Editor’s note: in advance of this weekend’s U.S. Open, this is the second in a series of posts exploring the metaphorical relationship between golf and writing.
One of the enduring paradoxes of golf as played by amateurs is the huge and hugely disproportionate emphasis placed on the drive. That’s the first shot on a hole, hit off a tee instead of from the grass, with the biggest, longest club in the bag. It is a powerful feeling, and often looks great too, when you smack a ball way, way down the fairway just where you wanted it, bringing a sense of satisfaction that must somehow be tied up with the primal urge to demonstrate one’s physical prowess to other would-be alpha males. Of course, most drives, even ones that go far, do not go far in the right direction. And when the monster-drive-that-almost-was ends up in the woods or in three-inch long grass, you’ve hurt yourself far more with your strong-man indulgences than if you’d have sacrificed distance for accuracy. These indisputable facts, however, seem to have approximately zero effect on the minds of most amateur golfers. As I write there are thousands of (mostly) men wasting $200-300 on drivers whose heads (the part that hits the ball) are almost exactly the same size (at 460 cm3) as a pint glass.
In the end, golf is a game of less-than-inches. About half of the normal hacker’s shots will actually take place on or around the green (the short grass where the hole is) when the ball is probably less than twenty yards from the cup. And thus the timeless phrase, “Drive for show, putt for dough.” (A variant I think I actually prefer was suggested to me by Tom: “It’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive.”) When you need to hit the ball just 20 yards (a chip) or roll it just 10 feet (a putt) what happens is not only more difficult, but much more important than the drive. Only dedicated practice can yield even occasional success when faced with greenside subtleties. Many times I have played golf with old men – really old, not middle aged – who just tap the ball down each fairway while my pals and I are wailing away from the tee and then trudging into the woods in search of an uncooperative ball (which we will then of course try to hit as hard as possible from under a rock, giving in again to the Siren song of the heroic). At the end of the round, we find that the eighty-year-old has shot his age while we’ve stumbled into the unsatisfactory upper-nineties. The difference is that we have cool clubs and he has a good swing. We have a giant dictionary and updated thesaurus on our desk, if you will, but he knows how to write.
The point is: do sweat the small stuff – which brings me to writing. Mark Twain addressed this point when he said something like “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I still (cringingly) remember writing “poems” in middle school classes and figuring that the more multi-syllabic adjectives I could shove into the description of something the better. Good poetry must mean using superficially intense, longish words right? This was not unlike equating your golf prowess with your expensive, grotesquely large driver: an attempted shortcut that usually yields really embarrassing results. To get good at using metaphor a never-ending, effort. To craft a truly clear and useful sentence can ultimately take hours. Whether at its more basic levels (making sure you have an antecedent for a pronoun, subject-verb agreement) or in the mysterious and elusive quest for a meritorious style, what matters is not the flashy phrasing but the effective communication of your worthwhile perceptions, ideally in a way that effects or informs your reader in salutary ways. A golf shot starts with envisioning exactly how and where you intend the ball to fly or roll. A piece of writing begins with envisioning what information you want to convey. The good shot and the good essay are thus both instances of successful translation, and neither comes easy, and neither can be purchased.
(Another crazy and endearing thing about golf – though not so much like writing – is that the best professionals sometimes make very stupid, very costly mistakes. Read about an infamous instance.