Golf and coming of age

October 09, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- When I turned fifty, I discovered three essential facts of middle age: periodontia, bifocals and golf.

GOLF? DID SHE SAY GOLF?

Let me explain. I once assumed that golf was a sport for elderly Country Club Republicans. The sort of men who wore green pants with whale belts and protected their clubs with duck head covers.

Golf was Dwight David Eisenhower. My family was Adlai Stevenson.

In my twenties, I thought golf was God's way of telling you that you had too much time on your hands.

In my thirties, I decided that a low handicap was admissible evidence of child neglect in any custody dispute.

In my forties, as a fairly decent tennis and squash player, I couldn't imagine hitting a ball while it was standing still.

But somewhere along the way, somewhere between Bill Clinton and Big Bertha and Tiger Woods, between chiropractors and knee surgery and Advil, I had an epiphany (that's something close to a muscle spasm) that said: golf is my next sport. To wit: my last sport. I better learn it now.

This was a decision aided and abetted by a quirky nine-hole golf course in Maine where people still stroll and stop to look at the view.

It was also aided and abetted by a quirky husband (more Bobby Kennedy than Adlai Stevenson) who enthusiastically gave me all his clubs. This was an act of generosity that I didn't immediately recognize for what it was. A ploy for him to get new equipment.

Now, as I approach Columbus Day weekend with a full set of clubs and big plans, I feel fully qualified at last to offer up my views on why golf begins at fifty.

Yes, I know that one sign of a new and erratic duffer is the penchant for turning golf into a good walk through midlife spoiled. For reasons that remain unclear, golf has spawned more philosophical rambles than fairways.

Nobody compares tennis to life. A love game? Ken Burns and several million fans talk about baseball as the collective field of youthful dreams, but there's no senior tour on the diamonds.

Today there are, I hasten to add, some 25 million golfers and 16,010 golf courses. There are speed golfers and networking golfers and boring golfers. There is even, for reasons that escape me, a golf channel. All golf, all day long.

There is a business writer who actually correlated the handicaps of CEOs with their stock performance. And there are the very, very serious golf professionals who sit around discussing whether they should ban new improved clubs because they are making the game too easy. Say what? But from my perspective, golf is the midlife sport of choice for very different reasons. First of all, it's easier to reach your goals. In midlife, after all, it's a snap to have a handicap below your age and a score below your weight. And getting easier all the time.

Golf is like midlife because only now do you realize that the course you have set upon is governed by rules so vast, so arcane and so arbitrary that the average person -- you -- will never figure it all out.

Golf is like midlife because it is absolutely unfair. As a young person, you carry the illusion that if you do your homework, study, and work overtime you'll get it all right. By middle age, you know that every time you've got it all together -- work, family, putt, pitch -- some piece is about to unravel.

Golf, like midlife, is played against only one opponent: yourself. By the time you reach fifty, you had better figure out that doing well doesn't depend on others doing badly. You don't have to wish them ill. They're not the reason you are shanking the ball.

Golf is like middle age, because -- ah, you knew this was coming -- in these years you really do have to play it as it lays. You don't get to start everything all over again. The most you get is a mulligan. If it's an unplayable lie, everybody sympathizes, but you still have to take a penalty.

On the other hand, golf, like midlife, also offers another chance. No matter how badly you hit one ball, you can still recover on the next. Of course, no matter how well you hit one ball, you can always screw up the next.

Finally, golf is like midlife because at some time on a beautiful October day, when you are searching for a ball, or for that matter your swing, you look around and realize for the first or fiftieth time that in this game, you're the one keeping your own score.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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