David Quammen Is a Golfer Now, Sorry Not Sorry
Why a lifelong outdoor adventurer couldn't resist the siren song of fairways and greens
Golf is a concept, like death, seldom contemplated by the young. Or so it seemed to me for the six decades during which I declined to contemplate it, except as this: a peculiarly slow sporting activity that could be left to one’s golden years.
I hadn’t come from a country-club childhood. So far as I knew, none of my friends played golf in high school or college. As a boy, during my brief caddying days, my pal Mike Karbowski and I somehow came into possession of a nine-iron or two, which we used to pitch shots through neighboring backyards, at some risk to windows. So I knew roughly how to swing a club, and I knew that hitting such a small, hard ball high and long (regardless of where the hell it went) could deliver a peculiarly satisfying sensation. But I never played an actual round on actual fairways and greens. I never lofted a six-iron shot toward a flagstick. I never sank a putt. The notion that Mike and I might step onto the first tee at Clovernook Country Club in Cincinnati—the course where we climbed over the back fence from our own scruffy neighborhood to caddy—would have seemed absurd, comically transgressive, like Spanky and Alfalfa sneaking their homemade wooden car onto the Daytona Speedway.
Unlike sandlot baseball, and bicycle dodgeball, and tree climbing, and the other athletic amusements we used to pass our afternoons and break our noses and teeth, golf was a game for grown-ups. It was another world, not ours, so never mind, no hurry. As an adult, throughout my twenties, thirties, and forties, I continued to see it that way, and my conclusion went like this: When my aging body is too decrepit for running and jumping and other rambunctious hurly-burly—Rollerblade crashes, face plants on skis, cartwheels off mountain-bike trails—then I might turn to golf.
There were exceptions to the geriatric demographic, I knew—the 12-year-old prodigy, the ace of the high school team, the twentysomething guy who hit huge drives. My own eventual golf mentor, Gene, the man who invited me into the sport (after I married his daughter), had started at eight; he carried a two handicap in high school and has happily played for 70 years now. My college roommate Skip started at 13—this I learned only later—and golfed avidly until some scumbag stole his clubs from a locker room, souring him on the sport for decades. He then returned to it, at 50, with the zeal of a thickening athlete, and now, as a retiree, owns an apartment in St. Andrews. My buddy Whisperin’ Jack, the famous medical researcher and bon vivant, started at ten and made the golf team at Dartmouth as a freshman, then went half a lifetime without playing much until he reengaged with such ardor that, in a moment of hysteria, he bought a house in Palm Springs. Several others from my gang started young, too, a piece of personal history they mostly kept on the down low. But I always saw older people as the golf crowd, white-shoed burghers of a certain tax bracket and sociopolitical tribe, for whom fast heart rates and Gore-Tex and physical risk were not part of the desired recreational experience.
A lifetime of robust sports—a lifetime of mock-epic engagements with nature—flows on its serpentine route but ever downhill, drawn by gravity, pushed by time, as inexorably as the Mississippi runs to the sea. Your body changes. Muscles get better with vigorous use, all things being equal, but joints get worse. Your hunger for conquest fades, your appetite for risk and tolerance for contusion diminish. Even if the engine under your hood—your heart and lungs—remains in good tune, your fenders start to rattle and your brake pads wear thin. It’s only natural that there be a progression from one sport, one form of exhilarating foolhardiness, to another. Bodily depreciation doesn’t always deliver you onto a golf course, but a person could do worse. A good round of golf is more strenuous than deck shuffleboard on a cruise to Aruba, after all, or lawn darts at the retirement community.
My first sporting obsession as an adult was fly-fishing, which brought me to Montana in 1973. For a decade, my life revolved around two thrilling struggles: trying to make a living as a writer (after a precocious first novel), and trying to deceive trout with bits of feather and floss and thread wound onto small hooks. At first I wrote more novels and tied mostly dry flies. Trout went for the flies, but editors didn’t go for the novels. With time and the incentive of discouragement, I broadened my literary efforts, turning to nonfiction; my fishing efforts broadened, too, into nymphs and emergers and all manner of other arcane enticements based on my studies in ichthyology and aquatic entomology. I caught fish: gorgeous rainbows, handsome broad-backed browns, native cutthroats, and—rarely but unforgettably—arctic grayling, with their luminous dorsal fins that glowed turquoise and lilac and green, until you lifted them out of the water and they began to die. So I put them back in.
