Friday, October 03, 2014


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.  Fall is arriving here in the Carolinas.  The 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 North Carolina.
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 green on Spain’s Costa del Sol.)   The cheery 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 sometimes do.
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 irons.   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.  That, 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 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 treat.   A couple of years ago, I showed her my titanium TaylorMade driver.   She, 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.
I missed mine too.

My latest book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race and Celebrity Scandal is in its second printing from Duke University Press and available in paperback as well as various e-book formats.