A New Book on Surfing Leads to an Ode to Golf’s Beauty

September 2, 2015

I could say that Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read — in the same league as The Year the Mets Lost Last Place (about the ’69 New York Mets) and A Handful of Summers (lost-world Australian tennis) — but that wouldn’t be fair, to beach William Finnegan’s new book on the sports shelf. As for our daily-bread subject here, the old shepherd’s game, it comes up infrequently and not until page 287 (of 447), when Finnegan, out of his board shorts for a change, describes himself at play on the Lincoln Park Golf Course in San Francisco: “I knew nothing about golf, and we never saw the clubhouse, but I liked whacking the ball off the deep-shadowed tees, down the lush fairways, while the low sun made the hills glow before it fell into the Pacific.” Amen, brother. BTW: Is there a teaching pro a guy can go to learn to write such sentences?

Beauty is a recurrent (but not overwhelming) theme in the book: the beach, the trip to it, the wave, the surfer on it. Finnegan remembers beautiful form, stances and hand positions from the surfers he watched in his Hawaiian boyhood, nearly 50 years ago. There was, likewise, a time when swinging a club with distinctive beauty was the holy grail of all golfers. Alex Lyle, a native Scot and a golf-pro lifer, had one recurring piece of advice for his son: “Make it pretty.” Sandy Lyle did, most particularly while winning the ’85 British Open and the Masters three years later.

Yes, of course: You could win without making pretty swings, then and now. Raymond Floyd’s action would not have moved Whitman, and it didn’t do much for Herb Wind either. But watching Seve Ballesteros on the range never got old. Davis Love III’s late-summer, late-career win in Greensboro is a reminder of the enduring (he’s 51) value of the beautiful golf swing. Tiger Woods’s swing in 2000 was not the violent slash it became later — it was drop-dead gorgeous. Phil Mickelson’s swing, most likely because he stands on the less-familiar west side of the ball, has never really received the paeans it deserves, for being big, long, strong, rhythmic.

I apologize for the sexual innuendo. It could be worse. One of Finnegan’s surfers sees a surfboard in phallic terms. Then there’s his surfer friend whose bumper carried this sticker: I’d rather be performing cunnilingus. The golf version is significantly more pedestrian: I’d rather be driving a Titleist.

The modern touring pro, swinging the modern club at a modern ball, has no reason to prize beauty. Bubba Watson’s swing is no work of art, and neither is that pink driver of his, but Jack Nicklaus’s persimmon MacGregor Eye-O-Matic wouldn’t survive one hit by the two-time Masters champion. Anyway, when you’re hitting a second-shot wedge into the par-5 13th at Augusta National, do you really care how you went about blowing it past the 150 marker? By any means necessary.

When Steve Elkington played in his first professional event, the 1985 Dutch Open (he didn’t tweet out his T-11 finish), he had a swing so gorgeous that veteran pros were sneaking peeks at it. I caddied for him that week, and I saw firsthand Bernhard Langer and Graham Marsh (the winner) checking it out. Its hallmark was balance.

Elkington’s irons were forged, and they were beautiful too. Players had far more personal and long-lasting relationships with their equipment then. Surfers always have. Finnegan has references to 10-foot single-fin guns and six-foot split-tail tri-fins and the like. His 11th birthday is a snapshot in his head: “I chose a solid, sunbrowned 9’0” with blue-green paneled rails and a fin built with at least eight different types of wood.” The number as a noun. Tour players do the same: “I hit my 56, dead hands, took something off it.” I wish I could describe with Finnegan’s rich detail the Sam Snead Blue Ridge irons with which I broke 100 for the first time. I can tell you where and when I bought them and who I was playing with when I holed out for my first 99. (Many followed.) Finnegan quotes a fellow surfer who owns a seven-foot single fin once ridden by Mark Richards, a legendary Australian surfer: “’It’s like owning Jack Nicklaus’s old golf clubs.’” Finnegan’s own sticks are “three or four rusty clubs” that he carries by hand as he walks Lincoln Park with his girlfriend.

Don’t get the wrong idea here. There’s about as much golf in Barbarian Days as there is surfing in Golf in the Kingdom. But both books are about sports that can become the driving force in a person’s life. Surfing, like golf, can give a person’s life a clubhouse, a dress code, a vocabulary, a sustained conversation, a community. Both will test your mind and your body. But Finnegan surfs in 50° water, in waves big enough to kill you. I’ve dabbled in such ponds. (Check out my right pinkie.) I prefer golf, late on a warm summer afternoon, standing on a deep-shadowed tee, lush fairway tantalizingly in sight. Then the wave crests.

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