I became licensed to help others catch fish. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Montana fishing guide in the past 40 years with one published novel and three others buried under rejection slips, but this was a joyous phase of life, even amid the paying of dues. And then, after my second or third summer of guiding, an odd thing happened. I suddenly fell out of love with fishing, because I had fallen too deeply in love with trout. When fishing was work, I found myself hoping that my ham-handed and meat-hungry clients wouldn’t catch anything. When it was play, it no longer felt playful. These animals were frantic, fighting for their lives. Forget the catch-and-release clause. Sometimes they got hurt. So I quit.
There was a related factor: a shift from one river sport to another. I had discovered the tumble-washed ecstasy of whitewater kayaking. I started paddling the same waters I had fished, splashing down riffles, zipping into eddies, thrilled by the liquid choreography and relieved by the knowledge that, if anyone were injured or killed by this activity, it would be me, not some innocent trout. Having squeaked through one sobering misadventure during my beginner phase, upside down in a busy Class IV rapid with a broken paddle and my chest pressed against a rock, I signed up for a week of lessons (paid for by this magazine) at a famous whitewater school in North Carolina, raised my game, and spent much of the next 20 years paddling rumbustious rivers from Montana to Tennessee to New Zealand, with only a couple of other near-death experiences. One came on the Futaleufú in Chile, amid a seething Class V rapid known as Terminator, which I ran largely upside down, never mind why. Finally I rolled up, breathless, exhausted, then fell into a recirculating hole, exited my boat, and had to swim. A friend watched from shore while the hole started to suck me forward, and as he told me later, he thought I was a goner. But I did one thing right—grabbed the tail loop of my boat as it bobbed away, pulling me back into the current—and I was rescued.
My kayak career came to an end soon after a Grand Canyon trip in September 2001, when I was 53, amid a pending divorce, feeling unmoored, my shoulders starting to get iffy. While my friends and I were deep in the canyon, nearly incommunicado for 17 days, 9/11 occurred. When we emerged, America had changed. It seemed the right time for me to change, too.
In winter I still had telemark skiing and ice hockey. Telemark as a means of downhill travel over snow is like fly- fishing: less efficient than some alternatives, but it feels beautiful to do.
Feels beautiful, that is, so long as your knees are healthy; my 25 winters on tele skis probably help explain the medical circumstances (about which more below) that pushed me toward golf.
City-league ice hockey, which I played for ten years with great pleasure and not much skill, had the merits of team camaraderie and another form of fluid motion. But I discovered that the fine art of puck handling, while you skate fast between charging bodies, is so difficult that you should start learning it at age six, ideally on a rink in Minnesota—certainly not at 49 on a flooded tennis court in Bozeman. Having become part of a team at an indoor rink, with refs and a clock and uniforms and good ice, I skated wing with enough clumsy gusto to acquire the nickname Dozer, because I knocked people down, inadvertently, while contesting the puck. It was a no-check league, supposedly, and I was the city’s most eggheaded goon. But then I turned 60, and the league expanded to hold a hundred more players, including too many from Minnesota boyhoods, and I became useless. I retired but took with me two life skills of rare value: I could do backward crossovers, and I could drive a Zamboni.
By now I was happily remarried, and as my 65th birthday approached, my wife, Betsy, asked: How do you want to celebrate? Let’s climb the Grand Teton, I said. I’ve lived in the shadow of that peak for 40 years, and before my wheels fall off, I’d like to stand on its summit. So we did, with the help and fine company of an overqualified friend named Conrad Anker. That summer lark was followed in autumn by a walking tour in Wales, at the end of which my left knee swelled like a grapefruit and I fetched up lame.
