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 is Useless, Part II

In Part 1, I tried to briefly argue that the charge that golf is useless is in fact not an indictment, but a badge of honor. Golf, like so many other games, is good to do for its own sake. It needs no further justification and should resist coy attempts at instrumentalizing the game for some further, perhaps less noble, ends.

As will be my wont on this site, I turn next to the sage of the fairway (and bunker), John Updike. He was once in the presence of a young woman who informed him that life was too short “for crossword puzzles and for golf.” His ruminations are characteristically worth attention:

The nature of humankind must be considered before we decide what life is too short for. Is it too short for sex, for instance, or is sex its business? Men and women need to play, and it is a misused life that has no play scheduled into it. Crossword puzzles, even, have a fit place in some psychological budgets. With them, as with golf, we set ourselves to solve a puzzle nature has not posed. Nothing in natural selection demands that we learn how to beat a small ball into a hole with a minimum number of strokes.

Clearly, here, Updike sees the lack of necessity of golf as something that attests to its worth, not a detraction from it. This is not to say that it does not benefit us, though:

The great green spaces of a golf course remember the landscape in which the human animal found his soul. Certainly the site of our favorite fairway wandering toward the horizon is a balm to the eyes and a boon to the spirit. Our mazy progress through the eighteen is a trek such as prehistoric man could understand, and the fact that the trek is fatiguingly long constitutes part of its primitive rightness.

green grass field
Photo by Xin zheng on Pexels.com

Further, “a more reasonable length—twelve holes, say—wouldn’t have the resonance, the religious sense of ordeal. It is of the essence that a game of golf can’t be quickly over and done with; it must be a journey.”

Updike ends his meditation thus:

As soon say life is too short for sleep as say it is too short for golf. As with dreaming, we enter another realm, and emerge refreshed. 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 put aside the personalities of bread-winner and lover, father and son. Golf lengthens life, I should have told that young lady.

To reiterate in a way, I don’t think Updike sees golf as just some discardable way toward further ends. Rather, it is golf as a whole—certainly made up of various aspects, though nonetheless a whole—that within its world shapes and facilitates those phenomena that Updike so eloquently articulates.

So, golf is not solely useful, is not some tool. It is, alternatively, a sub-world to inhabit, and within it we find a version of ourselves. Within it we hopefully find those very selves bettered.

Updike on this Thing

An Updikean Addendum

I’d like to follow up an earlier post on happiness by looking at a portion of John Updike’s Golf Dreams. In this compilation is an excerpt from his novel Rabbit, Run. In it, the main character Rabbit is playing a round of golf with Episcopalian minister Jack Eccles. Eccles pesters Rabbit as to why Rabbit has recently left his wife. In the midst of this tension-filled scene Rabbit declares defiantly, “I told ja. There was this thing that wasn’t there.” Unsatisfied, Eccles interrogates his playing partner about this thing. What follows is worth quoting at length:

[Rabbit’s] heart is hushed, held in mid-beat, by anger. He doesn’t care about anything except getting out of this tangle. He wants it to rain. In avoiding looking at Eccles he looks at the ball, which sits high on the tee and already seems free of the ground. Very simply he brings the clubhead around his shoulder into it. The sound has a hollowness, a singleness he hasn’t heard before. His arms force his head up and his ball is hung way out, lunarly pale against the beautiful black blue of storm clouds. . . . It recedes along a line straight as a ruler-edge. Stricken; sphere, star, speck. It hesitates, and Rabbit thinks it will die, be he’s fooled, for the ball makes its hesitation the ground of a final leap: with a kind of visible sob takes a last bite of space before vanishing in a falling. “That’s it!” he cries and, turning to Eccles with a grin of aggrandizement, repeats, “That’s it.”

Here I think can be seen a certain satisfaction in having done well. A particular contemplative contentment. The moment is full, more than the sum of its parts. Therein can be found a harmonization and flowing freedom in realizing the sought-after goal. Which is to say, this all sounds rather Aristotelian. And perhaps this thing found in a purely hit tee shot is a condensed indication of a broader and richer phenomena.

Get Updike’s edited volume, Golf Dreams, it’s well worth it: