Chapter 3: “Albatross”
And so it came to pass that on the third hole, God assigned to Elliott the mightiest of all His substitutes: shepherd, seer, sorceror, lawgiver, liberator, prophet, witnesser of miracles, author of the Torah, founder of Israel, orderer of the ten plagues, bearer of the ten commandments, leader of the Jews out of the desert. And God saw that it was good.
“Jesus H. Christ!” a surprised and awed Elliott blurted.
“No, Moses, actually,” Moses corrected. “But you can call me Moshe.”
The slender shard of optimism that Elliott had been grasping onto after his victory on the second hole vanished as he stood transfixed before this most venerable of personages.
So it’s Moses, eh? Looks like God’s taking out the big lumber, sending in the big guns. No more messing around with mere mortals. So what miracle worker’s He gonna send down on the next hole? Harry Houdini? Aladdin’s genie? Herb Brooks?
Moses flashed an avuncular smile, his thick, muscular beard and bulging biceps reminding Elliott of Michelangelo’s impressive statue of him in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli church. Except that now, instead of a tablet cradled in his right hand, Moses held a humongous Cleveland Launcher 460 driver and looked very much like he meant business.
Unsurprisingly, he wore a long, ankle-length robe and leather sandals. Surprisingly, he sported a white golf visor with “BBCC” scrawled across it, accompanied by a bizarre green-red-and-yellow logo that looked to Elliott like a tiny floret of broccoli being consumed by a funky little flame.
Unsure of how to initiate a conversation with his new, intimidating opponent, Elliott pounced on the obvious.
“So Moshe, what’s the ‘BBCC’ stand for?”
“What, you never heard of it? Gottenyu! It stands for ‘Burning Bush Country Club.’ Been a member now since around 1500. I had just turned 2,800, as I recall, and Leonardo had just invented the golf club. Golf caught on like wildfire then, and it sure beat heck out of playing pinochle every day! Then, a few years later, he also invented the Golf Club, and melech ha’olom, er, the Lord decided to build one up there,” Moses answered, looking heavenward. “I was really flattered, since he sorta named it after me.”
“Well,” Elliott said, still in awe of playing with Moses but a bit surprised by the pronounced New York accent, “I guess I have the honor.”
“Yeah, I know. I saw how you beat Fieldsie on the second. Nice going! Point of fact, I actually played up there with the alter kocker just yesterday and squeaked it out, two and one. And whaddya know if he didn’t hit a seagull on the second hole against me, too!”
Elliott couldn’t suppress a grin as he teed up his slightly scuffed Titleist and gazed out upon the sweeping, intimidating third fairway.
The third, a 514-yard par-5, is the first leg of a unique trifecta in the history of golf. Inwood is the only outstanding golf course in the world that can boast of having not just two, but three consecutive par-5’s. In fact, just for fun, its maniacal designers—Edward Erickson, Herb Strong, and Jack Mackie—had added two consecutive par-3’s, the sixth and the seventh, right after. Consequently, the front nine has the outlandish configuration of 4-4-5-5-5-3-3-4-4.
Elliott stepped up to his ball, slightly unnerved by the prospect of having to play the monster third hole against the most famous Jew in history. He addressed it, did his waggle, and, adrenaline pumping through his entire body, hit it pure, right on the screws, a towering fade that landed dead center 270 yards from where he was now proudly posing.
“Hoo-ha!” Moses cheered magnanimously. “Some drive!”
Elliott felt gregarious and chatty. “Moshe, I can’t help asking about your accent. I just thought…”
“I know, I know,” the prophet interrupted. “Get asked about that all the time. Long story short, in the Torah, you know, my speech was sorta stilted and stiff. I wrote it myself, and God told me I should sound formal—authority figure to my people, bla bla bla…. And when God tells you to sound formal, you sound formal. So that’s why all the thees and thous and thys and shalts. A real pain in the tuchis, if you want to know the truth! But outside of the Bible, I can relax and speak naturally, especially on the golf course, where everyone’s a mentsh.”
Moses stepped up to his ball and produced a shot the likes of which Elliott had never witnessed in his entire life. The Great Lawgiver took his driver back in a huge arc, way past parallel, and, using no lower body at all, no hip turn or leg drive whatsoever, made contact with the ball by using only his massive, Popeyesque forearms and supersupple wrists. He struck the ball with such brute force—the tock! of club against ball was accompanied by a staccato, stentorian oy! belched out by the prophet at impact—that the tee itself, rudely dislodged from the ground, flew nearly fifty yards down the fairway. As for the ball, it was hooked slightly but landed an inconceivable 495 yards from the tee-box.
Elliott’s mouth was frozen open. He had no idea how Moses had been able to produce such force and distance without using his lower body. It just wasn’t possible and defied the conventional physics of the golf swing. He had never seen a drive remotely this long, not by George Bayer, not by Tiger Woods, not by John Daly, not even by the brutish lugs in those long-driving contests.
“Vey iz mir!” Moses groaned. “Uncle-Charlied that one. Think I caught the trap.”
Elliott was amazed that anyone, even Moses, could see that far down the fairway. As incredible as the mammoth drive was, he was still encouraged by the whole scenario. Despite the huge distance differential, his ball was sitting in the middle of the fairway, and Moses’s was, apparently, lying in the deep, ominous bunker in front, and to the left, of the green.
Drive for show, putt for dough.
They clambered into the cart—Moses drove, natch—which carried in the back two identical Callaway bags with identical sets of pristine clubs. The bag on the left had a large MOSHE scrawled (right to left) on the back. The one on the right, a much smaller and more orthodox (left to right) ELLIOTT. Elliott noticed that on the driver’s side of the dash sat a tube of Ben-Gay and a squarish lump of something wrapped in silver foil.
“Open it,” Moses said, peripherally noticing Elliott’s curiosity.
Elliott obeyed with deference. Inside the package was a delicious-looking piece of noodle kugel, made with apricots and white raisins.
“Go ahead. Try it, you’ll like it. Crispy on the outside, mushy on the inside. My wife, Tzipporah, she made it special for you. Got the recipe from Yocheved, my momma.”
Again, Elliott obeyed and took a bite. Best he ever tasted.
While Elliott munched, Moses drove and then spake.
“Elliott, you and I have something in common. Did you know that I am the only person in the Bible who was permitted to speak to God? Now you have spoken to Him, too. Doesn’t happen every day. So I’ll share something with you I haven’t shared with a soul for all these years.
“I’m talking justice. Y’know, some people see my life as pretty exciting and special. The basket in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter finding me and all, then the burning bush and the ‘Let my people go’ business, the plagues, the Golden Calf, writing the Torah, leading my people out of Egypt, then the forty years in the wilderness…”
Moses got a little verklempt at this point.
“And then…and then…that whole Canaan thing. I was so mad, I could plotz. I mean, just because I struck that rock with my rod instead of ordering it to yield water, I was punished? Because of that, I had to sit up there on Mt. Pisgah and watch my people enter Canaan, like a sub on the bench not being allowed to enter the game? You call that fair?”
Elliott was touched by this sad tale, but more by the fact that Moses was confiding in him so openly.
“I mean, I spent my whole life fighting for justice,” the prophet continued. “I even smote that Egyptian overseer and defended those seven daughters of Jethro who were, well, let’s say ‘abused’ by the Midianite shepherds! And what’d it get me? Nothing but heartache!
“Do you know what it’s like not being able to attain your goal? Canaan was a real simcha for my people, but nothing but tsores for me. Plus it gave me plenty of shpilkes. As the years went by, I used to joke up there with Tzipporah that it was just a case of introitus interruptus! We’d laugh and laugh, but in here, Elliott, I still hurt.”
Moses pointed to his heart and stopped speaking, overcome with emotion.
“That is so unfair, Moshe,” Elliott consoled. “It’s sort of like Bill Buckner having all those great years at bat and in the field, and then that one ball squirts through his legs at the end, and that’s all he’s remembered for.”
Elliott was deeply affected by this whole discussion of how unfair life could be, and it made him think about the injustice of certain events in his own personal saga.
How his firstborn, Adam, had been suddenly stricken with acute epiglottitis at age eight and had perished in the hospital, a boy with so much talent, so much goodness, so much to offer the world. How he had played his best tennis ever in the biggest tournament of his life—his first event as a Senior, just a week ago—only to lose in the finals because of that horrendous line call. How he had crumpled to the floor of Widener, the victim of an inexplicable heart attack, in the prime of his life…
The cart stopped at Elliott’s ball, cutting short his daydream.
He couldn’t believe his eyes.
What he had thought was a dream of a drive ended up being a nightmare. His ball had somehow nestled itself inside an ugly divot left by some unthinking zhlob who forgot to repair it. Talk about justice. What he’d thought would be a straightforward three-metal turned into a difficult three-iron challenge. Exchanging clubs, he returned to his ball and addressed it.
The image of poor Moses sitting helplessly on a basketball bench danced around in his head, followed by a cameo appearance of Themis—Lady Justice—and her sword and scales, but with one eye peering suspiciously out of her blindfold.
Setting his jaw in spite of these visions, Elliott drew back his three-iron and picked the ball perfectly, taking just the right amount of divot and propelling it hard and low into the tailwind. It ended up, incredibly, just a few yards in front of the apron.
Just as I thought. Golf is an exceedingly fair game!
“Gott in himmel!” Moses said, duly impressed. “Whatta shot!”
As the cart bumped its way down the rolling fairway, Moses turned to Elliott and asked, “Would you mind rubbing ein bissel Ben-Gay on my upper back? These muscles aren’t getting any younger.”
“My pleasure,” Elliott answered, as he squirted a small blob of the balm on an area just below Moses’s nape.
A few weeks ago, I was teaching a course on The Bible as Literature, and now I’m rubbing Moses’s back?...
Chapter 5: “Good Sechs”
Elliott’s prayers were answered. Standing before him at the fifth tee was a bespectacled, slightly slumped-over sesquicentenarian with a neatly manicured gray beard, thinning hair, and a large, wrinkled forehead—the least athletic-looking person one could possibly imagine.
Decked out in a three-piece tweed suit—from the vest pocket of which hung an impressive silver watch fob—a starched shirt, a cravat, and a pair of polished black boots, he looked like the last place on the planet where he would feel comfortable would assuredly be a golf course.
He was a man who possessed great analytical powers, ambition, and intellect, qualities that might easily be inappropriate for the proper playing of golf. He held a large, foul-looking cigar in his right hand, and his name was Sigismund Schlomo Freud.
Elliott greeted the eminent doctor with respect, although instinctively he felt uncomfortable in the presence of the father of psychoanalysis. Freud sensed this and sought to break the tension.
“Guten Morgen! So then, how is your sex drive?”
“Excuse me?” Elliott answered, puzzled at Freud’s blunt and unannounced interest in his concupiscence.
“Sorry, just kidding,” the therapist said, chuckling. “I meant, to shoot a sechs on this hole, you need a good drive! Parapraxis!”
“Freudian slip,” Freud explained in his heavy Viennese accent. “Haven’t you read my essay on the theory of sexuality, jokes, and their relation to the unconscious?”
“Afraid not,” Elliott said, anxious to get back to business, to get his game back on track. “I believe I have the honor,” he added curtly.
The 512-yard fifth hole, a gentle dogleg right, is the shortest, flattest, easiest, and last of the three consecutive par-5’s. A dense fog, not an unusual morning phenomenon at Inwood, had begun to drift in from the Bay behind them and to permeate the fairway, making the hole less than visible and endowing it with an eerie, dreamlike quality.
Elliott chose driver from the bag, then stepped up to the tee-box briskly, brimming with confidence. He stuck the red tee with his Titleist on it into the ground, stepped up, took his stance, addressed the ball, did his brief waggle, stopped his clubhead, locked his wrists and forearms—all done seemingly in one motion, crisply and with purpose—and, without hesitating, creamed the ball 255 yards right down the middle of the fairway.
Three-metal in hand, Freud shuffled slowly to the tee-box. The old man bent down with great effort into an awkward-looking squat, placed his tee methodically in the ground, raised it up a half-inch, then back down a half-inch, then finally up a quarter-inch, meticulously balanced his old Acushnet ball on top of it, straightened up slowly, stretched his legs—first the right one, then the left—and, after blowing a carefully conceived smoke ring, put his lit cigar in his mouth and, without taking it out, took a puff, blew out a prodigious cloud of billowing smoke, and set his feet.
Elliott fidgeted with impatience. Unfortunately for him, he had until now only seen the tip of the Freudian iceberg.
Cigar still in mouth (he had been playing like this long before Larry Laoretti or even Charlie Sifford), the Austrian physician addressed his ball, paused to pick a minute particle of lint off his vest, then went back to his address, then adjusted his spectacles, then the address again, then scratched an itch, address, shooed a fly, address, cleared his throat, address.
This was all taking place in Super Slo-Mo, as if a movie camera were overcranked at 256 frames per second, making a snail or a large tortoise seem, by comparison, like Jesse Owens in his prime.
Finally, at long last, the waggle.
Freud’s waggle wasn’t just your average, run-of-the-mill, two-to-three-part waggle with alternating wrist fidgeting, leg rocking, and fairway gazing. No, this was the waggle of waggles, the mother lode of waggles, the Taj Mahal, Rolls-Royce, Hope Diamond, Dom Perignon, Kobe steak, bagel-with-the-works, waggliest waggle of all time. Lasting just under two minutes, and including virtually every part of the psychoanalyst’s anatomy, it was the most idiosyncratic, facial-tic-filled, anal-retentive, repression-infested, denial-covered, defense-mechanism-slathered, ass-wiggling waggle ever witnessed by man or beast.
And now by poor Elliott, who, toward the end, was fantasizing about dumping Freud and hooking up with some great, really fast player like Julie Boros or Lee Trevino or Tom Watson or Jim Thorpe or Nick Price…
Snapping back to reality, Elliott watched the doctor complete his preparations and bring his clubhead to a grinding halt behind the ball.
After a healthy pause to make sure that all was perfect, Freud took his club back to the top of his swing, not quite parallel, and…held it there for a good ten seconds! Like an orgasm building up to its apogee, the swing was held there erect, building…building…until it could be held there no longer, at which point arms, wrists, and club all came crashing down heavily, exploding at contact—yes!—and releasing the white projectile down…down…down the fairway.
But it was Elliott, not Freud, who was spent at this point, fit to be tied from all the waiting, and mentally exhausted.
“Hop in, I’ll drive,” Freud said. “I always like to be in control.”
Elliott noticed on the driver’s side of the dash a small vial with some fine white powder in it, a copy of The Interpretation of Dreams, and a videotape (Debbie Does Dallas).
“Elliott,” the psychotherapist began, “tell me about this heart attack, will you?”
Elliott was surprised that of all his opponents so far, Freud was the only one who had taken an interest in his recent harrowing experience. “Well,” he answered, “I don’t remember very much, just collapsing in Widener, then the gurney and the doctors, and then God…”
“Nein, nein,” Freud interrupted, “I mean, tell me what you imagine to have been the reason behind the heart attack.”
Elliott hemmed and hawed. “Well, I’m not really certain. I guess I was under some stress, and my father had a history…”
“Nein, nein, mein Kind,” Freud interrupted again. “I’ll tell you why. It was because in your unconscious, there was a basic conflict, probably begun in early childhood, between your id—that is, your libido, impulses, pleasure, desires—and your superego—that is, your limits, rules, parents, teachers, authority figures in general, and also society.
“And this superego was all the time trying to control this id, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in symbols, all the time in conflict. Until one day, BOOM!—the heart attack!
“And tell me about your dreams. Did you ever have dreams of a…sexual nature?”
“Well, lemme see. There was one where this drop-dead gorgeous…”
“Oops, sorry,” Freud cut in, “but your time is up.”
The cart had, in fact, reached Freud’s ball. The therapist got out, selected three-metal again, and, after his two-minute ordeal of a waggle, hit the ball—as most 150-year-old golfers do—not too far but straight down the middle. He now lay two, still 250 yards from the pin, and only five yards or so ahead of Elliott, who lay one.
“Well now,” he said, as he stepped gingerly back into the cart and began the drive toward Elliott’s ball, “let’s do a little free association, shall we? I’ll say to you a word, and then you will tell me what it makes you think of. Ready? Okay, here we go.
Elliott thought this was all a joke, but he saw from Freud’s look that the shrink was dead serious.
“Breast?” Freud repeated sternly.
“Milk,” Elliott answered begrudgingly, still annoyed at the pace of the golf action, but acquiescing to the exercise.
“Good,” Freud said. “And milk?”
“Cow,” Elliott answered.
“And cow?” Freud continued.
“Aha!” Freud concluded, as he stopped the cart at Elliott’s ball.
Elliott jumped out, pulled three-metal out of his bag, and strode briskly
to his ball. He addressed it, took a quick look at the flagstick through the now-thickening fog, looked down again at his ball, and froze.
Time stood still, and although what happened next only took thirty seconds, it seemed like forever to Elliott.
In his head, a daydream of spectacular theatrical and choreographic proportions is transpiring. The background theme is somewhere between the “Ballet” scene from Carousel and “Tevye’s Dream” from Fiddler on the Roof. At times, they can be heard in stereo. Scenes from childhood to the present form themselves and then dissolve, weaving in and out of view in kaleidoscopic fashion, ebbing and flowing, advancing and receding.
There’s little “Ell” sitting at the dinner table in front of a plate of Brussels sprouts, with his mother, played by Margaret Hamilton as Miss Gulch in Oz, cackling from behind him, “Eat up, my pret-ty!”…
And look! There’s little Ell in school, so proud of the little tree he’s creating by his own rules, with its crazy branches and its blue-and-purple leaves, while his art teacher—who resembles a female version of Hitler, mustache, uniform, and all—stands behind him (shot with a fisheye lens), wagging her finger and ordering him to start over and draw one of those round, puffy trees with green leaves and a brown trunk…
And there’s Elliott Goodman in college, his heart open to the world, and he’s reading a book at a large round table in the library and learning how cruel that world can be, with its rules and controls clashing with the desires of the individual…
And out of the book emerge and come to life a whole procession of characters. Oedipus ripping his eyes out of his head and Romeo and Juliet at the balcony, played by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, and old Don Quixote on his nag and Julien Sorel and Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne and David Copperfield being yelled at by Mr. Murdstone and Joseph K. and Holden Caulfield, and then a quote from Dickens (“The law is a ass!”) floats out of the book, its letters soon dissolving into the smoky library air, followed by another one, this time from Sartre (“Hell is other people”)…
And now replacing the library scene are young Elliott and young Joy, so much in love and at odds with conventional wisdom, and they’re running away and eloping, armed to fight the world with nothing but their backpacks full of clothes, and their love… [Music builds, and the scenes appear with greater frequency and intensity.]
And there’s Professor Elliott Goodman fighting the good fight for his best friend, Ron, who’s being denied tenure at Harvard, and they’re in a courtroom and Elliott is Ron’s lawyer, standing up against the entire department and their politics and their prejudice, and suddenly the scene turns ugly and becomes the trial in Alice in Wonderland, then segues into the one in Kafka’s novel…
And there’s Elliott playing in his first Senior tennis tournament, and he’s about to win, and then that terrible line call, and the linesman who perpetrates the vile act is none other than Freud himself, with his three-piece suit and cigar in mouth and laughing his ass off…
And there’s Professor Goodman in the bowels of Widener Library, book in hand, and then suddenly clutching his chest and dropping to his knees in a heap and pleading to God… [Music reaches crescendo.]
And there are the scales of Lady Justice, and on one scale is God, smiling in all His glory, weighing down his scale so that it is much lower than the other one, and on the upper scale is poor Elliott Goodman, naked and supine and alone on the operating table, his heart bravely pumping inside his chest, pumping…
Elliott snapped out of it, his brow covered with tiny beads of sweat. He tried to loosen his grip, but his tight hands were locked in, as if they’d been epoxied, bonded together by the twin resins of impatience with Freud’s waggles and resentment at all the conflict and struggle that had been building up in his life during the past five decades.
His mind racing and his heart thumping, he took his club back—glued hands and all—and, venting all his anger and all his frustration, buried his three-metal deep into the turf three inches behind the ball, taking a divot of gargantuan proportions and leaving the ball untouched and lying precisely where it had lain prior to his swing.
There is nothing more mortifying for a golfer, at any skill level, than a whiff. It is the equivalent, in emotional impact, to no other phenomenon known to the human species. The only reaction possible from its author is an immediate and overpowering urge to bury his or her head, ostrichlike, in the gaping hole made by the club and cover it up tight with the divot. Under the circumstances, this particular option was not available to Elliott….
Chapter 7: “Golf Lessons”
PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Socrates, Goodman.
SCENE: The seventh hole at Inwood.
Socrates. So then, Goodman, I see that you are coming from the sixth hole with a heavy heart.
Goodman. Yes, Socrates, I have just experienced the terrible waste of a beautiful life. Poe has killed himself!
Soc. That is indeed very terrible. But let me ask you this: Do you know if he suffered much?
Good. I cannot tell, as I did not actually witness the end.
Soc. But is it not true, Goodman, that Poe was already dead and, in fact, was sent here to this place from above, where all the souls who reside there are deceased?
Good. That, Socrates, is true. I had not thought of it until now.
Soc. So it is safe to say that it was not Poe who suffered, but you, in your grief at his “demise”?
Good. Yes, that is clearly true.
Soc. Would you not agree, then, that you were filled with suffering because you felt compassion for this man whom you so admired?
Good. Yes, I would agree.
Soc. And would you not also say that the game of golf has brought out of your already sensitive nature an added feeling of empathy for this fellow man, whom you reckoned to have taken his own life?
Good. Exactly true. It appears that I have learned something new about myself.
Soc. And do you not see that your compassion was selfless, in that even though you knew tossing your sand wedge into the bunker would cost you a penalty stroke and quite possibly the hole, you still attempted to run to Poe’s rescue without a thought of yourself?
Good. Quite so.
Soc. And do you not find it a coincidence that both compassion and empathy share a common etymology—the Greek pathein or the Latin pati, “to suffer”?
Good. I had not thought of that until you mentioned it.
Soc. Would you agree then, Goodman, that it was not Poe’s death, but the game of golf, that has evoked the feeling of suffering that you are presently experiencing?
Good. Yes, it does seem so.
Soc. Well, then, pursuing this line of reasoning, how would you describe your deepest feeling for the game?
Good. I suppose I would say I feel a certain passion for it.
Soc. And what word would you use to characterize your second shot against Freud?
Good. I would call that shot pathetic.
Soc. And what quality did you sadly lack while you were waiting during the slow-as-molasses preswing antics of Freud?
Good. I would most assuredly say patience.
Soc. And were you proactive when you struck that wishy-washy eight-iron on number one?
Good. No, Socrates, I must admit that I was passive.
Soc. Now do you not find it revealing that compassion, empathy, passion, pathetic, patience, passive—the very words we can use to describe what the game of golf can teach or inspire in you—all spring forth from the same word, which means “to suffer”?
Good. I suppose that is true, now that I think of it.
Soc. It brings to my mind the poignant words of a fellow Greek, the great tragedian Aeschylus. “Pathema mathema,” or “lessons through suffering.”
Good. I believe that was from Agamemnon, lines 177-78?
Soc. You are good, Goodman. You have done your homework. My point is that when one plays golf, one suffers considerably, but one also can learn from this grief.
Good. To be sure, Socrates. It is quite a paradox.
Soc. My thought precisely. For is it not that sweet paradox, among many others, that makes the game so extraordinary and so mysterious? You have already experienced a number of them, Goodman. Thought and nonthought. Struggle and joy. Control and letting go. Surprise and disappointment. Failure and success. These contradictions explain why golf is a perfect game for us humans, who are flawed and fallible and always trying to improve. And why God, who is perfect, never plays but is content to be a spectator. Oh, and I forgot my favorite paradox. Do you not, Goodman, play to win?
Good. Certainly, Socrates.
Soc. And do you not also play to enjoy yourself and to attain excellence?
Good. Yes, that is true, too.
Soc. Yet can you not attain one goal and fail at the other, and vice versa? You played very well against Moses, for example, and lost the hole, and then you played like an absolute dunce against Lennon and still won. Does that seem fair to you?
Good. Not at all, Socrates, and I have often wondered about that.
Soc. That is a good word to use, since it is with wonder that we should view golf’s justice. It is not our justice, but the special justice of the golfing gods, who, you may not have realized, reside in a special clubhouse on Mt. Olympus and look down upon us mortals. So we do the best we can, and the rest is up to them. It is indeed a humbling game. Which brings me to the issue of humility.
Good. Yes, that is one I am always working on.
Soc. I see by your round so far that this is true. Humbled by Leonardo’s putter-from-the-bunker shot on one, by your dunderheaded putt on two, by Moses’s miracle on three, by the miserable play on four, by the lack of concentration on five, by the suicide on six. Sometimes, Goodman, the game can humble us mightily, make us feel like the lowliest of worms. Is it no wonder, then, that the word humble comes from the Latin humus, “earth”? But there is one saving grace to being a worm.
Good. And what might that be?
Soc. Worms have low centers of gravity. This is important, for keeping to the center is the key to playing golf.
Good. How so, Socrates?
Soc. Well, let me ask you this: Which part of the fairway gives you the greatest feeling of comfort and well-being?
Good. The center, I suppose.
Soc. And which part of the green?
Good. The center, as well.
Soc. And toward which part of the cup do you aim all your putts?
Good. The center, of course. I should have seen that coming.
Soc. Focus and keep to the center, as any worm would know! But this brings to mind yet another curious paradox.
Good. And what could that possibly be?
Soc. This “center” business doesn’t always work. For example, did you notice that you hit the center of the fairway on all the odd holes?
Good. No, I didn’t notice. I was too busy playing to save my life!
Soc. Well, it is so. And did you win any of those holes?
Good. Let’s see: one…three…five… No, actually, I lost them all.
Soc. And did you notice that you missed the fairway completely on all the even holes?
Good. No, but thanks a bunch for reminding me.
Soc. That is not a problem.
Good. Yes, you are correct, now that I think about it: I missed the fairway completely on two, four, and six.
Soc. And did you lose any of these holes?
Good. Let me think. No, actually, I won them all.
Soc. The golfing gods, once again. It means that the center of the fairway is sometimes important and sometimes not. But there is one center that is always constant.
Good. And what is that?
Soc. The center of you. It is the only thing you can depend on, when all is said and done. You cannot depend on justice to prevail, or luck, or good bounces, or mistakes from your opponent. Golf is ruthless and contradictory and inscrutable and mysterious and unforgiving.
Good. Just like God, I suppose. And I suppose that’s why he chose golf as…
Soc. And all you have on your side of the ledger, Goodman, is you and your center. It is worth getting to know that center, do you not agree? As my fellow Greek, the great Menander, once said, “Lupes iatros estin anthropos logos,” “For man, knowledge is the physician of grief.” And the greatest kind of knowledge is knowledge of the self. Do you remember the two golden rules of the Delphic Oracle, Goodman?
Good. Is that the same Delphic Oracle, Socrates, who once said that you were the wisest man in Greece?
Soc. The same. You are most kind to mention it. It is funny, though. I have often said that I know nothing and that I have gained no wisdom, despite what the Oracle said. But after many centuries of playing the game of golf, and listening to it speak to me, and asking questions of it, I shall let you in on a little secret: I must finally admit that I know a thing or two! But I digress. The two rules of the Oracle…
Good. Let me see…. One of them was meden agan.