Baker’s cyst. Meniscus tear. Arthroscopy. Physical therapy. More punishment, more hard use, more hiking through jungles and swamps, not for recreation but in the necessary course of my work. I was on the downside of my seventh decade, and the only consolation to that fact was Medicare. On a bad day, I walked like an elderly duck. Then it was back to an orthopedic surgeon, whose physician’s assistant, a tall young fellow wearing a short beard and a long white jacket, looked at my X-rays and said, clinically: “Your knees are shot.”
Right about now I can hear you saying, “That’s great, DQ. But what about the environment?”
I won’t deny that golf has a lot to answer for, not just in its bourgeois ethos but in its footprint: pesticide use, water use, fertilizer use, energy use, landscape conversion, impacts on biological diversity, and the rest. If the land in question has been converted from agricultural fields to golf-course acreage, the net impact of those other factors might actually be lessened, but that’s a wan exculpation.
It wasn’t always like this. The modern history of golf traces back to Scotland in the 18th century, when it was played on windswept links laid upon the natural contours of coastal dunes, with “grasses on sandy stretches…fertilized by the droppings of seabirds and cut short by grazing rabbits,” according to one account. That tradition survives today on many British links courses, where the rough is rougher, the sand is native, the fairways are patchy landing zones and not continuous carpet, the diversity of birds and insects is still good, and the golf is more feral. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Augusta National, site of the Masters each April, so exquisitely manicured for television that, according to some critics, the place inflicts an Augusta National Syndrome on the expectations of golfers and managers at less grandiose courses.
There has been an effort among some of the sport’s organizations, including the United States Golf Association, to promote mitigation strategies—less mowing, less watering, less poisoning, more accommodation of wild plants and animals—but no golfer should pretend that enough has been done. We should be playing on uniquely American links courses, where the ponds harbor alligators and the woody roughs are patrolled by black bears, copperheads, cougars, woodpeckers, and mosquitos. We would lose a lot more balls, but the R&D people at Titleist or Callaway ought to be able to make a biodegradable version, appetizing to squirrels and raccoons.
For all its flaws, golf is still about beautiful landscapes. It’s about the flat, grassy pad where you start and the metal cup at the end of each hole, true, but it’s also about the hills you climb, the trees you klonk or don’t klonk, the thickets you skirt, the swamps that engulf you, and the ponds into which you go kerplunk.
Note that I say “you” do those things, not “your ball,” because the ball is your avatar, your effigy, it is you, traveling one leg of this perilous journey after another. That’s why your playing partners say “You’re away,” not “Your ball is farthest from the cup,” when they’re telling you to get busy and putt. That’s why they say, with a pitying cringe masking their schadenfreude, “You’re wet,” after your ball has failed to clear the creek. You’re gone. You’re out of bounds. You bounced three times on the cart path and were last seen on a fast roll toward the irrigation ditch. Take it personally: you. Drop another you and try again. The journey continues.
Bill Vaughn, a deft writer and Montana native son, understood that truth more than 20 years ago when he published a piece in this magazine about golfing the Lewis and Clark Trail (“How the West Was Bogeyed,” July 1996). Vaughn teed off with a five-iron from a shallow Missouri River sandbar, just south of Great Falls, on what he reckoned would be a 2,140-mile course, over land and water, traveling by raft and car when he wasn’t walking between shots, to the starting point of the Corps of Discovery in Saint Charles, Missouri. The round took him an entire summer and part of fall, more thousands of strokes than he bothered to count, hundreds of cheap range balls lost in the marshes and riverside woods, until he teed up for his final shot in a small park by the riverbank in Saint Charles, near the Lewis and Clark Monument, and hit his last ball into the river.
He called it wilderness golf, and I think that’s the right spirit. Sure, most of us confine ourselves to 150 acres of groomed and sculpted “wilderness” at our preferred local course, but the psychological dimension is the same.
Three reasons golf should be easy, according to me:
- The ball isn’t moving.
