the Golfer’s Journal. In short, I see two overarching effects of the four essays I’m considering: 1. a purification of our golf vocabulary, and 2. a reframing of our vision of the game. I put forward a couple words on no. 1 in the earlier post, and today I’d like to focus briefly on no. 2, that is, how Coyne is helping frame—maybe reframe?—the game of golf. What’s interesting here is that this vision is temporally comprehensive: it is attuned to the present state of the game, in touch with the richness of its heritage, and envisioning of what the game might be in the not too distant future.

This can be seen in three distinct essays, which when woven together provide a rich tapestry of what golf is, has been, and could be. In part, within these essays, Coyne addresses the following:

Prejudice and Push-carts

I admit it. To me it had been either carry your own, have a caddy—which I, myself, never did—or ride a cart. The pullcart was for the dufferingest of duffers. It’s an unjust prejudice, and I’m happy to say I’ve been disabused of it. In the Golfer’s Journal no. 1, Coyne’s essay, “The Push and Pull,” addresses the place of the pullcart in golf. To cut to the quick, Coyne highlights that at some of the best courses in Ireland and Scotland pullcarts—now often of the pushing variety—are ubiquitous. A succinct lampooning of the present American disposition against the man-powered club-carriage, that is. Further, Coyne does well to highlight the economic concern at play here. Were more golfers to forgo the driving cart, courses’ revenue would dip, perhaps jeopardizing the sustainability of courses where members demand “budget-busting, manicured perfection in their courses.” Perhaps, Coyne airs the question, “we could tolerate layouts that felt a little more natural . . . and if we didn’t demand castles for clubhouses . . . the cost of golf might come to resemble that of an actual game.” So much to say, were costs for course care to rescind, so might the addiction to the gas/electric cart. Further, this all gets into the walking vs. riding debate. One’s participation in, and relation to, the course is questioned here. Anecdotally, I only ever hear people comment on the greater sense of enmeshment into the game when walking. And beyond the game, a heightened sensitivity to the natural environs one inhabits on the course is, at least to me, noticeable when walking. Were the pushcart to greater facilitate this experience, then good on it and those that choose to utilize it.

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Endangered Species? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Six Threes or a Dozen?

In the visually-impressive essay “Accidental Revelation,” found in the Golfer’s Journal no. 3, Coyne draws the reader’s attention to Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club, found off the west coast of Scotland on the Isle of Arran. There’s really a lot done in this essay, I’ll only comment on a bit of it.

Almost by happenstance, Coyne fortuitously happened upon this course, which, all-tolled, topped out at 12 holes. Placing this local quirk in a broader context, Coyne remarks, “eighteen holes and golf are linked like 12 eggs and a carton, like three balls and a sleeve, but the 18-hole standard is a relatively young convention in golf.” The essay then goes on a historical sweep through the variants of golf hole totals, showing along the way how St. Andrews eventually settled on the now-standard 18, and the substantial impact this has made on the game. When considering the historical span of the game, the 18-hole standard is a recent determination, in fact it “does not show up in some rule books until as late as 1950.”

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Photo Credit: Golf Advisor 

The question remains, though, what might all this have to do with the game of the present and near future? Coyne identifies the following problems, that for many, “golf, for our increasingly consumed and distracted modern world, is pricey, slow and hard.” Of course, we know of the present push for playing 9, yet Coyne opines: “I will confess that a nine-hole custom is not the panacea I wish for golf.” Something feels a bit unfinished about 9. 12 though? Coyne relates, “as we finished Shiskine, I felt a unique sensation come over me: I felt done.” And with time in the day to spare. Perhaps then the 12-holer would alleviate the triad of challenges to the game at present. 12 holes takes less time. With less course to care for, green fees might drop. Golf will—and always should—remain difficult, but for the beginner to not have to endure six more holes of bunkers, double bogeys and bungled putts, there might be less motivation for giving up the game.

Purposefully Harmonious

“His sideburns stretched to the corners of his mouth, and he wore a heavy kilt of green and black.” That’s quite an opening sentence for Coyne’s essay, “Proof in the Purpose,” found in the Golfer’s Journal no. 4. This one’s a lyrical though very tangible story of a golf course—its conception, creation, and continued excellence—as both harmonized with and enriching of its land and people. Scotland’s Machrihanish Dunes is set upon protected and fragile land. Getting approval for its building took years of patience and persuasion. The restrictions placed upon architect David McLay Kidd and his team rendered many a modern method of building and caring for a course off-limits. But the limits aided vision and clarity of purpose. The land too, now, was enlisted in the endeavor, it in a sense responding to some hidden vocation. Coyne here has woven together a narrative as rich and colorful as the fantastic images and layout of the essay. It’s worth a full read. It’s a written image depicting a course not imposed but discovered. Here are a few excerpts to convey the general ethos of the piece and place: “It was a new way, a fresh path forward; it was a sort of clemency for those of us who wanted to play past the fences. Done right, it was OK to want to golf through geography that scientists deemed off-limits. They proved it in Machrihanish, and the proof was in the purpose.” By way of closing, here is a poetic final impression from Coyne regarding placing the care of the land—its flora and fauna—over the whims of visiting golfers: “And we felt this joyful rearrangement of priorities in Machrihanish as we played; it was the thrill of golfing genuine landscape, and a reminder that only on ground not bent to please our preconceptions did we find golf to please our souls.”

All in all, we have here a set of enriching provocations. How and why we approach, understand and play the game are worthy of our consideration. This consideration is only made richer and fuller by the work of Tom Coyne. I’m looking forward to taking in his new book, A Course Called Scotland; a review of which is forthcoming on this site. Until then, check out his, and many others’, work in the Golfer’s Journal.