Writing, painting or music can often capture the splendor of the best of life, but occasionally life mirrors art. An experience occurred recently that brought this home to me: Our student son Mark and I enjoyed a round of seaside golf near the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland-one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
I write not as a good golfer in the technical sense, but hopefully as a "good" player who enjoys a round in the company of family or friends, who tries hard to win but who doesn't mind losing to the better golfer. Sadly, "good golfers" in that sense are becoming harder to find in a competitive world.
Mark and I were intent on enjoying a day out together, one of those rare occasions where a father and son can share each other's company totally without interruption. Mark had just returned from a vacation job in Germany, where he had been shoveling curry powder in a spice factory. He was about to return to the University of Manchester in England, and I was due to go back to my busy desk at Queen's University in Belfast the next morning. So we settled for a sharing of seaside golf.
Those people who do not understand golf should still read on. I'm not sure that I understand golf myself, or why grown men and women spend so much time, money and energy-and suffer so much anguish-in trying to knock a small white ball into a tiny hole in the ground using a long awkward-looking stick, and trying to do so in as few strokes as possible. It is more than a game: It is a lesson in life. I have seen mature men pale at the prospect of knocking in a final three-foot putt to win a match. Even worse, I know men who have found it hard to lose gracefully to their close friends, or to their own sons. Sometimes such winners are really the losers.
Despite all such angst, there is a totally irrational surge of satisfaction-sometimes peaking into joy-when the golf swing works well and that little white ball zooms down the fairway as if Jack Nicklaus himself had hit it. It was one of those great days of unexpected golfing successes when Mark and I strode along the fairways, bounded on one side by the picturesque River Bush. I had played this course for more than twenty years, but on this particular morning I realized that Mark was coming of age and was beating his father for the first time, fair and square.
As we walked and talked, my mind lingered on the theme of life imitating art, and particularly the art of that great and much-loved English poet Sir John Betjeman, who captured the magic of "Seaside Golf":
How straight it flew, how long it flew,
It cleared the rutty track,
And soaring, disappeared from view
Beyond the bunker's back -
A glorious, sailing, bounding drive
That made me glad I was alive.
As our game progressed through the regulation eighteen holes, it was obvious that Dad, playing quite well by his standards, was hanging on for dear life. And at the very last hole, Mark, a gentle giant of a young man, strode forward none-too-confidently to try to sink a short putt that would win the match. As he stood there concentrating, I wanted him to sink the putt and win, but I was equally prepared to play on to a "sudden death" if necessary. Agonizingly he hit it, and the ball rolled gently-into the cup! A beam of joy lit up his face, and I felt deep in my heart: "That's my boy." I thought, too, of the lines of Betjeman:
It lay content
Two paces from the pin:
A steady putt and then it went
Oh, most securely in.
The very turf rejoiced to see
That quite unprecedented three.
Afterwards, in the clubhouse, we had a simple but splendid lunch overlooking the very green where Mark had clinched his memorable victory. We replayed every stroke, we talked about sport and we philosophized about life. I even pointed out, for the umpteenth time, the sparkling white hotel across the headlands where his mother and I had held our wedding reception a quarter century earlier, and I told him, yet again, of my early and troubled attempts to learn to play golf on this very same course. One day I became so frustrated that I put the ball in my pocket and walked on with my partner, rather than try to play a few holes. Later, my editor, when reading of this in my Belfast newspaper column, wrote the following headline: "The Day I Played Four Holes in None!"
Mark, for his part, listened intently and appreciatively to this family history. He too has an eye for beauty and an ear for poetry. He is (I'll say it) a treasured son, a partner and confidant in his own right, and his triumph on the golf course had underlined his maturity and growing sense of independence. With such a son I, technically the loser, knew that I was, happily, a long-term winner in a much deeper way.
That night, I read to Mark the last stanza of the Betjeman poem that recaptured so beautifully our feelings of privilege and joy.
Ah! seaweed smells from sandy caves
And thyme and mist in whiffs,
In-coming tide, Atlantic waves
Slapping the sunny cliffs,
Lark song and sea sounds in the air,
And splendor, splendor everywhere.
Indeed. There had been enough splendor on that fine day to warm the hearts of a father and a son for a lifetime.