Where to find golf's perfect moments
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.
The place where I find the most perfect moments, because I live nearby, is the Devil's Paintbrush course in Caledon, Ontario, thirty-five miles northwest of downtown Toronto. It's my favorite course in my native Canada. The ground heaves wildly, and most of the holes are visible from any spot on the property. I swing, follow the flight of the ball, and feel I can see forever because of the distant views. The summer sky as evening approaches is often clear. Driving home from the 'Brush, as we call it, I feel calm.
I associate these moments at the 'Brush most fondly with my great friend Irv Warsh, who, though in his early eighties, still carries his clubs—eight or nine of them. Irv had his own confrontation with mortality not long ago, when he faced some serious medical issues. He's fine now and often, as we're walking along, he'll say, "I'm so relaxed I need a pill to tighten up." Back at his home high in the Caledon Hills, surrounded by countryside, we'll listen to some John Coltrane or Miles Davis and not say a word. Words couldn't describe the golf we've shared at the edge.
Of course, there are many ways to enjoy golf. My way isn't the only way. The wonderful thing about the game is that it's so big— a world game played out on an endless variety of landscapes. For me, though, edge golf has it all over most contemporary golf experiences. Driving past a gate where a uniformed guard, possibly sporting a gun in a holster, takes my name, I tense up. Forced to ride a cart on a course, I lose contact with the ground and the opportunity to commune with nature and to walk alongside companions, or to walk alone, if I choose. Sometime there's a mandatory forecaddie telling me, "It's 147 to the front, 164 middle," when I would rather sense the shot and play it as I see and feel it. Clogged with too much information, I close up and often feel the impulse to get away.
I must not be alone in my preference for edge golf, because remote, rugged courses that put as few impediments as possible between the player and the game are enjoying a revival. How else to account for such places as Sand Hills in Nebraska, Bandon Dunes in Oregon and the Links of North Dakota, all built in recent years?Mike Keiser, the visionary behind Bandon, is an aficionado of "dream golf," the title of Stephen Goodwin's spirited book about the man and his creation. It's edge golf out there, hard by the Pacific Ocean. The golfer can chase daylight until the sun sets over the sea.
That's what my friend Jim Fitchette and I did during a particularly memorable trip to Scotland in the summer of 1990. After arriving in Glasgow on an overnight flight, we went directly to the Longniddry Golf Club, a little-known, rub-you-raw links just west of Muirfield. The wind was up and the ground was firm and the course was empty. If the shot called for a low-running 125-yard five-iron, that's what we hit. Ditto for a hooking drive downwind, aiming for a deep pot bunker on the right because we knew the wind would bring the ball back to the fairway. The round gave us energy. Edge courses always give me energy. How strange that we felt stronger after walking those eighteen holes at Longniddry than we did setting out.
Back in Toronto after our return from Scotland, I was the best man at Jim's wedding. While still on their honeymoon, Jim's wife, Gail, called me. Jim hadn't responded when she called him for dinner. Gail went into the room where he'd been watching a golf tournament, and there was something wrong with his speech.
Glioblastoma multiforme—the same disease that would strike down O'Kelly. This, of course, is another reason O'Kelly's book rang so true to me. Jim was told he had a 5 percent chance of living five years, and five years is how long he lasted. In that time we played a lot of golf, aware he could have a seizure any second. Jim buffed up his clubs before each round, and we created perfect moments out on the knife edge of his life, against the certainty of his death. Back then I didn't think of those moments as perfect ones. But having read O'Kelly's book, I now do.
The point of O'Kelly's book, obviously, is that it shouldn't take looming death to motivate us to find perfect moments. They're available anytime, anywhere. But for me and, apparently, for O'Kelly, golf is one place where they happen frequently and vividly. So I'm making sure I walk to the edge as often as I can, in the silence of an early morning or late evening, before the course has filled or after it has emptied, with my clubs on my shoulders, with only my eyes and ears to guide me—no yardage book, no scorecard, no GPS system.
For me, golf is at its best when I can feel the ground and the wind and hear the swish of the clubhead, when my mind is pliant, ready and open, when I'm in tune with my surroundings. That's when I have my perfect moments.