- You can hit it as many times as you want.
- And (this one highlighted by my hockey experience) there’s no checking.
But golf isn’t easy, it’s very hard, and there are obvious reasons for that. The first is that it’s so unforgiving of imperfection. Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941 for the Red Sox, and no baseball player since has broken .400 for a season. But imagine if a professional golfer made good contact on, say, only four shots of every ten. His handicap would be 43, he’d be laughed out of every clubhouse on the PGA tour, and St. Andrews wouldn’t even let him step onto the Old Course.
Intermittent proficiency is one thing. It’s not that difficult, even for a duffer like me, to hit two or three good shots. But it’s unimaginable to hit 72 in a row. The second point is that every single shot, no matter how short, registers as an equal unit on your score. You can reach all the greens in regulation, hitting superb tee balls, making good approaches, and avoiding the traps and the trees, and still card a lousy number simply by three-putting every hole. A straight drive of 250 yards counts as one stroke. A tap-in putt, after two other putts, counts as one stroke. Perversity.
But the difficulties can yield moments of mirth, as elegantly noted by the late John Updike, a devoted though mediocre player, in his 1982 essay “The Bliss of Golf.” Bad shots, he wrote, “are endless fun—at least the other fellow’s are.” Notably:
The duck hook, the banana slice, the topped dribble, the no-explode explosion shot, the arboreal ricochet, the sky ball, the majestic OB, the pondside scuff-and-splash, the deep-grass squirt, the cart-path shank, the skull, the fat hit, the thin hit, the stubbed putt…
Each bad shot is produced by a momentary lapse, an imperfect swing, and the laws of physics. And yet there is transcendence to be achieved, as Updike’s title suggests, even under the pressure of unachievable perfection—or at least consistency—and even for us weekenders who give far less time, passion, and money to the sport than Updike did. The bliss of golf resides not in victory over partners, nor in breaking 80, but in hitting one terrific shot, a shot so good that a pro would be satisfied with it. This is possible in golf, for some reason. I could never hit a curveball coming off the fingers of Justin Verlander, no matter how long I tried, but I can hit an inspired and lucky gap wedge from 60 feet out that goes in the hole. Not often, but it happens.
This is what keeps a person with middling skills and embarrassing scores coming back to the game. I usually shoot in the nineties or worse, but I remember the blissful moments, however rare, more vividly than the foozles and flops. Case in point: One day on the 12th hole at Cottonwood Hills, the unpretentious public course in Bozeman that serves as my local, I was playing with a group of friends that included Timothy, my spiritual adviser in golf, a lanky fellow with a white ponytail bundled behind his avuncular smile. Timothy is almost exactly my age, but he’s more practiced and skilled, with the additional advantage of a Scottish Presbyterian (preacher’s kid) background, which somehow nurtures his aplomb on the course. Also with us was Thomas, a Czech-born architect who plays in a straw hat and with a nimbus of heedless enthusiasm, and whose approach to golf is: “Hit the ball as hard as you can, then go try and find it!”
Cottonwood’s 12th, which I sometimes call Everest, is a 541-yard par five, gently doglegging left, then climbing more than a hundred feet to a green you can’t even see. Out-of-bounds on the right there’s a grainfield, where I often push my drive. Along the left are knolls and trees, preventing any decent second shot if your first lands over there. The approach slope to the green would make a good ski hill: 50 feet up it, you still can’t see the top of the flagstick.
On this day, I hit an unusually solid and straight drive. Then, surprising myself, I hit a seven-wood and got all of it, leaving my ball halfway up the approach. I lobbed a pitching wedge toward where I reckoned the cup might be, my ball disappeared over the horizon, and gloriosky, when I climbed up there, it was 15 feet from the pin. I putted, gently, then watched, amazed, as it rolled, curled left, and dropped. Timothy, who had been busy tracking his own shots, gave me a big smile and a fist bump, saying: Good par, brother. I said: Actually, that was a birdie. And I was left to wonder, all winter: If it feels so easy when done right, why do it wrong?
