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The Hole Truth

Growing older, you find yourself searching for the deeper meanings in things, for their essence, with an intensity that would have been unlikely, or impossible, earlier in life. Why, you may find yourself asking, did your strikingly beautiful, once-married aunt, a mysterious woman by any account, stay so long in a private hospital forty years ago? How is it that your only brother, whose entire nervous system seemed to be throbbing on the surface of his skin, could run a mile in four minutes, fly jets like a cowboy and die so young? What early secret loomed up before your parents (long before they were your parents, of course) as they first met in a midnight operating room, both dressed in red-spattered white, before the spectacle of a fatal head wound? How does madness descend through families?

By the way, was Kennedy crazy, or brave, or trapped when he challenged the Russkies on the Cuban missile thing? That week, they made us go to chapel six or seven times, and then they put the firing pins into our drill rifles. We were schoolboys, but the way they saw it, we would put on our combat fatigues, slither down the hillsides to the river and do battle with the Red Army, all 300 of us. But what of Frankie Accardo (and probably some others), who wasn't thinking about mushroom clouds or fighting the Russians? Accardo had a firing pin in his rifle now, and his only purpose in life was to shoot Brother Boyle, who had mocked him mercilessly in Latin class. This was 1962.

It's only natural that these questions, each with its own weight, crowd together. In the nagging search for hidden meanings, the mind connects one thing and another in strange ways. Why didn't you spend your life with A.? Were the braciole and the veal scallopini on your grandparents' fragrant Sunday table as transcendent as they seem now, or is that a trick of memory? And when you flew off Route 28 that time in a dizzy swirl of pavement and moonlight and Johnny Walker Red, why did the little convertible flip miraculously back onto its wheels? So that K., her heart like a flower, could become a painter of renown?

And tell me now, what does it mean to score a hole in one at age fourteen and never experience such bolt-from-the-blue perfection again? In anything?

As any golfer or ex-golfer can tell you, this is no small question, no inconsiderable mystery. The old Scottish game has tormented its adherents, and given them momentary pleasure, for centuries. It's a cruel and beautiful game, a thing of such richly tangled emotions that it can become inseparable from life's big issues--even among those who refuse now to play it.

I am one of those, a fallen-away golfer. I have reasons.
From the time I was six years old and began taking lessons from a famous pro in south Florida until the age of eighteen, I played golf like a kid possessed--nine frenzied holes wedged between caddie assignments, eighteen after school, thousands of chip shots on the big front lawn, hundreds of cracked and smiling balls struck joyously into the woods. There were tournaments at age ten, another battery of lessons at twelve, and my first full-sized, pro-shop-measured, grown-up set of clubs--Kroydons, ten irons, four persimmon woods--at thirteen.

This was a major event in life, a rite of passage no less momentous than confirmation by the local bishop or kissing Barbara Smith in the popcorn-strewn last row of the Galli-Curci Theater during the second reel of, if I'm not mistaken, South Pacific. By thirteen I played as well as my patient father, better than my brother and most of my friends. I had also copped one of the most obnoxious attitudes in the history of adolescence. Demanding of myself and fellow players, cocky and petulant, I was a smug little jerk when I was shooting par and sheer brooding hell when things weren't going so well. If my dad had confiscated my clubs and thrown them in the river, no one would have blamed him--least of all the people whose golfing afternoons I regularly ruined.

But aside from giving me The Gaze every now and then...a withering gaze refined by the Italians over many centuries...or gently rocking one palm in the other in an expression of suppressed menace that only now do I fully grasp...aside from that, my father indulged my fits and tantrums with stoic resolve. He understood how hard the game was, and he understood the stupidities of boys born to relative privilege in America.

This was the kid--good Christ, it was me--who on a dewy morning in July 1959 stood in the tee box of the par-three fourth hole at our local course in upstate New York and grabbed a five iron out of his bag. He set a Spalding Dot down on the grass and promptly struck the thing on a perfect arc over the blue pond, between the bunkers, onto the green and into the cup, 162 yards away, on one gentle hop.  

