Will the game be sunk? A vision of fright and delight

Will the game be sunk? A vision of fright and delight


“And this,” I said to my five-year-old
granddaughter Maddie, “is for you to hang on
the tree.” I handed her a small crystal disk, upon
which was engraved ST. FRANCIS XAVIER 2008
it by the red ribbon, she scampered around
the tree in our living room, looking for a vacant
branch. “Here we go,” she chirped, looping the
ribbon over a north-pointing twig. She hopped
and clapped her hands. “Perfect!”

“Well,” I said modestly, “the field wasn’t as
deep as last year’s, and my partner, Jim Carney, bailed me out a couple of times.” I
turned to the mantel and picked up the pewter drinking cup from my U.S. team’s
lopsided victory over Europe in the biennial Rolex Media Cup. “But if you’d been
in Louisville
on the 16th of September, you’d have seen your Papa in a flattering
light. There was one par-4 where you had to carry the ball 230 yards over water. . . .”

Maddie squealed and ran for the kitchen.

Chuckling, I polished the cup with my sleeve and returned it
to its place of honor. But later, as I sat by the fire, I reflected on
the events of the year: Ochoa’s first-half brilliance . . . Tiger’s
one-legged mastery of Torrey Pines . . . Norman’s thrilling
charge at Royal Birkdale . . . Harrington’s back-to-back majors
. . . the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s redemption at Valhalla.

If not
perfect, I was thinking as my eyelids grew heavy, the year
2008 was as close to perfect as a golf season can be.
I hooked a toe under the ottoman and dragged it closer.
“What a game,” I mumbled, putting my feet up. “It just keeps
getting better and better.”
Sighing contentedly, I settled back in the chair and
closed my eyes.

A cold draft woke me. The room was dark but
for a flickering candle in the corner, which cast
formless shadows on the ceiling. I rubbed my eyes
and yawned. I was taking my feet off the ottoman
when a looming shadow caused me to look up and gasp. A
Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded
in a hooded rain jacket that concealed its face and left nothing
of it visible save for one outstretched hand.

Although well accustomed to ghostly company by this
time, I was terrified. The spirits I had written about over the years had been loquacious spooks wanting nothing more
than to correct the historical record (or, in the case of Paul Runyan, to give me a chipping lesson). But this Phantom
neither spoke nor moved.

“Am I in the presence of the Angel of Death?” I asked
in a shaky voice.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed toward the ceiling,
which suddenly presented as a starry vault. A great wind
lifted me as easily as a child picks up a toy and drew me
up above the rooftops and higher still, until the Spirit and
I were flying through clouds and over moonlit seas. In a
matter of seconds night turned to day and I found myself
suspended above a tree-lined golf course. Looking down, I
saw a tented village, a network of canals and thousands of
milling spectators. Looking up, I saw a blimp with the words
CHEVY VOLT pulsating on its diaphanous skin.

“Is heaven a golf tournament?” I asked the Phantom, which
hovered behind me.

“I couldn’t say,” the Spirit murmured, “but I seriously
doubt it.”

I yanked my head around but saw only his bony hand and
a zippered sleeve. “Then you aren’t. . . .”

“I am the Ghost of Golf’s Future,” he continued in a weary,
British-accented voice. “I will show you shadows of things that have not happened but will happen in the times before us.”

He pointed a finger downward, and we dropped to tree level,
where I had an unobstructed view of a golfer who was about
to tee off. A white-haired, dark-skinned man with washboard
abs and bulging biceps, he moved in a familiar way.

“It’s Tiger!” I said. “It’s Tiger Woods!”

The greatest golfer of all time held his arm out at shoulder

height and dropped a ball on the grass. The spectators around
the tee clapped politely. Woods then addressed his ball with a
metal club that resembled an old-fashioned brassie. When he
swung, the ball shot out on a low trajectory and drew nicely
into the center of the fairway. The crowd cheered.

“What the heck was that?” I asked. “A penalty drop on
the tee?”

The Spirit responded with a sepulchral cackle. “The rules
have changed. It is now forbidden to drive the ball from a
wooden tee. It must be played from the ground.”

“But why? Has wood become so dear?”

“The tee was banished,” the Spirit intoned, “when the Tour
driving average reached 340 yards. Thus ended the Age of
Bomb and Gouge.”

The Spirit raised his hand, and we drifted
to another hole. A bearded golfer, wearing a turban with
the words FISKER KARMA on it, stood by his caddie in the
fairway. He threw up a few blades of grass to test the wind.

He pulled a sparkly-faced iron that had the number 5 on its
sole, only to change his mind and exchange it for an iron with
an even brighter finish that bore the same numeral 5.

“He carries only six lofts,” the Spirit said. “The club faces are
coated with diamond dust to maximize or minimize spin.”

The turbaned golfer aimed left toward the trees — had he
lost his mind? — and smacked a low slice that swept along the
tree line and just kept curving. It carried a packed grandstand
and a Weetabix billboard and boomeranged back, entering the
green from behind. His ball landed on the lower tier and rolled
up to a flagstick tucked behind a cavernous sand bunker.

“Unbelievable!” I said.

The Phantom pointed his spectral hand at a holographic
leader board. It had T. Woods leading at 28 under and V. Singh
in second at 26 1/2 under.

“Vijay?” I asked. “He’s still around?”

