18 Good Things About Golf: No. 18

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18. Golf reminds you of your mortality. Like life, a round of golf begins in easy optimism, progresses through a lengthy middle period in which hope and despair are mingled, deteriorates into regret, confusion, and resignation, and comes abruptly to an end. Teeing off on the tenth hole, I usually find myself feeling pretty much the way I did when I turned thirty-five: Hey, what happened to the first nine? Then: Oh, well, maybe I’ll birdie in. Being reminded of one’s mortality is good for one’s game. If you knew you were going to live forever, how hard do you think you would work on your putting?

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Still, what is finally fascinating and appealing about golf is not its similarity to life but its differences from it. Unlike life, golf has rules, internationally recognized governing bodies, and a clearly defined purpose. When people say that golf is like life — or, in extreme cases, that golf is life — what they really mean is that they wish life were more golflike than it actually is. Golf is life simplified and improved. Golf would be truly like life only if, as John Updike once wrote, “some players were using tennis rackets and hockey pucks, some were teeing off backward from the green to the tee, and some thought the object of the game was to spear other players with the flagsticks.” In the end, the game is really just a game. Its tragedies are ephemeral, its victories are artificial, and the pro overcharges for balls.

Hmmm. Like life after all.

You can read the other 17 reasons here.

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.”