Monday, September 18, 2006

Yet another golf as a metaphor essay

Who knew that Tennessee Williams was a golf writer?

I certainly didn't. Not until I saw the recent production of his play "Summer and Smoke" at the Hartford Stage Company. But even then I wouldn't have realized his sports writing proclivities if I hadn't just recently discovered that I could actually call myself a player of that very same game.

Mars and I went to the Golf Elderhostel at Penn State University to learn more about the sport - and, of course, other things. That's the way it is with Elderhostel vacations.

On some of our previous ones we have (a) been educated about the geology, history and paleontology of the Big Bend area of Texas as well as seeing how successfully Texans and Mexicans interacted along the unguarded Rio Grande border-crossing without any outside guidance; (b) field-studied the varying physical attributes of the Grand Canyon and Sonoran Desert in Arizona; (c) studied and walked within the organic architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona; and (d) experienced the art, music, architecture, and reemergence of Budapest.

We also learned a little about living:

- from an eighty-five year old retired military judge who apologized for his recent mountain biking injury which he hoped would be fully healed in time for his upcoming skiing trips.

- and a seventyish woman who fell at a rest stop on our way to the Grand Canyon, spent a full day hiking et. al. at the site, and appeared the next morning with a fully casted broken arm with which she partook in all of the trip's remaining activities.

- and from two World War II veteran widowed brothers who came to Hungary to visit for the first time the small town from which their mother migrated to America.

This Elderhostel was held at the golf course of Pennsylvania State University and had twenty-eight students and four teachers - the Head Coach of the Penn State Women's Golf Team (Coach Denise), her Assistant Sarah and two of the club Professionals, Steve and Josh.

The curriculum was group lessons with individual attention each morning and unlimited golf playing each afternoon with the faculty on the course observing and instructing. We began with the shortest swing, the putt, and preceded incrementally to the chip, the pitch, and finally the full golf swing. The class varied in age from the early sixties to the low eighties and levels of ability/experience varied similarly - although the numbers that represent those grades of skill (i.e. the scores) were, at least in some cases, higher. One couple were neophytes. The husband, a World War II veteran had taken up skiing at the age of sixty-seven and now wanted to try golf.

Mars and I like to call ourselves "fifth year beginners", having taken up the game that recently as an activity that we could continue to do together, and as a way to meet other people. Over that time we've taken indoor, videotaped lessons, initially from an English-born instructor and club-maker and then, upon his death, from his son who is carrying on both of these enterprises. And we play or practice one to two times a week during the six to seven month Connecticut golf season.

Thanks to our work with John and Shaun we now both have reasonably good golf swings modeled on the classic Ben Hogan style. What we don't have is much experience exposing these swings to a variety of golf courses, or to other players with a higher level of ability.

The lessons were good and the teachers excellent. The Penn State class however didn't really teach us any new things nor did anything we learned differ from what we had been taught previously. It did validate what we already knew but in a different environment (on a golf course with other golfers as opposed to in a "studio" by ourselves) which allowed us to better see for ourselves the results of what we were doing.

And the instructors continually emphasized the importance of appreciating and remembering our successes rather than dwelling on our mistakes - both as a way to improve our skills and, more importantly, in order to enjoy the game

On each of the afternoons we happened to be paired up with more experienced golfers and, happily for us, we were able to play at a comparable, occasionally better, level. Mars made one shot in particular that would have been the ESPN Highlight of the Day - a nine iron pitch that went over two cart paths and a twenty foot tree - just the way she planned it. The next day I par-threed two holes after driving my tee shots one hundred sixty yards or so onto the greens.

So two weeks later I'm listening to what Miss Alma, the protagonist, concludes at the end of Summer and Smoke - "Life is full of little mercies like that, not big mercies, but comfortable little mercies. And so we are able to keep on going..." - and I'm thinking, "I know exactly what she means."

Granted outwardly she is talking about her sleeping pills, one of which she has just taken to relax her, and her about-to-happen date with a traveling salesman. But subtextually she is recognizing in her own life the same self-caused blessings that are articulated in the gag tee shirt that reads:

"I hate golf!
I hate golf!
Good shot!
I love golf!"

Golf is about making that one perfect shot at just the right time. Life is about continuing to keep yourself in the game.

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