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Fore (Golf Dreams)
"It was a morning," announces P. G. Wodehouse in one of his Bertie Wooster stories,
when all nature shouted "Fore! … The fairway, as yet unscarred by the irons of a hundred dubs, smiled greenly up at the azure sky; and the sun, peeping above the trees, looked like a giant golf-ball perfectly lofted by the mashie of some unseen god and about to drop dead by the pin of the eighteenth.
Not Psalm 19 exactly, but in the golfer's world of scaled-back expectations a declaration glorious enough. And now, to remind us afresh of the theological illuminations to be gotten from the game, we have a new assemblage of golf pieces by John Updike (Golf Dreams, Knopf, 201 pp.; $23), who in one of his essays lovingly quotes the passage above. Updike is among the most theologically robust and athletic of American writers—Karl Barth, especially, figures in his work; he is also, having taken up the sport at the age of 25, a devout golfer. "In the fullness of manhood I took up golf, figuring that, now that I was a free-lance writer, I should do something with my afternoons."
Much of the theology available to us on the tee or off by ourselves in the woods pondering our half-buried ball and the demands of private rectitude comes, of course, as moral instruction. At that settled middle age, says Updike, when all the company we keep conspires acquiescently to flatter us, "only golf trusts us with a cruelly honest report on our performance." And the report typically is not good, with respect either to our golf or to our moral life—from the slippery-slope evasions of the gimme putt ("a mentally adroit golfer in obliging company can go eighteen holes without actually sinking a single one of those shortish white-knuckle character-builders that the pros … miss more than occasionally") to the tergiversations of reassigning responsibility (that character who just caromed a drive off the tee marker wasn't your true capable self, you reason, but "instead an imposter, a demon, an ...