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By Charles Lindsay
Bulfinch PressCopyright © 2005 John Updike
All right reserved.
And the wind shall say: "Here were decent godless people Their only monument the asphalt road And a thousand lost golf balls." -T. S. Eliot, chorus to The Rock
I have seen news videos of outfielders rummaging for a baseball lost in the ivy on the quaintly leafy wall at Wrigley Field, and I have experienced mis-hit tennis balls flying over the court fence deep into an impenetrable grove beyond; but no sport offers the sensation of lostness as often and enragingly as does golf. The damn thing has to be here, we think as we thrash at a clump of blueberry bushes or buffalo grass with the 7-iron we hopefully brought with us into the wilderness. Our obliging partners tramp in circles with us for a few minutes, peeking into drainage ditches and under fallen palm fronds, but their hearts aren't in it the way ours are; this lost ball represents two strokes, and two extra strokes could mean the hole and even, it could be, the match, the entire outing, the day itself. Why me? one wonders. It was just a little slice, a tiny tail probably induced by the wind. It carried only a tad, a mere yard or two, into the woods, or the marsh, or the tall grass. Why couldn't it have been the other fellow, the loudmouth buddy smugly announcing, "O.K., we've given it five minutes, let's get a move on. It's getting dark, guys"? Not as dark, actually, as the inner weather as one trudges along, dragging like the foursome's crippled foot, "out of the hole" as they say, headed for an ignominious triple bogey, a condescending, token "paper seven."
The whereabouts of the ball are in a sense the key to every ball game, but the whereabouts are most picturesque in golf. Tangles of running raspberry, shadowy depths of a deep sand bunker, sandy beds of shallow little watercress-choked creeks, weedy lees of lichen-laden stone walls, snake-infested moonscapes of pre-Cambrian basalt just off the plush watered fairways of a desert course, the pulpy flesh of a venerable saguaro cactus, the leaf-mulched floor of a hushed beech forest, the squishy tummocks of a reedy marsh, the hot and sere macadam of the club parking lot, the concrete curb next to the snack shop, the bed of petunias and pansies lifted up on creosoted railroad ties beside the eleventh tee-all these nasty patches of environment can play host to a misplayed golf ball. We have been there.
And others have been there before us. All but buried in the sun-dried mud of a bygone spring day, an ancient cut-up Acushnet glimmers to catch the golfer's cruising eye. Or perhaps, in a patch of low-lying, seldom-visited bog, a waffle-patterned gutta-percha antique comes to light, browned on its underside by its ages-long bath in the slow-acting acids of Mother Earth. For every lost ball, there was a forlorn search, perfunctory or thorough; these questing ghosts haunt the course, hovering at the juncture of their interrupted game. "Found it!" one wants to cry out in triumph, though the loser has been decades in his grave. Golf thus leaves a residue, thin but detectable, on the hundreds of acres set aside for play. Not only lost golf balls but broken tees, detached cleats, withered gloves, and the occasional broken shaft, petulantly snapped in two, mingle their mournful testimony with the silent turf.
A player interacts with the landscape at a visceral level, his natural difficulties translating into rage and even tears. At times, analyzing the niceties of a "close lie," he takes a worm's-eye view of the ball as it nestles amid pebbles and tufts; at others, his eye soars like that of a lordly hawk, seeking the telltale glint of his ball in a wide, wind-whitened world of rough. Goose feathers and dandelion polls and balled-up Kleenexes cruelly tease him with optical illusions. Nature is his companion, but, like a nagging wife, she persistently points out his inadequacies and cloaks her scenic beauties in the ongoing quarrel of the game itself. We struggle to experience the course as something other than an enemy challenging and taunting us at every swing-to experience it instead as a site of seduction, of artful landscaping, of birdsong and wild berry and pale blossom and scarlet autumnal leaf, all tamed to our use in an enchanted blend of natural creation and human recreation. But a greenside bunker pounces on a singing 9-iron and shatters our mood, narrowing our perspective to a square foot of damp sand.
The camera of Charles Lindsay knows how to see the game. It not only sees the variety of turf and the luxuriant obduracy of rough but it hears the plip of the sadly underclubbed approach as it sends out the ripples from its irrevocable submersion, and it smells the tonic freshness of morning dew and rising mist, and it feels the effort of a sand wedge digging deep to lift the ball over the trap's hairy, tawny lip. From Ireland to Arizona and back his camera has journeyed to record golf's sensations-the weave of interlocking incident that makes up a round. Some golf balls are lost, and with the things now retailing for twenty dollars for a sleeve of three Pro V-1s, this borders on tragedy. But some are found, right where we thought we had looked a half dozen times before. Not only is it ours (a theatrical examination, sans touche, confirms it) but it is sitting up on a bed of pine needles. There is an opening back to the fairway. There is even a shot-a long shot, with a deliberate slice, cunningly controlled-at the green. So keep your head down and swing easy. Golf may not be a lost cause after all.
Excerpted from Lost Balls by Charles Lindsay Copyright © 2005 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission.
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