I was in a bookstore in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, a few weeks ago, and came across a book I had just read a review of, Eugene O'Kelly's Chasing Daylight. The author had been diagnosed in May 2005 with glioblastoma multiforme, a brain cancer, and told he had but a few months to live. At the time, O'Kelly was the CEO of KPMG, the global financial firm that employs 20,000 people. He wasn't unhappy with his life, but he resigned from his job to try to get the most out of the time he had left: to chase daylight. One of the ways he and his wife did this was to play golf into the evening, and to savor each moment as night fell, just as night was falling on his life. He died on September 10, 2005.
I hadn't planned to buy the book, not then anyway, but I did because once I picked it up I couldn't stop reading, even as I wandered the aisles. O'Kelly's book isn't exclusively about his love of golf, but the many sections where he addressed his feelings for the game resonated with me. One passage in particular leapt out. He had been writing about finding what he called "perfect moments," and of a particular experience at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club in the Scottish Highlands. O'Kelly felt something special there, "something almost tactile, as if the ground had an energy coming from it.
"I felt a shock come up through the ground," he elaborated. "I could actually feel the energy come right up through my arm and through my hands. It was not an earthquake tremor. I felt extremely aware of something. I can't explain it any other way."
As it happens, in the summer of 2000 my wife and I had lived in Dornoch, above the cozy bookshop in town a few hundred yards from the first tee of that great links at the brink of the North Sea. At home on this edge-of-the-world course, I had enjoyed many perfect moments. O'Kelly was up against a different edge—the edge of his life, although he was only in his mid-fifties. But he was thinking about golf. He'd always felt intensely on the course, and now felt that way even more. And his experience confirmed something I had come to believe: that golf is all about the edges.
I feel this most vividly when I'm playing remote courses. Royal Dornoch represents the paradigmatic edge-of-the-world course for me. I'm a member there, and I return as often as possible. Prior to the 2005 British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews, I spent two weeks in Dornoch and was first out and last in on my final day. I played the first round alone, teeing off not long past dawn, in two hours and fifteen minutes, and I finished the second not long before darkness, at 10:30 p.m. beside a calm, soothing sea and under a starry sky.
Because he was open to having them, O'Kelly also wrote about similar edge experiences and perfect moments at other courses. One occurred late one evening at a course near Lake Tahoe. "You realized, slowly, yet with a certain amount of excitement and even joy, that it was just you on the course," he wrote. "No one else was left. It was no longer late afternoon but the gloaming. Your fellow players had been replaced by fellow shadows."
It's not surprising that golf can come to mean so much to its participants. Maybe it's the "solace of open spaces," to appropriate a title Gretel Ehrlich used for her book about Wyoming, and the way one moves through the roomy landscape of a golf course. There's a definite beginning and a definite end, and so much space to explore in between, all the while doing something mildly physical. It's possible that somebody who is facing death wants to see himself as part of a bigger picture. Maybe being on a course puts one in a landscape that can offer perspective. There's the big sky, the singing birds, walking beside water, freedom, air. Space.