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Wagner and Golf: Musical Pairing

When I told my family that I had become smitten with the operas of Richard Wagner, looks of recognition stole across their faces. As I launched soliloquies on the pleasures and profundities of this vast world I had stumbled across, I could see what they were thinking: Here we go again.

And they were right. Back in 1997, swept up in Tigermania, I had taken up golf at age forty-seven. Suddenly the doorbell was ringing with the daily arrival of golf books, videos and training aids. The hall rack was sprouting logo caps, the back room clogging with clubs, bags and shoes. I put up a practice net in the backyard—and lighted it. I watched the Golf Channel while stroking putts in the den. One day my wife replaced the rug there with a new one.

"How do you like the new rug?" she asked, as I lined up a six-footer.

"It seems a bit faster than the old one," I said.

Then, a little more than a year ago, to prepare for an interview with an opera singer, I started listening to opera, exploring beyond the little Verdi that I knew. As soon as I hit Wagner, Wagner hit me. I had never heard anything like it—and after decades of listening to music from Boccherini to Bud Powell to bubblegum pop, I had thought I'd heard it all.

Now I need a Wagner Channel. I turn down the sound on the Golf Channel and practice putting while listening to the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde. "Liebestod" literally means "love/death," which is also a fine description of my golf game.

But it's not just my obsessive nature that links my favorite game with my favorite composer. Golf and Wagner actually have a lot in common. For starters, they both take too long and cost too much—but are worth it. The matinee of Götterdämmerung I saw at the Met last spring began at noon and ended sometime after 5 p.m., just like a round of golf, and left me in the same exalted, exhilarated and exhausted state. An orchestra seat at that performance cost $375, the same as a round at Pebble Beach. A golfer might be content to play Pebble and leave Spyglass Hill, Spanish Bay and Poppy Hills for the next trip. But what true Wagnerian is satisfied seeing just one of the four dramas in the Ring?For budgetary reasons, I had to be. And so I went with Götterdämmerung ("Twilight of the Gods"), the final opera of the cycle. It was like 2002, when I was offered tickets to the U.S. Open at Bethpage on either Saturday or Sunday. I chose Sunday.

And is it mere coincidence that Scotsmen, the first golfers, speak a tongue as incomprehensibly knotty and guttural as Wagner's German?

Both golf and Wagner look ridiculous to the uninitiated. Charles B. Macdonald, in his autobiography, admitted that when he first gazed upon the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in their bright red coats, he thought they looked "stupid and silly." Of course, he was just a sixteen-year-old from Chicago, and he saw the light as soon as he saw St. Andrews. But I often shudder to think what an opera innocent would make of large people in mythological Norse getup standing still on a nearly bare stage bellowing at each other at the top of their lungs. Actually, the music is so overwhelmingly beautiful that I don't mind the relative lack of animation. But it takes awhile to get there.

Both inspire pilgrimages to hallowed ground. If you love golf, you must play St. Andrews before you die. If you love Wagner, you feel the same way about attending a performance at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany. Wagner himself designed the theater, which has some of the best acoustics in the world. By the way, the practice of dimming the house lights before the curtain goes up?Wagner invented that. As he planned it, the four operas of the Ring—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung—would be performed on four successive days. Kind of like the four rounds of a major tournament.

In both, heroes wield weapons with colorful names. Bobby Jones had his trusty putter, Calamity Jane. Siegfried reforges the invincible sword originally made by his grandfather Wotan—CEO of the gods.

Both have water in play. In Wagner, the ultimate water hazard is the Rhine River. Das Rheingold, the first opera of the Ring cycle, begins at the bottom of it. Alberich, a cranky dwarf and high handicapper, is traipsing around underwater. His presence there is never explained, but I think he's looking for his ball. Instead, he finds three ravishing Rhinemaidens, who tease him about his woes off the tee. Furious, he steals their gold, and the Ring is underway. Fourteen hours later, in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, the Rhine overflows, dousing the fire that has consumed Valhalla, clubhouse of the gods. Play is suspended as the entire world is transformed into ground under repair.

Both boast unforgettable characters named Hagen. Golf's Walter was a lovable bon vivant. Götterdämmerung's Hagen (pronounced like the ice cream, but nothing sweet about him) is Iago with a spear, which he uses to stab the hapless hero, Siegfried, in the back. In the end, the Rhinemaidens drown him as he lunges for the golden ring that was fashioned by his crafty father, Alberich the dwarf. Had he gotten his mitts on it, Hagen probably would have kissed it and held it high, kind of like the Claret Jug.

Apt as they are, not one of these comparisons gets at the heart of the matter. In golf as in Wagner, the mystical bubbles just beneath the surface, and ultimately everything is symbolic. A round of golf is a series of challenges and journeys, played out on an epic scale, in which human beings face the reality of their own nature set against the vicissitudes of nature itself. Such is the essence of Wagner—just add thrilling music.

It is no secret that Wagner himself was not a particularly nice fellow. But while the anti-Semitic, wife-stealing egomaniac died of heart failure in Venice in 1883, his operas survive because they are the most gripping and ravishingly beautiful ever written. Like golf, Wagner can be approached in many ways and appreciated on many levels. The man was one of the most psychologically penetrating artists who ever lived, in some ways mapping the unconscious years before Freud. But for me, the most meaningful link between Wagner and golf is that both unabashedly examine questions of honor, bravery, competition, camaraderie and love from the male point of view.

Yes, women play golf, sometimes better and with less vanity than men. And yes, Wagner created noble, full-blooded female characters—none greater than Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie, who stood up to the ultimate authority figure, her father, Wotan.

But however much women may enjoy and connect with the cantankerous composer and the confounding game, both abound in moments that make men misty-eyed. Take the rainbow that appeared over the eighteenth green at Winged Foot just as Davis Love III claimed the major title his father, Davis Jr., didn't live to see. It gave me a thrill analogous to the one I later felt when Siegmund, the young hero of Die Walküre, pulled free the sword that his father, Wotan, plunged into the tree knowing Siegmund would one day find it.

In Wagner as in golf, men bond and compete, honor counts and character is tested. The players have to hack their way out of U.S. Open-type rough. Some of them miss crucial putts. But the greens roll true.

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