Friday, July 31, 2009

Tom Watson and the Sorrow of Aging

It would have been another one for the ages.

A golfer, almost 60, triumphing at the world’s most hallowed championship.

It looked until the very last as if Tom Watson would pull off the miracle.

Only that simple eight-foot putt stood between him and an amazing victory at the British Open.

Everyone there at Turnberry with its glorious seaside vistas and millions watching worldwide held our collective breath. We groaned with sympathetic disappointment when the great old champion made a dreadful, nervy putt that never had chance.

But there was also something inevitable about this denouement. Aren’t sports really for the young? In his classic Sports: A Philosophic Inquiry, the Yale philosopher Paul Weiss pointed out that it “is young men who are most absorbed in sports and participate most passionately and successfully.” Weiss believed this dominance had to do not only with superior flexibility and strength, but also because sports is the only realm of society where the young have a real chance to excel: “No longer boys, they are not yet full adults able to function as prime factors in society, state, or civilization. The best that most of them can do is excel at sport.”

Only a few men and women, Weiss concluded, “perform exceptionally well in middle age.” And those that do “are so few in number that almost every case awakens our wonder and admiration.”

With wonder and admiration indeed we watched Watson beat back time for 71 holes. You could see the years in the slight limp of his newly replaced hip; and in his creased face splotched at the neck with sun damage (and Watson, like many of us older golfers, played his whole career without a hat in that age before anyone thought of sunscreen and skin cancer). But his compact, confident swing looked just the same as in the glory days of the early 1980s. Then he’d become the world’s best player with his gap-toothed Huck Finn look and relentless competitive spirit.

It should also be noted that Watson even displayed the kind of moral and political fortitude in such short supply in the insular, conservative bubble of professional golf. In 1990, the Kansas City Country Club denied membership to Henry Bloch, the founder of H. and R. Block, because he was a Jew. Watson resigned in protest. The shamed club admitted admitted Bloch several years later.

And one of golf’s great virtues is that it can be played almost to the grave (or for that matter all the way to the end: Bing Crosby, an avid player, died of a heart attack on the 18th hole at a Spanish club). Many golfers don’t reach their prime until their late 30s, at an age when most NFL and NBA stars have long since retired. The 48-year old wonder Kenny Perry ranks third on the PGA money list this year.

Clearly, in fact, we older golfers find special satisfaction in golf because it allows us one last chance to play. Freud, a chess player but not a golfer, saw play as an original, almost primordial form of pleasure. When we are children, play allows us to create worlds of our own, ones that please us better than the humdrum and sometimes pain of reality itself. As grown-ups, we are supposed to be serious, to work, to stop playing. But, as Freud noted, almost nothing is harder “than to give up a pleasure we have once tasted.”

And golf, as much we may be expected to “work” on our games, is a return to the sandbox, this time with the latest super-sized titanium driver and other fancy golf gear as our treasured toys. Children, Freud noted, will repeat even unpleasurable experiences in play because the child “by being active…gains far more thorough-going control…than when he was merely its passive recipient.” The same goes for golf. Most of us hit more bad shots than good; yet the swing remains ours to control in the make-believe world of the golf course. We fantasize about the hole in one and the personal best score. In that overlap between pleasure, fantasy, and dreaming, we speak of the “shot to go to sleep with": the one really good one we may have hit that day and which we will replay in our heads come bedtime in a grown-up version of counting sheep.

Exact repetition bores adults, by contrast to the toddler who’ll delightedly play peek-aboo over and over again. But the variation of each shot and golf course – as silly a measure of “difference” in the broader picture of golf sameness as it may seem to an outsider – allow for the “novelty” that Freud called the “precondition of enjoyment” for grown-ups. And, just like the play of children, golfers take their game very seriously. The opposite of play – as Freud had it -- is not seriousness, but reality. That goes for both toddlers on the playground and full-grown golfers.