As my knees have gone to bone on bone, as I’ve moved toward double replacement surgery, my interest in golf has increased more quickly than my skill. Yes, it’s a hard game—fortunately, because if it were easy, it would be stupid and dull. Hitting straight drives consistently, no hook, no slice, is hard. Hitting fairway woods without scuffing out grounders is hard. Little chip shots from thick, short rough, five feet off the green, are hard. Putting downhill is hard, but then so is putting uphill, especially those three- or four-footers you need to make after putting downhill. Updike wrote a whole essay about missing them, calling such moments hateful.
He was kidding, of course. The game is never hateful; it’s just fiendishly frustrating and comically humbling, except when it’s weirdly, unforeseeably sublime. There’s that old saw about golf, apocryphally credited to Mark Twain, calling it a good walk spoiled. But the walk isn’t spoiled by hitting 80 or 90 or even 100 golf shots along the way, not if three or four of them fly true, and not if your company on the stroll is excellent.
That last part is crucial. “Don’t play golf with assholes” is a rule Thomas the architect has learned to live by. Don’t play with people you dislike, or who bore you, or who will come at you with a competitive edge. Whisperin’ Jack knows this. His playing partners sometimes suggest that they “put a little money” on each hole to “make it more interesting.” Jack answers: “Bet? No. I want all you guys to shoot birdies on every hole.”
If it weren’t for good company, such as Jack and Thomas and Gene and Skip and Timothy and the other Mike (not Karbowski but my doctor, six foot ten and hits the ball a mile) and Kathryn and John and Ira and Earl and the others, I wouldn’t play. If it weren’t for companions like Robert, a great storyteller, especially when it was his turn to hit, who left us early because of pancreatic cancer, I wouldn’t play. (Approaching what might be an eight-iron shot, Robert would say, “My eight-iron goes 126 yards,” and then be mildly surprised if it didn’t. After his funeral, by decision of his wife, I inherited that eight-iron and the rest of his clubs, now serving as physical tokens for remembering him as I play. The eight-iron sometimes goes 126 yards.) If it weren’t for the imperfectability of golf, especially my own game, I wouldn’t play. If it weren’t for the learning curve angled so gently upward, and the laughter, and the astonishing moments of pure swing with a ball rocketing off toward its intended target, and the fact that even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while, I wouldn’t play. If it weren’t for the numinous, brief moments in which a whacking, chunking, shanking, dribbling striver like me is vouchsafed a taste of what golf can be, I wouldn’t bother.
Another case in point: I was playing at Cottonwood several years ago with Timothy and his friend Andy, a captain on the local police force, an amiable guy, and a solid golfer. I had stunk up the first seven holes, during which Andy and Timothy breathed not a wisp of condescension. I was doing my best, they knew, and we were having fun. Also, I had explained I could only play the front nine that day, because of an appointment back in town. On the eighth, a short par three that drops down over a creek to a round green looped by a bend of the same creek, with the pin on this day placed right, I landed my tee shot on the left fringe. From there I stubbed a chip barely onto the green. I was still the away man, about 25 feet uphill from the cup. I studied the putt and felt like I saw the line. I tapped. The ball rolled and rolled and angled and rolled and then, to the shock of us all, went in. Andy and Timothy, whooping, awarded me high fives. A saved par, the hard way. So far, so good.
On the ninth, a par four straight uphill to the clubhouse, I hit a good drive followed by a long, floating six-iron that left me, saints be praised, several feet onto the green. I’d never before made this green in regulation. Now came a 20-foot uphill putt. The line looked obvious, and I was in a mindlessly confident zone, so I just stepped up and gave the ball a bonk. It rolled and rolled and homed to the hole like a gopher and dropped in. Birdie.
This time Andy bent double in disbelief and grabbed his head with both hands. Then he straightened and, warmly amused, aware of my schedule, plus trying to spare me the inevitable disillusionments of the back nine, said: “You should definitely quit now.”
Quit? I thought. I’m just getting started.