Every golfer should read Marcel Proust.
A golf course, after all, can function like that famous
madeleine from In Search of Lost Time,
activating a memory rush.
In this, as much else, golf is very different from sports like
basketball or soccer. Their breath-sucking
demands hardly allow for indulging in reminiscence during the game itself, a good fit for the young with not much yet
to recall anyway. By contrast, we aging golfers have plenty of
time to ponder life’s meaning as we amble between shots, especially if
playing alone. We often find that the course's smells, sounds, and sights transport us back, as
the Beatles song has it, to people and things that went before.
It was that way for me yesterday at Hillandale Golf Club
our stalwart Durham public track.
is arriving here in the Carolinas.
hint of chill and the first gold and reddening leaves along the fairways took
me back almost forty years to my freshman year at Haverford College.
Haverford is close by the fabled Merion Golf
Club on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
Merion was our golf team’s home course, though the more plebeian West Course
and not the storied East.
I caddied that year, 1979, at East Merion to earn some
money, though the double bags chafed at the bad acne on my eighteen-year old
back. I’d never really seen autumn
colors except in pictures, having grown up in the California Bay Area’s evergreen
Mediterranean spring. Even then, the
leaves struck me as very lovely, and yet also deathly, a last show of color
before the darkness. The leaf fall, I discovered, also makes it hard to find your ball.
Autumn is high golf ball losing season in Pennsylvania and here in
Now, decades later, I see death’s shadow
often on the golf
course. There are so many older players
out there, those edging towards life’s end. We
aging golfers find special satisfaction in golf because it allows us one last
chance to play, that most primordial human pleasure.
(And some of us even die on the golf course
as Bing Crosby did of a heart attack while walking off the 18th
on Spain’s Costa del Sol.)
golf shirt colors, the ritualized grill room bonhomie, and even the
aggressively green grass can all feel like a last stand against the
grave’s grey finality, at least if you are feeling in a morbid mood as I
After five back surgeries, I use a push cart now. We know the Sphinx’s riddle, but it has a
golf variant. What walks on two legs in the morning, three in the afternoon,
and four in the evening? It’s the golfer. We pass from the youthful
carrying of our own bags to pushing clubs in a handcart to, finally, riding in
a golf cart when we can't walk the course any longer. Then, for the very old, even cart golf becomes
too much. That bad heart, the stroke or just plain frailty expels us from
golf’s green kingdom for good, watching on TV all that remains. We enter, our bodies and sometimes minds beginning to fail us, into what the anthropologist Victor Turner
famously labeled the “liminal” state between life and death.
As I pushed along yesterday at Hillandale, it was to the
motion’s soft clicking of the Ping irons that belonged to my grandfather, Ray
Starn. They’re some forty years old, the
first generation of cast irons; they have the same grey metallic early space age
look as the model Apollo landing module in our local science museum. Ray pumped gas in the Great Depression and
eventually had his own prospering body shop in California’s Central
Valley. Into his seventies, he’d work
all morning under cars in his blue mechanic’s suit with the little oval “Ray”
name patch sewn into its breast. Then
he’d head out to the Del Rio Country Club, where he had become a member. It was a great pleasure for a boy who’d
grown up poor in a Nebraska sod house to golf at his lush country club, the
American dream in living color. That Ray
was a lousy golfer never got in the way of his enjoying the game, a lesson for
all of us who gripe and complain our way around the course as if it were some
terrible burden to be playing instead of a lucky privilege.
I remember playing with Ray at Del Rio sometime in the late
1980s, around the end of the Reagan presidency (and Ray, a proud Republican,
loved “my boy Ronnie,” as he called him).
He’d been fighting prostate cancer for a few years by then. “I’m worried about this cancer thing,” he
said out of nowhere as we walked off the 18th green to our golf
cart. That night, he cried at our family
dinner, telling us how much he loved and would miss us. We never played golf again. I flew on a night flight up from Peru, where I was
working as an anthropologist, only in time to get to the hospital a few hours
just before Ray died.
It gives me much pleasure to play still with his
Strangely, perhaps the good family
karma, I hit them far better than I did the expensive, latest model Titleists I
tried out a couple of years ago.
Their soft rattling as I walked along
yesterday reminded me, I realized, of sound clips I’ve heard of the Khoisan
languages, spoken by nomadic tribal bands in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert and
famous among linguists for its distinctive clicking.
in turn, led me back into my life a decade ago, when I was absorbed in
researching the story of Ishi
, the last survivor of another Stone Age tribe,
the Yahi of California’s northern mountains.
