Remembering a round with John Updike

Remembering a round with John Updike

Updike played to a 21.8 handicap at the Myopia Hunt Club.
Henry Horenstein/Corbis

John Updike in his spare time was the greatest writer of golf ever, although he was partial to Herb Wind. In any event, I point you to the Updike collection Golfing Dreams, and particularly to the short story “Farrell’s Caddie.” A plucked sample: “He began to get pars, as the whitecaps flashed on one side of the links and on the other the wine-red electric commuter trains swiftly glided up to Glasgow and back. This was happiness, on this wasteland between the tracks and the beach, and freedom, of a wild and windy sort.” As a typing golfer, I stand in awe.

Ted Williams, surely, never wrote to Mario Mendoza, so you can imagine my shock when, one winter day in 1994, I received an out-of-the-blue letter from Updike his own self. (He liked a slender book I had written, To the Linksland.) He wrote, “If you ever want to play a sweet old American course, give me some advance warning and I’ll give you a game at the Myopia Hunt Club course in Hamilton, Mass.”

We set up a date through the mail, and Updike considerately chose a June day when the Red Sox were home. He gave me directions to Myopia, and a preview of our playing partners, on another hand-typed postcard. When we sat down for lunch, I ordered tuna salad on toasted whole wheat with lettuce and no tomato. Updike ordered the exact same sandwich and said, “I see our culinary tastes are compatible.”

Updike had a slim man’s nimble swing, was conversational throughout the round and was light on his feet. By the 3rd hole, it was clear that he knew everything about Jack Fleck’s state of mind during his epic 1955 U.S. Open playoff with Ben Hogan but was unclear about how to take a drop from a lateral water hazard. When I hit a hideous pull-hook off the 11th tee after a birdie on 10, Updike said, duffer to duffer, “It’s so hard to make a good tee shot after a birdie.”

The whole day felt conspirational. After the round we went to the Myopia bar, which Updike tended himself. It was just the two of us. I asked about one of our playing partners, a psychiatrist and novelist. “His books sell better than mine,” Updike said. “They are medical thrillers, without literary merit.” I would have told him anything.

We never exchanged phone numbers, of course. I sent him a thank-you note, and he sent a note back, along with a yellow and much-marked Myopia scorecard. He wrote:

Your spirit continues to haunt Myopia. I was admiring an especially racy Jaguar the other day, with Florida plates, parked in the driveway, and what do I see on the back sill through the rearview window but a well-thumbed, sun-faded copy of To the Linksland.

I am trying to clean off my desk and found this card of our round. I can’t imagine how I won all those little dots; I’ve been playing like a klutz lately.

Wait, I now see that we were a team, and it was you who was winning a lot of those little dots, like with an amazing 3 on 10.

Hope your summer swims along in the sun.

Best wishes, John

Best wishes to you, Mr. Updike.