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Player's Journal

Solid 5: Great golf writing


Solid 5 is our occasional series that celebrates the things we love about the game. Given that most of us in the UK aren't able to play at the moment, we're kicking things off with something we can still enjoy - great golf writing.
Solid 5: Great golf writing

1. John Updike on golf lessons

One of only four people to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on more than one occasion, the mighty John Updike’s passion for golf was a lifelong affair. He included the game in his fiction writing, in novels, short stories and in essays for The New Yorker. He also reported from the 1979 Masters for Golf magazine and the 1982 US Amateur Championship, the 1984 Women’s US Open in 1984 and the US Open in 1988 for Golf Digest, among scores of other pieces he wrote over his long and prolific career.

For newcomers to his output on golf, Golf Dreams is a great collection to start with, featuring extracts and whole pieces written between 1958 to 1994, all of which, Updike records in the preface, contain “a bubbling undercurrent of hope, of a tomorrow when the skies would be utterly blue and the swing equally pure”.

In his 1966 essay ‘The Pro’, written for The New Yorker, Updike shows his true genius in a passage that describes Mr Wallace’s ‘four-hundred-and-twelfth golf lesson’ with his chosen teaching pro, ‘a big, gloomy sun-browned man – age about thirty-eight, weight around 195.’ A devoted golfer whose game was labelled ‘lousy’ by The New York Review of Books, Updike is surely mining his own experience in this memorable passage:

‘His noble passivity is invested with a simmering, twinkling humorousness; his leathery face softens toward a smile, and the trace of a dimple is discovered in his cheek. “Golf is life,” he says softly, and his green eyes expand, “and life is lessons,” and the humps in his brown muscles merge with the hillocks and swales of the course, whose red flags prick the farthest horizon, and whose dimmest sand traps are indistinguishable from galaxies. I see that he is right, as always, absolutely; there is no life, no world, beyond the golf course — just an infinite and terrible falling off. “If I don’t give you lessons,” the pro is going on, “how will I pay for my lessons.”

Extract from Golf Dreams by John Updike

2. Henry Longhurst on slow play

Peter Alliss described Henry Longhurst (1909-1978), the man whose seat in the commentary box he inherited, as ‘the finest British golf writer of his time’. Admired by the Americans for his mastery of ‘silent commentary', Longhurst was the golf correspondent for The Sunday Times for 45 years, and a columnist for Golf Illustrated between 1954 and 1969, which saw the magazine’s editor Tom Scott pose him a question to answer every fortnight.

‘Many of [his] views on golf, and on life, were somewhat reactionary,’ wrote the British golf writer Chris Plumridge in the introduction to The Essential Henry Longhurst, ‘and he made no bones about his politics on certain issues, but he moved freely among dukes and dustmen while admitting a degree of snobbishness in preferring dukes because they were usually more interesting.’ Plumridge, who edited the book, was one of Longhurst’s many admirers, describing him as ‘a man who took golf as a text and turned it into a philosophy.’ This is what he had to say in ‘Don’t Muck About’, a column on slow play in late October 1954:

‘Apart from the tiny percentage of golfers who actually witness tournaments, it makes little difference whether the professionals take three hours or four. The real curse is slow play at the club. At least, I take it that I am right that it is slower? Certainly, it seems to me the innumerable club golfers, who before the war, age for age, would have played two rounds in a day, even in winter, now play only one and that the main reason is the time it takes. 

‘Of course, lack of caddies is one cause – but not everybody had caddies before the war, and still the pace of play seems to have been quicker. Personally, I prefer to carry seven or eight clubs in a light canvas container rather than pull fourteen on a trolley, and therefore am not an expert trolleyman, but people assure me trolleys have added twenty minutes to the average round. As it is only roughly a minute per hole, they may well be right, and, of course, forty minutes on a winter’s day may well mean the difference between two rounds and one.’

Extract from The Essential Henry Longhurst edited by Chris Plumridge

3. Andrew Greig on why golf is like sex

Andrew Greig isn’t really a golf writer. He’s best known for his writing about the outdoors, which covers poetry, non-fiction and fiction, notably in the 1985 book Summit Fever, which chronicled an expedition to conquer the fearsome Mustagh Tower in the Korakarum Himalayas. But he’s also a native of Fife, and as such, someone who grew up in an environment where golf was just part of life: ‘I’m very thankful,' he writes, ‘to have come from the one part of the world where playing golf is as natural as breathing, swearing, smoking, drinking, pessimism, eating fatty foods and dying early of heart disease: Scotland.’

Preferred Lies is subtitled A Journey to the Heart of Scottish Golf, and in one sense the book records an epic golf trip, from the sheep-tended links of Orkney and Iona to the fairways of Scotland’s most famous courses. But it’s also an autobiography, the story of the author’s recovery from life-threatening illness, a book about friends and family, and a reflection of golf’s simple pleasures and enduring challenge. Greig explores the spiritual side of the game with the vocabulary of a poet but the cynicism of a Scottish Presbyterian – leading to passages like this, where he describes the feeling of a perfectly-struck iron shot picked off the crisp links turf:

 ‘I often think of sex, or its more mysterious, alluring and joyous cousin, making love, when seeking comparison for the profound satisfaction of a drive sweetly hit, a pitch shot that soars and falls just right, a long iron clipped off a downhill lie.