All this helps to explain why golf has such purchase among those of us moving into life’s later years. Like the retirees who serve as starters and “rangers” -- those St. Peters of the golf course -- in exchange for free green fees, old people abound at golf courses. And, it seems to me, death looms large by its very absence – the cheeriness of the joking, the gaudy clothes, and the hyperalive green grass contrasting with mortality’s finality and dreary colorlessness. The very greenness of the course – everything in its biochemically maintained time warp of health and disease-free, almost cryogenic order – stands in juxtaposition to the sagging, imperfect bodies of aging golfers there

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 walking the course at all becomes too much. Finally, for the very old, even cart golf becomes too much. That bad heart, the stroke or just plain frailty expels you from golf’s green kingdom for good, watching on TV all that remains. It marks the end of the real activity that makes us fully alive – the entry into what the anthropologist Victor Turner famously called the “liminal” state between life – and death.

In a way, in fact, golf is about staving off death, a last search for pleasure and the impossible grail of completeness in a world where, or so Freud insisted, “the dread of death…dominates us often than we know.” You can see the shadow of death on the golf course everywhere if have eyes to see it. Consider the honorary starter tradition at the Masters. Here legendary past champions hit the ceremonial first drive. Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson each peformed these ritual duties before then passing on one by one. In 2006, the great Arnold Palmer agreed to take on the task. For all the ceremony's cheer and bonhomie, it was hard not to think of the contrast between the young, strapping, suburban sex symbol Palmer and the seventy-seven year old – who’d already fought off prostate cancer – arthritically stooping just to tee up the ball. After hitting his drive, Palmer joked about wanting to “play on” (and he'd been upset when, a few years before, he'd been asked to no longer play in the tournament). But the silver-haired champion was not allowed to do this, of course, the honorary starter’s role to hit and get out of the way for Tiger Woods and the other competitors in youth’s fleeting flush. If the springtime tournament is about renewal and the honorary starter the handing down of the sacred bundle of tradition, it is also, the unspoken part, about mortality and loss, the reduction of young champions to creaky old men nearing life's end. Palmer had tears in his eyes later – and they were not of joy -- in describing the moment for his understanding of its significance in his life’s curve.

And this brings me back around to Tom Watson. A late bloomer like Kenny Perry may have his run or, against all odds, a man of as freakish resolve and ability as Watson will himself to a point just a stroke away from winning the British Open. It might have seemed just bad luck that he lost at all. His perfectly struck eight iron on the final hole bounced just a bit too hard, and went over the green (and, if it had not, Watson would have had two easy putts for the Claret Jug). Neil Oxman, a prominent Democratic political consultant who moonlights as Watson’s caddy, told NPR only half-jokingly that his final words would be “I should have had Tom hit a nine iron.”

I don’t think it was a matter of luck or judgment. It’s no coincidence that no one older than 52 – and it was the amazing West Virginian hillbilly Sam Snead – has ever won a PGA tournament; and Julius Boros, whose favorite good golfing advice was “swing easy, hit hard,” is the oldest man ever to win a major championship at 48. It’s almost impossible for a man in his fifties to muster the energy, skill, and confidence to claim victory at these most challenging of tests.

And, in fact, that most classic malady of the aging golfer sank Watson in the end: the yips. They come upon some of us when the body loses the thoughtless confidence of youth and the unsteady hand jabs even the shortest putts anywhere but in the hole. Watson has had the yips for years. Miraculously, he managed to will in short putt after testy short putt for seventy-one holes. He couldn’t do it to the end. He yipped that last putt at Turnberry with Chronos, the Greek God of Time, grabbing him at last. 59, pace Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column about Watson, is not the new 30. It's just 59.

Watson took his loss in stride. He’s all too familiar with pain and death having suffered through the passing of his long-time caddy after a bout with Lou Gehrig’s disease (a story chronicled by John Feinstein in Caddy for Life: The Story of Bruce Edwards). “It just didn’t work out,” as he told one interviewer. It’s power of positive thinking, not to mention ability, that separates the champions from the rest of us. Watson was already looking forward to the next tournament. Sometimes, he said, his disappointments inspire him to even better golf.

Jack Nicklaus, who knows something about winning major championships, called Watson’s second place a “great achievement.”

It was that indeed no matter for the finish.