Like my grandfather, Ishi died in a California hospital bed, though in
San Francisco, where he’d been taken to live in a museum, and not the Central
Valley as Ray did.
The Ping irons...my
grandfather...the clicking...the Khoisan...Ishi...the deep depression that
engulfed me as I struggled to finish a book about him...hospitals...the
anesthesiologist putting me to sleep for my last desperate back operation in Sweden... the lucky delight of being with my wife, children, parents, friends in my new life now...
It’s always disconcerting, of course, what jumbled,
sometimes involuntary sequences of associations our minds choose to make late in
a sleepless night, or alone on a golf course.
As I walked up the ninth fairway
at Hillandale, my reflections growing Grateful Dead metaphysical, I thought
about how connections are the essence of everything human. There’s language, and the way words really
only work when strung together, or, in the bigger picture, those social linkages that we anthropologists so love to study – family and
kinship; neighborhoods; religions; economies; countries. Our bodies themselves are but a connector set
of molecules; our minds, as the philosopher Gregory Bateson once put it, a “dance
of interacting parts,” one where clinking irons on a gentle North Carolina
autumn afternoon bring back the life and death of a California body shop owner
in the last century.
As I got up to my drive, I was two over par for the nine. That’s about always where I seem to be at
Hillandale, quite an easy course. Numbers are funny. I’m still a good
golfer, and almost always break 80 at Hillandale. But even when I was very close to scratch,
I’ve not once shot in the 60s. It
surprises me a bit as I’ve played hundreds or rounds, and shot 70 a couple of
times. Of course, I never imagined either that I would
be as old as a number like 53. A half
century on this strange planet! It’s
still my hope, every time I tee off at Hillandale, that this will be the day I
break 70. Golf is made up of such
hopes, normally dashed in the end.
Just before I’d driven over to Hillandale, I had an e-mail
from my mother. She reminded me that
this day would have been my Grandmother Frances’s 99th birthday. Frances had died just more than a year ago
in her house near San Jose, the last of my four grandparents. I thought about her, too, out on the
Hillandale fairways. She used to play
with my other grandfather, Warren, a moody and difficult man who had few
friends. I loved Warren (and never
doubted he loved me back), and he taught me to play golf in the first place. That meant putting up with my adolescent’s
bad temper and strange habits, like using dirty socks for clubhead covers. But Warren wasn’t much fun to play with. Like Ray, he was a lousy golfer, and yet could
never accept it. He’d storm off the
green after missing a putt, sometimes off the course altogether. His garage filled with strange mail
order clubs and swing aids that, then as now, never did much to
improve his game.
It was different with Frances.
A big woman, she could smash it past Warren
with her blue ladies Powerbuilt drive when she got hold of one.
She’d been born in
the Czech Republic, and liked baking, gardening, fishing, her grandchildren and
life in general.
We played together
without Warren sometime, going over the hill to the quirky Delaveaga
Course by Santa Cruz.
That was always a
A couple of years ago, I showed
her my titanium TaylorMade driver.
at 96, could no longer play -- and
drivers were still wooden in her day -- and yet she grasped the club with the curious
pleasure she took in most new things.
We thought, despite periodic health crises, that
Frances would make it to 100. She
always loved food, and, still going quite strong, shared a crepe with my two
year old, her sixth great-grandchild, when we were out in California in late summer.
That was the last time I saw her as we had to return to North Carolina. She died a few months later.
The doctors had no explanation.
Her body had simply decided it did not want
to keep working any longer.
We had chatted over the phone about a week before she died. Our conversation turned, as it often did, to
golf; she liked to hear that I was still playing. Our other favorite topic was fishing, and I told
her about a bass expedition I’d made to a local lake. I had to yell into the phone since she’d lost
most of her hearing. “Is that right?,”
she’d say, having decided that was a good default when you couldn’t
make out what the other person had said.
I was thinking about that last conversation as I got to my
ball at the ninth. It was 140 yards up a
slight hill, a nine iron for me.
I hit it well. The
ball rose high into the pale blue sky.
Every good shot is a little flying capsule of loveliness in its fleeting
seconds. It’s a sliver of beauty, and, as happens when we know we’ve done a thing done right, the human frailties of
doubt and fear recede in the moment’s pleasing magic.
Then, as all things do, the ball plunked down to rest,
fifteen feet from the pin in this case.
Frances was never a very good putter.