Abandoning desire as a way of achieving what one desires most. That—I kept telling myself as I stood atop the tee of the par-three seventeenth at the Kingsmill Resort's River course, outside Williamsburg, Virginia, watching my seven-iron drift far right of the green and then trickle down a steep embankment to the shore of the James River—that is the key to playing golf.
"Golf," I recalled an old friend telling me, as I teed up another ball and promptly reproduced my first shot, "is the death of desire."
"The game," he reminded me, "was invented by Calvinists."
No game, it seems, inspires more paradoxical, zenlike pronouncements about how to master its physical and psychological challenges than golf does, and, to me, no one part of a golf course presents those challenges more succinctly, more compellingly, than a well-crafted par three. There, set before you like an emerald atoll in a vast sea of otherwise unlikable destinations, is the green, one stroke away; one swift motion stands between you and where you wish your ball to go, between your desire to hit the shot there and its actual execution. All of which you have only to forget completely in order to complete.
For one glorious week, as I hacked my way across some of the finer golf courses in and around the storied landscape of Colonial Williamsburg, I did my best to inhabit this realm of perfectly formed desire purposefully dismissed. My willed forgetfulness would prove to be as essential a device as my sand wedge. Williamsburg's courses have much to recommend them, but they are, above all else, a land of vexingly beautiful par threes, where golf holes drew me so far into the picture of my desired shots that I could seldom gather myself in time to make the actual ones.
It was mid-November when I arrived. I'd never been to Colonial Williamsburg before and was, frankly, a bit wary about the "Colonial" part. The idea of a "living history" museum, with people in period garb walking around a painstakingly reconstructed rendition of the eighteenth century, made me uneasy in the same way that pantomime and interactive theater always do. Outside of a stirring historical drama, which, like most history, is largely fiction anyway, I prefer my past unacted, prefer to roam around inside it with my own thoughts.
The restored city itself—the eighteenth-century capital of colonial Virginia and an early training ground in law and statesmanship for such key revolutionary figures as George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson—is a formidable and alluring presence. Begun in 1926 with the backing of John D. Rockefeller, the ongoing restoration process has resulted as of today in more than five hundred restored or reconstructed buildings and ninety acres of gardens and greens. The city is built around a central commons, called Market Square, which is bisected by one main thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street. At its far western end sits William & Mary, the nation's second-oldest college. A seven- or eight-block stroll away at the eastern end of town is the capitol building. In between, one comes upon a series of cozy taverns (Raleigh Tavern is where Washington, Henry and Jefferson often repaired to hash out the essential tenets of the patriot cause), a millinery shop and an apothecary, a shoemaker, a harness and saddle maker, the town post office and printing shop, and so on—all the workings and trappings of everyday life as it was back in the 1700s.