The Art of Gronkle
The 1989 Masters will forever be remembered as the first of Nick Faldo’s three Masters titles, and the second of his six major championships.
That Masters week was also special for Jim Dodson, who made his first trip to Augusta as a working golf writer but returned home to New England two days early just to make a cold and rainy golf date at Myopia Hunt Club with his famous former neighbor, a devoted golf nut named John Updike. The April day was beyond miserable, the golf appallingly bad – “a round of Gronkle,” as Updike playfully dubbed it, directly quoting Shakespeare – but an unexpected friendship was born, proving that the game makes laughing fools of us all.
From The Range Bucket List, by Jim Dodson
John Updike’s best drive of the day came on the tenth, mysteriously nicknamed “Alps.” Perhaps in tribute to my companion’s sunny faith, he unleashed a 230-yard scorcher with the sweetest hint of a draw.
“I’m your basic left to right golfer who has been unsuccessfully trying to cultivate a reliable draw for years,” he explained after watching me drill my drive into a grassy mound on the right, scampering into a thicket of knee-high nettles. “The real mystery of golf is that sometimes things you’re trying to do really happen. The gods give you a momentary taste of heaven.”
I agreed – though given what followed, aside from the lovely setting and companionship, the only real unresolved mystery at that instant was why on earth I was fretting about my woeful game because the harder I tried, the worse it got. After foolishly trying to hack my way through the nettles, I took two more shots just to reach the fairway, then sent a fourth shot into a pot bunker, a fifth whistling over the green and a small stone fence, disappearing into a valley of handsome old trees and tangled just-budding vines.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got it marked!” cried my thoughtful partner, hopping the wall and disappearing into the tangle of nature. There followed a great deal of enthusiastic cracking and thrashing about while I simply stood there like a dolt having a small out-of-body experience, hoping the Arnie of American letters didn’t injure himself on my behalf.
“Excuse me, sir,” came a polite voice from the rear. “May I ask what you doing out here?”
I turned around to find a suntanned young man wearing a green windbreaker with the Myopia Hunt Club emblem on its breast, standing behind me.
“I’m asking myself that very question,” I admitted with a weak smile.
“The course is officially closed until next week,” he said in a cool tone befitting the weather, obviously running my flushed mug through his mental Rolodex of members and coming up empty. The sun had disappeared and so had my hopes for at least seeing Myopia’s fabled back nine.
“Think I’ve got it!” came a triumphant cry from over the wall. “I think you might even be able to get a club on it!”
“That’s okay, John,” I called back sheepishly. “I think we may be finished anyway.”
Moments later my companion climbed up from the forest primeval, winded and grinning like a man who’d found more than a golf ball in the brambles. He handed me my errant Titleist and greeted the assistant pro warmly by name and explained we were just out for a little “April exercise – spring training for golf. This is, after all, Masters week.” Still catching his breath, he added cheerfully. “Hope that’s okay. My friend here wanted to try out his wife’s new golf clubs.”
The young fellow didn’t appear particularly amused, looked at me as if I might be carving beaver pelts out of his gorgeous historic turf with my lethal Lady Tiaras. But he managed a polite smile.
“Absolutely, Mr. Updike. We should have the course ready for real play by next weekend. Enjoy your exercise.”
So onward we went, into the bosom of Myopia’s fabled back nine, beautiful holes befitting their heritage of being shaped by the hand of a gifted amateur rather than machine, ingeniously simple affairs that followed the contours of the land like a gloved hand, bearing prosaic Yankee names like “Valley,” “Hill” and “Ridge,” calming my ruffled inner hacker.
After my disastrous 10 on the tenth, I’d basically given up chasing Old Man Parr and focused on the pleasure of getting to know my fellow golfer and church-goer even better. On “Valley” we paused to watch a squadron of hungry Robins descend on an adjacent meadow and a small boy scouting for lost balls in the rough. We talked about English weather, Renaissance popes, Boston real estate, and my favorite Updike novel, Marry Me, which he explained was written at a difficult period in his first marriage – and may have given birth to Rabbit Angstrom.
The sun bobbed out on the 16th hole, another short and handsome par-three. Updike stroked a masterful 4-iron to the center of the green and nearly made birdie. I bunkered for another double. On 17, however, my amiable companion nailed his tee shot OB over a stone fence and issued the only swear word I heard him utter all afternoon, a gentlemanly lobbed “Sonofabitch.”
On the 18th tee, he told me about his new novel, due out sometime in the autumn or winter, Rabbit at Rest.
He hit his final drive of the day and we watched it bounce out of bounds as well.
“Rabbit is tired,” he quipped wearily, “and so is his creator.”
Indeed, it felt like we’d slogged through four different seasons. But what an unforgettable Masters Friday – better than anything happening down in Augusta, Georgia, I decided.
The good news was, there was a light on in the club bar, where we found a bald sergeant major type who gruffly greeted us as we shuffled in. He brought us a couple restorative beers. Mine was a German girl named St Pauli, John’s a ginger beer.
“Good to have one of the regulars back, Mr. Updike,” the barman declared. “Awful brave of you men to be out there today.”
My host was grimacing at the card.
“What’s your handicap?” he asked.
I had no official handicap because I had no local club, no regular game or golf buddies. But I typically shot around 80.
“I’m a sixteen,” he said and showed me the untidy results of his math, smiling like an amused Borgia pope. He finished with100 to my 101.
We touched glasses. “Here’s to the good round of Gronkle,” he said solemnly.
As we walked out to our cars, still the only ones in the members’ parking lot, he told me that he’d read somewhere that Dan Quayle, the Vice President, took the game so seriously he brooded for days after a bad round.
“Do you think we should take this game more seriously? We could just throw away the card and try again in June.”
“I’d enjoy that,” I said. “Good thing he’s not President, with a thumb on the button. A round like ours could mean the end of the world.”
My companion put his clubs in his trunk, removed his bucket hat, and smiled. He offered me his hand.
“You’re right. I find that sharing the pleasure and pain with a friend is one of golf’s great compensations. No mystery about that.”
I thanked him for a delightful afternoon.
Two weeks to the day from our Myopian adventure, a post card arrived in Maine.
“Dear Jim,” he wrote, “I played there yesterday [Myopia] with another awful head cold, and got 91. So, by simple linear projection, I will get an 82 the next time, followed by 73. Since 64 is the course record, I can hardly wait for my fifth round of the year. It was a fun round, with its ups and downs, as is the way. We’ll play again sometime soon.”
Best Wishes, John.”
A few days after that, a new edition of Haultain’s The Mystery of Golf with an afterward by John Updike appeared in our rural Maine post box. It became one of my favorite books.
Rabbit Angstrom and I never teed it up again, though we did exchange hand written notes from time to time.
But I look back on that dreary spring afternoon of Gronkle as a highlight of my evolving Range Bucket List, proof that you never meet a stranger on a golf course.
As he might say, no mystery about that.