"Whoa!" my brother marveled.
"Holy shit!" Johnny H. said.
The other players teed off (one bunker, one rough, one fringe), and we walked, chortling, to the green, plaid canvas golf bags slung onto our shoulders. There, with exaggerated ceremony, my brother swooped my magic Spalding Dot out of the hole and, grinning apishly, danced away from me with the ball hidden in his palm. A taunting little game of keep-away in the wake of dumb luck.

For all practical purposes, that was the end of my love affair with golf. At the age of fourteen, at the moment of my lone hole in one, I had a twelve handicap, a terrible temper and a stubbornly underdeveloped sense of life's mysteries. But even as Danny juked and feinted in the morning light with my golf ball in his hand, there came one of those rare dilations of vision that even foolish teenagers can experience. I remember it as clearly as I remember today's breakfast. This will never happen again, I thought. Nothing like this will ever happen again. In any realm.

As if in a dream, my soul left my body in that instant, and I looked at myself from outside, across a great gulf of time and space. In that instant, I'm certain, I imagined myself doing this, writing the words on this page, four decades later, telling this story and trying to figure out what it means. I was, as mystics say, transported. Just like that, in a flash of light.

"Hey! Numbnuts!" my brother laughed. "What the hell're you looking at?" There on the fourth green, I must have been staring blankly into his face but seeing nothing. I must have been imagining a future in which my beautiful aunt would vanish into a private hospital and my true love would disappear into another life and my grinning brother would go into the ground during a merciless rain as a flight of dark fighters whooshed over the cemetery. In that moment, I imagined a future where the monkey at the typewriter does not write Hamlet (nowhere to go from there but downhill), where your child is desperately ill and your best-meant five iron lands not in the cup but in the drink.

In that moment, I imagined a future without golf--then made it happen. Truth be told, I've played five times in the last seventeen years, devoid of anger or much interest. On a whim that surprises me, I even bought a cheap set of fashionably high-tech clubs a couple of seasons back--as if to tempt the gods. But golf is one mystery I no longer care to unravel. So my new clubs, irrelevant as Latin, have gathered a fine coat of dust. I look, but I don't touch.

In Dallas, the Colorado Avalanche fell on its crevasse. In New York, the valiant colt Charismatic broke his leg trying to win the Triple Crown. And in Paris, a pair of 29-year-olds, both in their tennis twilight, used experience and guile to post stirring comeback wins at the French Open.

It's not hard to make connections between these weekend events. Colorado's gutless home-ice performance in game six of the conference final with the Dallas Stars presaged their inevitable downfall in game seven: The Avs had about as good a time in Big D Friday night as President Kennedy, and it was their own fault. They held all the cards (and a one-goal lead) at McNichols Arena earlier in the week, but the old listlessness set in again, and they let slip a shot at a second Stanley Cup.

The distracted Avs could have taken lessons in determination from the scandalously unappreciated Charismatic, who ran out of his coat at Belmont Park Saturday afternoon in pursuit of Triple Crown legends with names like Citation, Secretariat and Affirmed. Even students of the breed who had dismissed the Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins of this brave athlete because he'd recently been a $62,500 claiming horse must now recognize what exceptional heart he had. Injured near the finish of the Belmont Stakes' grueling mile and a half, Charismatic galloped on under Chris Antley to finish third--with a multiple fracture in his left foreleg.

His name will never go in the history books next to his more famous predecessors. But he deserves every horse-lover's utmost respect and our prayers for his recovery.

As for Steffi Graf, the tennis world must be rejoicing this week. Publicly disrespected as a has-been by her petulant eighteen-year-old opponent, Martina Hingis, Graf coolly shredded that racquet-throwing brat in the third set Saturday. While Graf struck twin blows for experience and grace on the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium, Andre Agassi set perseverance on a pedestal. A loser of French Open finals in 1990 and 1991, Agassi lost the first two sets to Andrei Medvedev Sunday, then stormed back to win the next three--and to become just the fifth man to win all four Grand Slam events.  

Let's hope Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic were watching.


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