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.