Then I noticed another Singh in fourth place and two more
in eighth and ninth. The rest of the leaders were named Kim,
Lee, Chen and Zhao.

“And what’s with the 1/2?”

“Vishnu,” said the Spirit. It sounded like a muffled sneeze,
but it was his answer to my first question. He answered the
second by pointing to an old-fashioned pole sign: 16th hole,
502 yards, par-4 1/2.

“Ghost of Golf’s Future!” I blurted. “I don’t know what to
make of these wonders. Where is this strange land? What
tournament is this?”

The Phantom said naught, but extended a ghostly digit
toward the tented village. A sign over an arched gate proclaimed:
open championship.

“You mock me,” I scoffed. “Trees? Bluegrass rough? This
is no British Open course.”

I felt the Spirit’s breath, cold as an arctic breeze, on my ear.
The wind swirled again and yanked us aloft so violently that
I had to squeeze my eyes shut. I did not open them until the
turbulence had abated, and when I did I was both beguiled and
mystified. Below us, frothy breakers rolled across a rocky island
upon which an old lighthouse stood like a candle embedded in
wax. The island was just a few hundred yards from a shoreline
of broken dunes and sand beaches. A solitary structure stood on
a cliff above the waves; as wide as a parade ground, it had a red
roof, numerous gables and at least a dozen white chimneys.
The scene struck me as lovely until the Phantom uttered — or
rather moaned — a single, dismal word: “Turnberry.”

Horrified, I clapped a hand over my mouth. Before I could
gather my thoughts, the Spirit gripped my shoulder and spun
me like a top. I uttered a strangled cry and covered my eyes with
a forearm. When the spinning stopped, I lowered my arm and
beheld a row of Edwardian houses steeping in a brackish lagoon.
There were gaping holes in the roofs, and water flowed unimpeded
over the rotted sills of the ground-floor windows.

“Oh, Ghost!” I wailed. “I fear you more than any specter I have seen. What is this terrible place?”

The answer came as a single, resonant peal of doom: “Trooooooon.”

My dismay was so great that I turned away. “Spirit, do I
dare ask the fate of golf in America?”

With a grunt of either boredom or annoyance, the Phantom
swept his arm in a grand arc. The sky darkened, stars
appeared and clouds raced by at supersonic speed. Without
warning, we plunged toward Earth as if dropped from a
plane, and suddenly we were standing in an office behind a
little knot of businessmen. A man with chin whiskers was
holding up a flexible canvas for comment.

“Is it too green?” asked a fat man with a monstrous chin. “Will anybody believe a golf course can be that green?”

“They’ve seen the Masters on Archaicgolf.edu,” said another. “What they won’t believe is spectator mounds covered
with people.”

I craned my neck to view the canvas. It showed thousands
of fans sitting on a curving berm above a small, round green
upon which two players and two caddies were lining up putts.
The green was supported by mossy timbers and encircled by
an ugly moat of mud, cattails and marsh grass.

I turned to the Phantom. “That looks like” — I felt my chin begin to quiver —” but surely that is not. . . .”

The folds of the Phantom’s hood moved as if he had inclined
his head. I finished in a whisper, saying, “. . . the 17th hole
at TPC Sawgrass?” As if on cue, the fat man touched the
canvas and text appeared: the players: rich enough
to matter. Down at the bottom were the familiar PGA
Tour logo and five more words: the european tour’s
developmental tour.

“Spirit!” I said, shuddering from head to foot. “I know your
purpose is to do me good, but surely this is not Time’s portent.
Is there no sustainable golf in the World Yet to Come?”

The phantom passed his icy hand over my eyes.

In an instant we were transported to a treeless
tract under a flawless blue sky. Three teenage boys
in jeans and T-shirts watched a girl in shorts and
a halter top chip from weedy fringe grass onto a small, flat
circle of oiled sand that had a flagstick at its precise center.

“Sand greens!” I exclaimed, my spirits soaring. “Back to
the Future! Minimal cost, easy maintenance, zero demand
for water, and for a pittance you can put one in every small
town in America. That’s how we’ll grow the game!”

The Ghost of Golf’s Future seemed to have exhausted his
store of small talk. He simply pointed down the hill to a
tangle of brush and cactus. Amid the desert growth stood a
cockeyed cornerstone of crumbling stucco, upon which was
affixed a tarnished plaque.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone
to which you point,” I said with trepidation, “answer me one
question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or
are they shadows of things that may be, only?”

The Spirit made a wobbling gesture with his hand, as if
to say it could go either way. “Men’s courses will foreshadow
certain ends,” he intoned. “But if the courses be departed
from, the ends will change.”

Still fearful, I leaned forward
and squinted. In the sun’s glare I could just make out the
words on the blackened metal: TPC SCOTTSDALE.

I moaned, but in that instant, the scene began to burn from
the center out, like a leaf ignited under a magnifying glass.

I awakened to find myself sitting bolt upright in my chair
and gasping for breath. Seeing sunlight pouring through the
plantation shutters, I fell back and heaved a sigh of relief. “A
dream is all it was,” I said to myself, fighting an impulse to
run across the room and throw open a window.

It wasn’t until the following evening that I noticed the
second pewter cup on the mantel. The inscription read:

It was then, and only then,
that I made my vow: that the shadows of the things that
would have been shall be dispelled.

They will be. I know they will.