‘Let’s be clear: golf isn’t sexy. It’s a cool game, not a hot one. It’s about self-possession, not self-surrender. It has a painstaking, considered, inner-directed quality that embodies the culture in which is first evolved.  Believe me, though they took both very seriously, the Scots never confused golf and sex.

‘But in sex and golf we know ourselves as embodied beings. Both can yield up moments of absolutely sweetness, known through whole body as it connects into the world.

‘It’s the joyous mystery of timing… there is no effort, no jolt or jar.  It must happen in other sports… these moments of sweetness that are the heart of the activity, that keeps us coming back for more.  Moments when the same body that weds us to pain, ageing, loss, death, becomes also our delight in this world.”

Extract from Preferred Lies by Andrew Greig

4. Mike Clayton on Seve and Royal Melbourne

A book with the same title as Greig’s, but a very different take — in this case a collection of golf writing by Mike Clayton and Charles Happell, a respected golf writer on The Age newspaper in Australia. Clayton is a genuine force for good in the game – a former tour pro, respected course architect, historian of the game and, most importantly, a man whose love for golf still burns so brightly that he plays and caddies and talks about the game with a knowledge and enthusiasm and passion that’s infectious. If golf was to have a guardian angel, it ought to be this erudite and likeable Aussie.

Anyone who has listened to Clayton on podcasts such as State of the Game, Fried Egg and McKellar will know all about his admiration of Royal Melbourne. Happell, conveniently for his co-author, is a member of the club that boasts two sandbelt masterpieces by Alister Mackenzie and regularly figures in highest echelons of lists of the best courses in the world. In his essay ‘Questions only Seve could answer’, Clayton outlines why such a brilliant piece of design should be able to identify genius in the form of the legendary Spaniard, who is the only player in the history of the game to win important professional titles at the Old Course at St Andrews, Augusta National and Royal Melbourne. Here, Clayton is talking about the short par-4 10th on the West Course, a hole he describes as “arguably Mackenzie’s greatest short par four” :

‘Mackenzie obviously didn’t know it, but when he designed Royal Melbourne, he was designing a course for Ballesteros: this was the type of player he wanted to encourage and the type of golf he thought was the most interesting to both play and watch. You had to size up a hole, determine the question it was asking that particular day, and play accordingly. There was always an easy way around the question, but would those who took the easy way around have a chance to win by the end of the week? Perhaps if they did the other things well, but more likely those who won on Royal Melbourne — and Augusta and St Andrews — were able to because they were prepared to lose. Seve could easily have hooked it just left of the patch of heath into the cypress trees, or he could have necked it a bit into the pit bunker, but no, he buttoned four drives, showing off not only a willingness to take the line no-one else thought of but also an uncommon level of skill.’

Extract from Preferred Lies by Mike Clayton and Charles Happell

5. Michael Murphy on the pursuit of perfection

Golf in the Kingdom is a semi-fictional story based on author Michael Murphy’s visit to a mythical Scottish links after his return from a spiritual adventure to India in the 1960s. Murphy walks on the tee to find his been paired with a Scottish golf pro named Shivas Irons. Over the course of the round Shivas manages to show him the folly of approaching the game with a perfectionist mind set, focusing attention on trying to make perfect swings with the ultimate goal of not hitting bad shots — a trap it’s so easy to fall into.

Whilst some might regard it as a whacky tale, this book is more relevant now than ever. The world of golf has gone down a path that’s capitalised on human frailty, spinning plausible stories around the next great training aid and the idea that knowing your stats will somehow enable you to hit better shots. Ultimately, we all need to use this game as a practise; the practise of playing creatively, switching the conscious mind off and allowing ourselves to be surprised at the shots we can hit when we get out of our own way.

The voice in our conscious mind can be quite convincing. Furthermore, the world of golf generates relentless waves of bullshit that capitalise on this flawed approach to the game. When we listen to Shivas Irons and play creatively without fear we get everything the game has to offer, not the sanitised version we sometimes watch on TV.

‘Tis a shame, ‘tis a rotton shame, for if ye can enjoy the walkin’ ye can probably enjoy the other times in yer life when ve’re in between. And that's most o’ the time; wouldn’t ye say?

‘Every moment on the course, like every moment in life, is to some degree unique and unrepeatable.

‘Tae enjoy yer’self tha's the thing, and beware the quicksand o’ perfection.

‘The grace that comes from such a discipline, the extra feel in the hands, the extra strength and knowin’ all those special powers ye’ve felt from time to time, begin to enter our lives.

‘Inclusion of all our parts, alignment o’ the mall with one another and with the clubs and with the ball, with all the land we play on and with our playin’ partners. Fascination is the true and proper mother of discipline. And Gowf is a place to practice fascination.’

Extract from Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy