Match Made in Heaven

Yes, I play golf. A fair amount of golf in fact. Here is my golf cred. What kind of idiot takes pictures of every one of their scorecards? Well, me. And inevitably, I read a few golf books each year. This is a fantastical piece of golf fiction about a dying man whom God gives one last chance to live; all he has to do is beat a group of historical figures in an eighteen hole match on the course on which he learned the game.

The main character is Elliot Goodman; athlete, professor, husband, father. He just had a heart attack and is being driven to the hospital when God makes a visit and strikes the bargain. Goodman plays eighteen imaginary one-hole matches and has eighteen imaginary conversations with dead people. Certainly, these are dead people who Mitchell holds in the highest regard. Fun stuff.

** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **

Goodman’s opponents range from DaVinci on the first hole to an old golf club employee near the end. He plays against singers, athletes, movie stars, and other various historical figures. It appears that Mitchell is passionate about the game because he exhibits a fair amount of knowledge of golf. But don’t read this book for insights into match play strategy; read this book to get in touch with the mystical nature and simple pleasures of the game.

For example, here is why John Lennon plays golf:

“… I mean, some people play golf ‘cuz they wanna see how low they can shoot? And some play ‘cuz they’re outgoing and competitive? Me? I couldn’t give a shit about the scoring. I play ‘cuz it’s fun!

Hitting the ball from one spot to the next and just being outdoors, ya’ know? And feeling free and looking at the trees and the grass and the birds and the clouds. …”

I like this take. Lennon was his opponent on the fourth hole, so there is plenty more golf love to come.

While playing Babe Zaharias, Goodman makes this observation:

He had often thought that golf is a particularly glorious game, not just for all the obvious reasons, but for one in particular. Of all the major sports, it is the only one where, if you’re “in the zone,” you can perform, at any given moment, on any given day, just as well as, and probably better than, anyone on the face of the earth who ever played the game!

Not a bad take. Sure, a weekend warrior like myself, even in the zone, can’t compete with the pros. But there are those tiny moments, those great holes, those flushed shots, that allow you to do something great that can’t really be bettered by any other human. Heck, I dropped a flushed six iron into the hole on the first at White Deer Run about five years ago for an eagle; that shot couldn’t have been hit any better by Jack or Tiger. Contrast this to my marathon experience, where I was running the same course as the world class athletes, but never once could I feel remotely comparable to them. I was logging 8:50 miles and they were logging 5:00 minute miles. I couldn’t fathom running that fast. Heck, that’s an all out sprint as far as I’m concerned and they are doing it for 26 miles. Insanity.

Goodman also makes some keen insights sports in general. I’ve always been a big fan of being a balanced athlete. I think Tiger’s greatness is locked up in his balanced approach to the game. He has every angle covered; the mental game, the emotional game, fitness, distance, touch around the greens, clutch putting, determination, accuracy with the irons. He practices the range of skills needed to succeed and never focuses on a single aspect, he has no weaknesses, there are no chinks in his armor (although it could be too much too fast given this knee injury, we’ll see). Mitchell, through Goodman, makes a similar point about Willie Mays:

Willie may not have been the pure hitter Ted Williams was or the power hitter Hank Aaron was or have had the early Mickey Mantle’s speed afoot, yet he was greater than them all in his peerless brilliance in all aspects of the game, his unparalleled charisma, and his boundless and profound passion for playing baseball.

Tiger may not have the charisma of Willie Mays, but he defines “peerless brilliance in all aspects of the game.”

Then Mitchell pulls off a gem like this, right from the mouth of William Shakespeare:

O golf! Thou dost imbue mine life with meaning
And givest me a purpose to trudge on!
Thou showest me mine frailties today,
Then showest me anew, quite on the morrow,
And makest me relate to mine own flaws
And human peccadilloes of mine doing;
Just as I revealed in others’ lives
The sins and imperfections of a Man,
So hast thou shown in me that vanity,
That greed, that lust for pow’r, that blind ambition,
That madness born of rage, that indecision,
That green-eyed monster envy, which inhabit
Yet every pore and wrinkle of my being!

There are a lot of messages in those lines. The Shakespeare match, written in the form of a play, is pretty cool. I’m not exactly sure if it was in iambic pentameter, but it was very cool nonetheless.

In keeping with Mitchell’s high regard for balance, after beating Babe Ruth on the fifteenth, Goodman makes this observation about his stellar play and how it reflects his own life:

The Babe, impressive as he was, was a one-trick pony out there. Power, power, and more power. And me? Not much to talk about for the macho guys in the locker room, but I sure got the job done. Come to think of it, I was the model versatility out there! Power, in moderation, on the drive, intelligence by choosing a safe three-iron on the second shot, the finesse to keep it on the top tier with the pitch, and accuracy with the putt. The complete package!

Elliot thought about how lucky he had been to be versatile and multifaceted during his life, too. About how he could do and be lots of things, using various talents and energies and fields of expertise, and have lots of passions and play different roles in dealing with different people.

He was fortunate not to be a Georgie One-Note.

This kind of careful thought about the game gets a little deeper in the match with Gandhi. Gandhi goes on a long diatribe about why he loves the game so much:

“… You see, my good friend, the game of golf is the epitome of the essence of satyagraha. That is why I love this game so exceedingly much. Because in golf, as in life, there is much to be learned from truth in firmness, from nonviolent resistance.

In both golf and life, there is strength through gentleness. There is results through patience. There is moving forward through yielding. There is achievement through self-restraint. There is fruitfulness through abstinence, gain through compromise, victory through humility, reward through sacrifice.

… It is about complete service to the game…”

This is a solid, thoughtful, golf story. It didn’t rock my socks off while I was reading it, but it did make me reflect a fair amount about my love for the game. That’s important for golf fiction, it needs to constantly make you reflect on the game and your relationship with it. If you play the game, I think you’ll like this book.