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Far from the Madding Crowd

Howard's ball topples into the hole for a birdie. Later, of course, golf will have its way with him, as it does with all of us. The bouncy ground can send the ball off-line. When we play through the air, we can believe the flight will be smooth. But bumpy ground teaches humility, self-acceptance, the long view. After all, we are playing a game for a lifetime. It helps to be playing in an environment that really gets me going. I feel so alive here, as if every sense is multiply engaged; the hills, the wind, the views, the walk, the company--being here is a heady experience.

Purbeck is part of what I have come to call "Hardy country." Perhaps no writer is more identified with a particular part of the world than is Thomas Hardy with Dorset and its environs. One can almost feel the novelist roaming Purbeck's heavenly golfing ground, for he was a man who loved the land he called Wessex. It is a surpassingly beautiful part of England, green and rural, with dramatic coastal headlands. Happily I am here with my wife, Nell; she spent a few years in Hardy's company, as it were, writing a doctoral dissertation on his novels and poetry. In Nell's company I am learning to appreciate the landscape here for more than its golfing values alone.

Playing Purbeck, I found it easy to imagine Hardy walking in the area. He lived for a season in 1875 in Swanage, a nearby village where Howard Singleton has lived for thirty years, just down the hill from his beloved course. Surely Hardy would have walked the ridge where Purbeck's holes lie. He described the scene in the novel he was working on at the time,

The Hand of Ethelberta:

Standing on the top of a giant's grave in this antique land, Ethelberta lifted her eyes to behold two sorts of weather pervading Nature at the same time. Far below on the right hand it was a fine day, and the silver sunbeams lighted up a many-armed inland sea which stretched round an island with fir-trees and gorse, amid brilliant crimson. . . . On the left, quite up to her position, was dark and cloudy weather, shading a valley of heavy greens and browns,awhich at its further side rose to meet the sea in tall cliffs, suggesting even here at their back how terrible were their aspects seaward in a growling south-west gale.

Carrying Hardy's novels and poetry along, we find many places where we are seeing with almost a double vision--his and ours. We see the way Hardy's "silver sunbeams," along with the "growling south-west gale," affect my golf, for weather is so much a part of the game here.

Twice I try to play the Came Down Golf Club near Dorchester, the town that Hardy called Casterbridge, the setting for his famous novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. But the course is swathed in fog, and a chilly rain falls when I visit on successive days. Still, I play along in the company of the club captain, Ian Clark, until we reach the eighth hole, called Hardy. It's unplayable in the wet, dreary conditions, and so we call it a day and repair to the clubhouse for tea.

The weather will break, but meanwhile, Nell and I explore Dorchester, a bustling town that probably looks much as it did when Hardy walked its streets. We visit the important places of his life, the thatched cottage in the woods of Higher Bockhampton, where he was born (in 1840) and raised; Max Gate, the brick Victorian home he built in the 1880s, when his novels began to make him a man of means; Stinsford Church, where his heart--literally--rests in the churchyard among his family's graves (his ashes are in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner).

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