In a sure sign that midlife crisis is about to put its sweaty, trembling hand on my once-youthful shoulder, I have reintroduced myself, quite unexpectedly, to a great passion of my 20′s-golf. That this has occurred during a year in which the exploits of a golfer of some ability, a man by the name of Tiger Woods, have attracted a bit of attention is not entirely a coincidence. But for the most part, this renewal of intimate relations has little to do with him. This is about me.
I put the sticks away 15 years ago, when six-hour rounds on some of this city’s finest public courses transformed me from the gentlest of souls into a snarling, impossible beast. The propensity of my tee shots to make wild right-hand turns (I’m a lefty) and settle into that fauna and flora known as “out of bounds” no doubt contributed to my sour temperament. In a dozen years, I had taken my game from a pitch and putt course in Pennsylvania where my father handed me my first eight-iron to the upper reaches of mid-level, public-links hackdom. Slow play, a duck hook and adult life, however, combined to persuade me that I would never have the patience or skill to break 80, and that being the case, what was the point of continuing? Saint Paul may have had words of praise for those who finished the course, but he also advised us to put away the things of childhood when we no longer are children. So, save for an outing or two for old times’ sake with my father, the clubs remained in a closet containing other relics-a dried-out baseball glove and a pair of hockey skates purchased in 1972.
A few months ago, for reasons that remain a mystery but which may have something to do with Mr. Woods, Jack Nicklaus, middle-aged nostalgia and a line from Gone With the Wind (more about that anon), I found myself with sticks in hand, in the company of people two decades my junior, whacking the ball around Van Cortlandt Golf Course in the Bronx. It was supposed to be an outing; it became a revelation. (The miraculous disappearance of the duck hook, replaced by that odd phenomenon known as “straight down the middle,” may have helped this revelation process along.) In what other game do players take such pleasure in the success of their competitors? Where else are the practitioners of sportsmanship not treated as though they were clinging to the rituals of the Latin Mass? Golf, I decided after hitting the best tee shots I’ve hit in 20 years (250 yards on No. 18-thanks for asking), surely remains a throwback to another time, a quality this young fogy has always prized.
In saying his famous farewell to Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler said he still had hopes to find a place of charm and grace. Butler’s search took him away from Tara. Mine took me to the living room, where, with the zeal of one returned to the faith, I watched a gracious, summerlong golf drama unfold from Carmel Bay in California to the highlands of Scotland to the hollows of Kentucky. Mr. Nicklaus, 60 years old, with crow’s feet, sun-damaged skin and a plastic hip, spent his Friday afternoons saying goodbye to the golf world’s major tournaments, and Mr. Woods established himself as the next Nicklaus, even better than the original. The last hours of the second round at the Professional Golfers Association championship in Kentucky were charming indeed, as the fading Mr. Nicklaus gave a thumbs-up to Mr. Woods after they matched birdies on No. 18. At round’s end, Mr. Woods shook Mr. Nicklaus’ hand and, unless my lip-reading skills fail me, said: “Awesome.”
Thus inspired, I played a round in Newark, N.J., in Philip Roth country, on the day Mr. Woods won the P.G.A. title. My playing partners were African-American, as were most of the players on a very crowded course in Newark’s old Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic. Professional golf may make the National Hockey League look like a model of racial integration, but at the public-links level, in Newark, on a day when Tiger Woods won his third major tournament of the year, white people were a decided minority on-of all things-a golf course. And, as they approached a green near a parking lot where some locals had gathered to hang out, these black golfers suddenly sounded like Joe Lieberman or William Bennett as they tried to tune out the vile music the locals were blasting from a car. Suffice it to say that the N word hasn’t been heard with such frequency in Newark since Anthony Imperiale toured the North Ward during the 1967 riots.
My playing partners eventually laughed, shook their heads and got on with the business at hand. Which was, of course, the search for charm and grace in an otherwise crude world.