JOHN UPDIKE was a hack. Not the literary kind, of course; the phrase Giant of American Letters feels inadequate for someone who so mastered the novel, short story, essay, poem, review and, yes, even the sports dispatch. Updike, who died of lung cancer last week at age 76, was also an inveterate golfer, having taken up the game in his mid-20s. He was the first to admit that his swing was less perfectly constructed than his hyperdescriptive sentences. "[I]ntently contemplated but never achieved," is how Updike, whose handicap hovered around 18, described it in 1979 in The New Yorker. Later he broke down his tendency toward the yips in one of his regular pieces for
: "Choking is one aspect of golf that, from the start, came naturally to me. Given even a paper-thin opportunity to let my side down and destroy my own score, I will seize it."
Updike transferred his insights into golf's joys and frustrations to the page with the same humor and grace as his novelistic observations of middle-class angst. His many golf writings are collected in the 1996 volume Golf Dreams. Funny and poetic, it's a must-read for anyone who has shanked a drive minutes after sinking a birdie putt.
Much of Updike's prolific output was informed by his fandom. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, his classic New Yorker account of Ted Williams's last game, is a sportswriting monument, and it's obvious that Updike was no dilettante in the "lyric little bandbox" of Fenway Park. He cut to the heart of the ballplayer's solitary existence and suggested that Williams craved a "perfectionist's vacuum." The Splinter, Updike wrote, sought a place where the game is severed from the "paid spectatorship and publicity that supports it." Perhaps the athlete and the artist aren't so different.
Updike was fascinated by the jock's afterlife, those years when youthful glories become faded memories. His most famous character, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom from the Rabbit novels, is a former high school hoops star who spends adulthood trying to recapture what he felt on the court. Bored with his job and marriage, Rabbit is revived whenever he picks up a basketball. "That old stretched-leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives his arms wings," Updike wrote in Rabbit, Run.
Updike received a similar jolt on the course, though his was borne of future possibilities. For a golfer there is "always a bubbling undercurrent of hope, of a tomorrow when the skies would be utterly blue and the swing equally pure," he wrote in Golf Dreams. His readers know the feeling.