Silverman WSJ Interview with Updike

Jeff Silverman interviews John Updike for the Wall Street Journal's weekend edition. A few highlights:

WSJ: But you do have that big-headed driver.

MR. UPDIKE: Occasionally, a sweet hit will go farther than my drives usually do. I just don't have enough of them. We all like technology when we can use it, but the best club in the world and the farthest flying ball in the world aren't going to straighten out your drives for you.

WSJ: Do you think that far-flying ball goes too far?

MR. UPDIKE: Not when I hit it. It can never go too far for me. I would think if you're going to make an adjustment in the game the ball is much easier to tinker with than the clubs. I don't think it should go any farther than it does now. And already, the fact that the pros miss so many fairways indicates to me that the ball may just be flying too far.

WSJ: Technology and its costs -- both in dollars and cents and how it's made some of the classic courses obsolete -- are aspects of the game that many complain about. What irks you?

MR. UPDIKE: There's a certain agony in waiting. It takes the best part of the day to play a round.


WSJ: You've written quite movingly about golf in its simplest form vs. the flower beds, cart paths, breaches of etiquette and excessive costs. Is it getting worse?

MR. UPDIKE: I don't see it shrinking. When you do go to Scotland or Ireland and play on the unnamed, unknown courses, you realize what a simple and charming dip this is into the countryside. It's too bad that American courses trend the other way, becoming more manicured, ergo more expensive, more fuss about getting into the clubs, more and more a rich man's sport, where in Scotland and Ireland it began as a poor man's sport.

WSJ: Where have you liked playing over there?

MR. UPDIKE: I went up to Dornoch, and that's really worth it because there you really see a majestic, natural course up there in the twilight zone. I played St. Andrews once in the twilight serendipitously. My wife was with me. I rented clubs and she walked around with me and we joined up with a twosome, father and son, and had a lovely round that ended in the gloaming. That was a great lyrical experience. They're all kind of fun and shaggy and no fuss, and I like that kind of golf.

WSJ: You witnessed the 1999 Ryder Cup at the Country Club in Brookline as a marshal. Another cup is coming up. You've observed that the event gets our blood boiling. Is that good for the game?

MR. UPDIKE: You hate to see the partisanship become so extreme that the crowds heckle the golfers. The game is meant to be a gentleman's game in which you call rule infractions on yourself, and you shake hands before and after, never show hostility, and I think in the Ryder Cup there's the danger of all those manners being suspended. The Ryder Cup I was at was the one where Justin Leonard sank an amazingly long putt and suddenly we went from being losers to being winners and they mobbed him and trampled all over the green [before the match was completed]. That left a bad after-feeling.

WSJ: Do you read much about golf?

MR. UPDIKE: I follow the newspaper accounts. I don't read everything written about the game because it detracts from my writing, but my first acquaintance with golf was through writing -- in murder mysteries. English murder mysteries often have a golf course with a corpse on it.

WSJ: Why is golf such a writer's game?

MR. UPDIKE: It's contemplative. You kind of think your way out of corners. Often you find yourself both in plotting and in golf in an awkward situation of your own making and you try to get out of it. And I think both writing and golfing involve a patient temperament that can be content with slow progress. And you can play golf very happily and hardly talk to anybody for four hours. All those things are appealing to a writer.

WSJ: What do you see as the cornerstones of the golf library?

MR. UPDIKE: I would put certainly one or two of P.G. Wodehouse's golf tales. They're so funny and yet so vivid and you really come to understand golf. And Bernard Darwin's accounts of the British courses and British tournaments. A book that I learned from was Tommy Armour's "How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time," which I find more helpful than Hogan's.

WSJ: If you could fix one thing about the game what would it be?

MR. UPDIKE: You can't really do much about attitude except maybe try to emphasize the basic principles of golf etiquette. Beyond that, it would be nice if you could disconnect golf and money. You lose something when it becomes a privileged sport. It was nice when everybody was out there swinging away with their lessonless, self-taught swings.