Metaphysical Question: Which is the Divot?

John Updike, who, in addition to everything else, was an avid golfer and a terrific golf writer, once described the greatest shot of his life:

It was years ago, on a little dog-leg left, downhill. Apple trees were in blossom. Or the maples were turning; I forget which. My drive was badly smothered, and after some painful wounded bounces found rest in the deep rough at the crook of the dog- leg. My second shot, a 9-iron too tensely gripped, moved a great deal of grass. The third shot, a smoother swing with the knees nicely flexed, moved the ball perhaps 12 feet out onto the fairway. The lie was downhill. The distance to the green was perhaps 230 yards at this point. I chose (of course) a 3-wood. The lie was not only downhill but sidehill. I tried to remember some tip about sidehill lies; it was either (1) play the ball farther forward from the center of the stance, with the stance more open, or (2) play the ball farther back, off a closed stance, or (3) some combination. I compromised by swinging with locked elbows and looking up quickly, to see how it turned out. A divot the size of an undershirt was taken some 18 inches behind the ball. The ball moved a few puzzled inches. Now here comes my great shot. Utterly demented by frustration, I swung as if the club were an axe with which I was reducing an orange crate to kindling wood. Emitting a sucking, oval sound, the astounded ball, smitten, soared far up the fairway, curling toward the fat part of the green with just the daintiest trace of a fade, hit once on the fringe, kicked smartly toward the flagstick, and stopped rolling two feet from the cup. I sank the putt for what my partner justly termed a “remarkable six.”

Anyway, I don’t care about Updike’s shot. What I’m interested in is his undershirt-size divot: what should we call the undershirt-size hole it left behind? Most golfers would call it a divot, too. They “take a divot” when they hit a shot, but they say their ball is “in a divot” if it ends up in the unfilled hole left by someone else’s shot. We don’t treat bathtubs (for example) the same way, since we don’t say “plug” for both the stopper and the drain.

There are many words in English that also mean their opposite: the verb “to dust” can mean either to remove dust from something (such as a piano) or to apply dust to something (such as a sugar cookie); “cleave” means either to split apart or to stick together; “ravel” and “unravel” are synonyms. But is there any word, other than “divot,” that means both itself and the absence of itself?

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its definition of “divot,” mentions only the clump, not the gouge where the clump used to be (and it says nothing about golf—see below). Do we need another term? If so, how about “divot hole”? While you think about that, I can tell you that a reader, in an email, has suggested calling the little scrap of turf that your ball sometimes dislodges when it lands on a green a “wig.”

5 thoughts on “Metaphysical Question: Which is the Divot?

  1. The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (on-line, updated every three months) does include a definition applicable to golf, the most recent usage coming from 1886. Instead of “d. Comb., as divot-cast . . .,” it has the following:

    d. Golf. A piece of turf cut out with a club by a player in making a stroke.
    1886 H. G. Hutchinson Hints on Golf 9 With an iron club an unskilful player is more likely to cut fids of turf—golficè, ‘divots’—out of the green.
    1890 H. G. Hutchinson Golf x. 272 A divot well replaced is, in most conditions of the ground, as a divot that has never been cut.
    1935 O. Nash Primrose Path (1936) 105 The wretched golfer, divot-bound.

    It then follows this new definition “d” with “Compounds,” including “divot-cast,” “divot-seat,” and “divot-spade, much as the above version has in its definition “d.”

    The the definition for “divot-cast” and the quote following from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian may suggest a possible answer to the question of what to call the empty space left by the piece of turf cut from it. If I remember the novel correctly, the characters are arguing about a legal decision that hinges on the definition of a “plough-gate” of land, and they mock the qualifications of the person who came up with the definition, “seeing he hasna a divot-cast of land in Scotland,” or as the definition says, “as much (land) as one divot might be ‘cast’ or cut off.” If a divot-cast is the amount of land from which a divot is cut, maybe one can call that hole left by the cutting of a divot a divot-cast.

    The problem is that the term is not in common usage, as far as I know. Nor do I know enough about Scottish dialect to be able to say, really. But then again, if as H. G. Hutshinson says, “A divot well replaced is, in most conditions of the ground, as a divot that has never been cut,” then maybe we don’t need a term for the space left by a divot, after all.

    Now, I’m beginning to feel like Odgen Nash’s wretched golfer–“divot-bound.”

  2. Immediately. We’re going to start elevating the tone around here. And I love your suggestion, by way of Horace Hutchinson, that if all golfers would replace their divots we wouldn’t need more than the one word.

  3. Looking back at the OED information about the usage of “divot,” I kept thinking that the first usage of the term meaning “a piece of turf cut out with a club” appearing in 1886 seemed awfully late, given the long history of golf. Of course, the game takes off and gets a great deal of publicity in the second half of the nineteenth century, but still, the written use of “divot” as a “slice of turf” goes back to the sixteenth century. Surely, I thought, the golf application must have come much sooner than 1886.

    A little more research took me to Peter Davies’s “The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms: From 1500 to the Present” (2005), where I found no better historical information for the first usage of “divot” in golf. Davies’s first notice of “divot” is also by Hutchinson, coming in the 1890 publication “Badminton Guide to Golf,” where he says, “No golfer is worthy of the name who does not put back his divot” (260), the same year and probably the same publication as the OED’s reference to Hutchinson in 1890. And it also conveys the same sentiment.

    But I still had a difficult time believing that “divot” as a piece of turf cut by a golf club did not find its way into writing until that late nineteenth century. That may very well be the case, though, because a random look at other golf terms in the OED puts “mashie” and “dormy” in the same time period. “Putter” appears about a hundred years earlier. I suspect a more thorough examination would find most golf terms finding their way into writing around the same time.

    One additional piece of information appears in Davies, however. He gives a second definition for “divot” as “the cavity left by the divot,” and the first usage he notes is very recent, appearing in 1969 in “The Greatest Game of All,” where Jack Nicklaus writes that a ball “ended up in a shallow fairway divot” (160).

    I wonder if the fact that the “divot” as cavity definition comes nearly eighty years after “divot” as a slice of turf suggests that instead of heeding Hutchinson, golfers over time gradually became more careless about replacing the slices of turf they cut with their clubs, so a new definition was needed.

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