Naked Putting With Jennifer Lawrence! (I Mean, a Poet Laureate for Golf)

Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He has taught at Lehman College, in the Bronx, since 1968, and he is a senior distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute, at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida. He’s also a golfer. This summer, he wrote to ask for advice about playing golf at Askernish, a restored Old Tom Morris course on the island of South Uist, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. I put him in touch with Ralph Thompson, the club’s chairman, and Collins visited with his fiancee, whose name is Suzannah.

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From Collins’s report:

Just back from the Western Isles to report a near transcendent golf experience at Askernish. When Ralph initially wrote back to me, he mentioned the upcoming Askernish Open, and after reading that sentence my heart sank with the assumption that I couldn’t play. But, as you might guess, his next sentence said he was entering me in the tournament.
Suzannah and I took the Oban car ferry (five-plus hours, two of gin rummy) and we drove to our hotel in the dark: the Orasay Inn, on the north end of the island. Next day was spent in churches and cemeteries doing some very unprofessional genealogical work (“Hey, here’s another MacIsaac!”) but not before a stop at the clubhouse, where Ralph said we could tee off straightaway, if we liked. But we had MacIsaacs to find. Next day, in the Open, I was paired with David Currie, a Toronto guy and an Askernish life member, who holds the golf club cack-handed — i.e., right one on top. Try that at the range.
All I can say about the course is that it is pure links, and therefore the purest golf experience I have ever had, never mind my 103, partially the fault of rented, steel-shafted clubs. Glorious weather. And between the eighth and sixteenth greens stood a truck, tailgate down, whose bed was filled with drinks (whisky) and little bite-size salmon things with tiny wedges of lemon on them. I wolfed down about six.

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Here’s one of my favorite of Collins’s poems. It’s the second best poem ever written about golf:

Night Golf
I remember the night I discovered,
lying in bed in the dark,
that a few imagined holes of golf
worked much better than a thousand sheep,
that the local links,
not the cloudy pasture with its easy fence,
was the greener path to sleep.
How soothing to stroll the shadowy fairways,
to skirt the moon-blanched bunkers
and hear the night owl in the woods.
Who cared about the score
when the club swung with the ease of air
and I glided from shot to shot
over the mown and rolling ground,
alone and drowsy with my weightless bag?
Eighteen small cups punched into the
bristling grass,
eighteen flags limp on their sticks
in the silent, windless dark,
but in the bedroom with its luminous clock
and propped-open windows,
I got only as far as the seventh hole
before I drifted easily away—
the difficult seventh, “The Tester” they called it,
where, just as on the earlier holes,
I tapped in, dreamily, for birdie.

The best poem ever written about golf was written by me. Well, I did have a co-author—Emily Dickinson—and on a percentage basis she wrote more of it than I did. But I did contribute the crucial word:

Golf is the thing with feathers—
That perches on the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
Collins gave a terrific TED talk about poetry in 2012. You can watch it right here:

And you can read a poem he wrote about Askernish on the front page of the club’s website.

4 thoughts on “Naked Putting With Jennifer Lawrence! (I Mean, a Poet Laureate for Golf)

  1. Actually, the best poem about golf was written by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorne and published in the New York Tribune in 1914. The reason it’s the best golf poem is because a) it’s short and b) it revolutionized child labor laws. Because of this poem, these laws were changed, mandating that no child labor factories were allowed near golf courses so as to minimize the chance of one of the little buggers crying out on someone’s backswing.

    The golf links lie so near the mill

    That almost every day

    The laboring children can look out

    And see the men at play.

  2. Hi there! Suzannah Gilman here.

    I wasn’t as thrilled about how our visit to South Uist turned out. When we read your article in the New Yorker, I insisted that the two of us go to South Uist and play Askernish. Billy had recently taught me to play golf. He resisted, saying it had to be very hard to get to. Eventually, he was persuaded to go. I made all of the travel plans, which meant skipping going to Ireland with him, flying into Manchester, renting a car, picking him up in Edinburgh, and driving to South Uist, and staying a night in Oban on the way to time our trip according the ferry schedule. I was so very happy to be in South Uist and to visit his mother’s ancestral land.

    What I didn’t like was that the whole reason we were going was to play Askernish together and that didn’t happen. The Askernish Open is for men, whether anyone wants to admit it or not. It’s a wide open course, there is no turn, and there are no restrooms out there in the barren. Men stand and pee wherever they want, especially when there are only other men around. And it was only men who were playing that day. I can’t play 9 holes without a restroom, and I bet few of them can. But let’s just say that on this links course, the playing field is uneven.

    So I sat at the clubhouse sipping tea and playing the NT Times Crossword app on my iPad for hours while others got to play golf with my Billy. That’s not why I traveled so long and hard to get there. That’s not why I spent hours and hours planning the trip.

    We continued on the itinerary I’d planned, however, and when it was time, we drove up through the Outer Hebrides, crossed another ferry, and drove back down through the Scottish Highlands, which were breathtaking. I drove Billy back to Edinburgh and I drove on to Manchester– taking a scenic detour through the Lake District.

    But I’m still mad. That was my trip, and I was robbed.

    I didn’t so much as swing a club at Askernish.

    • Suzannah: What a shame! Links courses are tough on beginners and, very often, tough on women who don’t feel like ducking behind a dune to pee.

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