Although music doesn’t have an obvious link with golf, I say it does, so that I can contradict myself immediately. The late Sam Snead was and still is well known for his beautiful swing, which he related explicitly to waltz-time, and more than once. Tempo and rhythm were aspects of motion, as he saw the golf swing—the obvious example was “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” by the younger Strauss. And there are certain lyrical swings that suggest themselves, as for example those of Tommy Bolt, Tom Weiskopf, Payne Stewart, and others we could mention.
And I also remember that various musicians or professional singers sponsored or hosted various tournaments: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Glen Campbell—and whom am I missing? Don Cherry played for dough and sang for it as well, and though he didn’t sing for money, Jimmy Demaret was capable of having done so.
On a day I won’t forget, there was a Demaret lesson—even a musical one—to be derived from the presence of two golfers of superior ability, Clifton James (of two Roger Moore/James Bond movies) and James Freud (who played golf better than James Bond). Having played down at Houston’s Champion’s Club (cofounded by Demaret), Clifton told a great story about that outrageous character, who would purposefully hit into the water at the green in front of the clubhouse, so everyone could see. The ball would bounce from a shallow angle off the water onto the green and leave an easy birdie. The thoughtful, practiced blunder led to a routine miracle, and plenty to laugh about in the bar later on. And there might have been some wagers down as well. I don’t know about the wager between Clifton and Jim Freud that day, but I do know that Clifton shot a 76 and was complimentary in a most gracious way. Those were two of the three best players with whom I ever stepped onto a course.
To return: There are various connections between music and golf. But waltzes are a little bit historical—contemporary pop, rock, and hip-hop don’t suggest any such connections, but those are the sounds you would be likely to hear on a driving range today. And if I heard them, I would seek silence or absence, because the matter is as nonsensical as the common practice of sending carts of beer and cocktails out on the course. Such is simply unfitting, as it contradicts the nature of the game, and yet some will do anything for money. Aren’t you supposed to play 18 holes before the 19th Hole?
Now the music I have heard on golf courses didn’t come from radios or Walkmans or even loudspeakers from the clubhouse. No, the music I heard on golf courses was otherwise—it was hummed or whispered or barely voiced, unconsciously. I heard it walking by various players usually on the greens, when guys were marking their ball or eyeing the line of a putt. It was music not so much heard as overheard, as if I were eavesdropping somehow into the consciousnesses of men who were using vague musical memories to relax themselves. There were songs in their heads that they weren’t exactly singing—it was more that the songs were singing themselves, or singing them. And those songs were lyrical in character—they were legato effusions, not staccato ones. The fellows hardly knew what they were doing musically, because they were staring at the torments they craved. They were staring at bad lies and gnarly lies and plugged lies and awkward stances and 40-foot double-breaking putts for bogey or chips from 50 feet away. The music that was only just perceivable was an intimacy, as it could be picked up only by a companion at close range, as he decoded the faint vibrations of dramatic narrative and laments for lost love. But that player would quite possibly be thinking in a competitive sense (rather than a sympathetic one), “If he makes this, I’m a dead man.”
And so he might have, through the stressed quiet, heard the glint of pitch and spark of rhythm that would constitute the lines “The noonday train will bring Frank Miller / If I’m a man, I must be brave” so vividly as unconsciously to provoke the subdued reflection that, come to think of it, after all, Katy Jurado had more appeal than Grace Kelly. And that thought may even have some validity, but it doesn’t do much for the old concentration. And the lyric-dramatic expression of tragic awareness might vary from decade to decade, or state to state, or even repeat itself whenever and wherever in different forms. And each of these forms would be a hushed crisis, because the revelation of an overwhelming alternative reality can wreak havoc upon one’s ability to execute.
So we might concede that the incident in Oxford, Mississippi—when I went to the Faulkner Conference but took my golf clubs anyway, in an unacknowledged demonstration of self-contradiction—was a warning that more was in the offing, as musical fragments destroyed any illusions of rational lucidity I might have entertained.
So it wasn’t in California or Illinois or Vermont, Connecticut, South Carolina, or Florida—though I played in those states—but in Georgia that I heard the uncanny reproduction of a singer I don’t need to identify because no one sounds like him except the preoccupied golfer who was looking at trouble: “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone / Let’s pretend that we’re together, all alone.” As music, the song was good, but as a hindrance to decisive action, it was a killer, and I realized that the trouble was going to be mine. When you’re remembering the lyrics of an old song and how the low note is on the word “low,” you’re not exactly taking care of business. I had begun to learn that distraction is catching or infectious—it is in the air. I was at fault for listening or even overhearing and being lured into confusion.
You never know when the trouble brews or precipitates, and so there may develop a bit of necessary aversion or defensiveness, because the snare of irresistible music can be more problematical than an accomplished opponent. The power of music to assert its own reality is easily triggered and is rarely—I won’t say never—used with malice aforethought: quite the opposite, in fact. If you hear a faint recreation of a long-neglected text (“But if he ever breaks your heart / if the tear drops ever start / I’ll be there before the next tear drop falls”), you may find it as hard to ignore as a stare from the Medusa. Carmen, the Latin for “song,” is also the source for our word charm, which is related to magic for reasons that Shakespeare knew well, and so, in effect, did Freddy Fender.
Now the mention of Houston and Jimmy Demaret has a parallel in Dallas and Byron Nelson, and another in Fort Worth and Ben Hogan, where there is a course (the Colonial Country Club) that is one of three places on this world called “Hogan’s Alley,” and one of the three places in the world with a statue of Ben Hogan. By this time, no one will ask me if I’ve ever heard “Does Fort Worth ever cross your mind?” floated on a golf course, because of course I have. And since James Freud was such an idolator of Hogan, I would have to add that I never knew him (Freud, I mean) to lose his concentration or composure anywhere, anytime, nor did I ever hear him sing. I did see him take dead aim at a downhill putt of some 25 feet, and before he began his stroke, we both knew he would hole out what anyone else would run ten feet by. When he was on, which was most of the time, he was like that: He would find the sweet spot with all kinds of shots.
Pythagoras would have understood that there is a relationship between the ping of the sweet spot of vibrating metal and the attuned vibrations of musical tones in their rhythmic and harmonic aspects, which we sense immediately and can analyze through the study of music proper. The Pythagorean legends of the hammers of blacksmiths are related to those of the mathematically justified stories of the lengths of tuned strings—and anvils have been employed by orchestras. And let me add that Hogan’s father was a blacksmith, and that the best clubs with Hogan’s name on them were forged, not investment cast. Yet even here I have not digressed from the point that the contextual challenge of music, the power of musical suggestion—even if unconsciously emitted and received—can be as commanding as a call to attention on the parade ground.
Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on—
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
And did I hear you say, he was a-meeting you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky?
The fusion of music and words in such a construction, derived ultimately from the late-medieval border ballads or even hymns, is a jealous power, sometimes called Mnemosyne. That compelling fusion doesn’t like to share the spotlight with anything else, not even a punitively scored game of misses. But when the game itself speaks back, rather than the contrary music, what we hear is a message that is other. I once stood by while the third fellow of those best golfers I ever played with missed a drive badly to the right—the only time I ever saw him miss anything. He was later to tell me that he had been driven out of serious golf as a young competitor by Hubert Green in Alabama; his alternative had been to become a professor of mathematics. His ball disappeared into an impenetrable jungle, and his next shot would land impossibly on the green. But before that, as his ball was disappearing into disaster, all he had to say was “Get in deep!” That was no sound of music, but the defiant voice of the golfing spirit itself.