Soc. Yes, “nothing in excess.” That was a good one. And the other?
Good. That would be gnothi seauton.
Soc. Very good, Goodman. “Know thyself”: This is the one I always keep in my heart when I play golf. And today, I think that you have been doing some of that yourself.
Good. How so?
Soc. First, you learned about focus on the first hole and applied it to number two. Then, you questioned the issue of justice and the meaning of competition, and what they mean to your center, at number three. Then, your inner self learned the lesson of joy at number four. And came face-to-face with humility on five. And on number six, you got to know your compassionate self. Gnothi seauton: Yes, there is much wisdom in that. Which brings me to my final question, Goodman, after which we shall, at long last, play this excellent and demanding seventh hole. I know you are anxious to get started….
Good. Yes I am, but I have been enjoying our dialogue very much indeed. So your final question, what would that be?
Soc. Ah, yes: Why do you think God has chosen this format of having you play all these different dead people, one per hole?
Good. Well, as you have said, He, being perfect and all, doesn’t play himself. And besides, I guess He thought I’d find pleasure in being with and speaking to them.
Soc. Yes, that is all true. But since match play is usually one player against another for the full eighteen holes, why did He choose to send down from heaven a different opponent for each hole?
Good. If you put it that way, I am not certain why.
Soc. Well, how many of them will you be playing against today?
Good. Eighteen, presumably, if the match goes that far.
Soc. And are these players not different, one from another?
Soc. And do they not represent different personalities and different points of view?
Good. And how!
Soc. And is each hole, too, not different, one from another, with changing layouts and shot situations and challenges?
Good. Of course.
Soc. And if all these different players and different holes are constantly changing and variable, what then remains as the one unchanging and constant presence upon which you can rely, depend, and count on?
Good. Well, that would be me.
Soc. Very good, Goodman. And while we’re on the subject of you, do you recall the song Lennon, and then you, were singing at the fourth hole? What was it about?
Good. Well, it was about somebody helping me….
Soc. And this help that you need, do you not now see that this “somebody” who could give it to you is none other than…
Good. My body! I am, ultimately, the only “body” who can help myself, truly. Me, Elliott Goodman…
Soc. That is excellent, Goodman. I have often said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And I believe that, under these most difficult of circumstances, you are beginning to examine yourself and your life. If you will forgive me one final thought to leave you with…
Good. How could I deny you this, Socrates?
Soc. Thanks. This thought is not even mine, actually. It was inspired by one of my brilliant compatriots, Thales.
Good. Thales of Miletus, the first great philosopher?
Soc. One and the same. Do you know, Goodman, how golf is a game of fundamentals?
Good. Yes, I have been playing for long enough to know that.
Soc. Well, Thales was always interested in studying the four elements and in examining their crucial importance as the fundamental pillars of life. Can you see how that could relate to golf?
Good. I can see that earth is a big part of golf. Dirt and rocks and grass and sand and trees and divots and hills and hardpan and heather…
Soc. Good. And air?
Good. Well, the wind is very important, I would say. Definitely. Little breezes and gusts of wind that swirl and change direction. And also the intimate sound of your breathing when you are playing.
Soc. Yes, and what about water?
Good. That’s easy. There’s rain sometimes, and then casual water on the course, and also man-made ponds and lakes, and creeks, and sounds, and bays, and seas, and oceans…
Soc. And, finally, fire?
Good. Umm…er… There is no fire on a golf course.
Soc. You are mistaken, Goodman. Yet another paradox: The most important fundamental element in golf is not even visible. It is here. [Points to stomach.] In your belly. This fire is there with you, Goodman, all the time, and it is on that that you will have to rely. It will sometimes flicker or even seem like it is being extinguished, but it is up to you to blow on it even in the darkest of times and keep it burning.
Good. Thank you, Socrates, for that wonderful insight. You are a great teacher.
Soc. No, Goodman, you are once again mistaken. It is golf that is the great teacher….