Reflections on golf, creativity and the magic of being
By Claudia Mazzucco
”Golf gives you an insight into human nature, your own as well as your opponent’s.” Grantland Rice, former editor of The American Golfer
I first heard about golf when I was at the Museo del Cine Pablo Ducros Hicken (Cinema’s Museum) in Buenos Aires and it seemed a perfect refuge. I had been indulging in random learnings of the history of Tango Argentino, and got a crash course with Nito Mores, a young tango singer who died on May 1st, 1984. He was 39 years old. He was now with the Lord, though still much too young to be called home. Nito was a devoted golfer, a golf addict. I was friendless in Buenos Aires, and I was overwhelmed by the noise of the big city. I sought refuge in the quiet of the bus. I also went for walks in the park. I was wandering through Buenos Aires not only physically, but also spiritually – searching for my purpose, while waiting to overcome the lack of a sincere commitment with Argentine society. In retrospect I could see people fragmented and broken in their irreconcilable differences, emerging as a dispersed community of a dictatorship.
One day I came across the Campo de Golf de la Ciudad, which is in the middle of Palermo Park in Buenos Aires. There was something beautiful in this solitary game. The golfers had the appearance of being in an ideal world of their own. What wonder is it if, enchanted by the game of golf, I was willing to move toward fulfillment and self-realization. I walked on the green in a hopeful and satisfied frame of mind, finding purpose in the natural splendor of a golf course, I realized my own potential, and therefore embraced a wider goal in life. There was no going back to an expressionless existence; through golf I had a unique and necessary role to serve, I found my voice, together with the desire, the power and the obligation to express myself.
I attended my first golf tournament at the 1988 Argentina Senior Open at San Andres Golf Club, a traditional golf club named after the Royal and Ancient of Saint Andrews. I had never been on a golf course in my life. Arriving at the first tee, I recognized Roberto De Vicenzo, who became Senior Open Champion by the end of the week. The attention of El Maestro had first won my confidence and then my heart. I felt a special warmth of attachment upon him and the game in which we found ourselves.
But it was becoming a different game from the one Roberto had hitherto known. It was growing larger. Severiano Ballesteros (who was a young gentleman of ardent temperament) had arrived on the scene and massive galleries hung on his every round, waiting for his next miraculous escape from impossible situations. The word “charm” invariably came up in conversations about him. His game had rare shadows of doubt and self-mistrust, lit up at moments by intuition of so clear a splendor that the personality he displayed was all but irresistible. But he was a strange admixture of forces. There was supreme self-confidence, as if no one could possibly doubt his sincerity, goodwill, and ability. Yet there was also an extraordinary determination to please, as if he were driven by an inner demon that would not quit until he was liked and admired. What I appreciated in Roberto and Seve was their originality amounting to a form of genius, and the talent for playing spectacular recoveries, which colleagues compared to a kind of art. They were endowed with an extremely fine sensibility in their hands. They thought that faith and trust were important in golf. Faith especially is one of the essences of the game.
Near the end of my first year at Notigolf, in February 1992, there was an exhibition match at the Jockey Club, where Ballesteros was going to play a match with Miguel Martin against Eduardo Romero and Vicente Fernandez, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. I enjoyed Seve’s game to the utmost. Golf is a game of not being sure, not knowing where the ball will go next. The golfer never entirely knows. They take leap after leap into the unexpected. A fleck of grass throws a putt off-line, the ball is stuck in a tree or shoots this way or that. Detailed thinking (think of the yardage book), unwavering focus (being in the zone), obsessive interest in certain topics (Arnold Palmer has 10,000 clubs and 2,000 putters stored away in buildings and workshops in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and Orlando, and this is a conservative estimate) – are the very qualities that every golfer must have if they want to make it in the tour. Although I did not learn to play golf, even then I was aware of the difference between natural talent and the striving for perfection in the way Faldo and his coach David Leadbetter had by the late eighties and early nineties. I could see Faldo’s single-minded and dedicated approach to his golf. He, for example, speaks little, has few friends among the media, and is extremely awkward in his press conferences. He did not appear to try to learn the art of communication and work out a technique whereby he can look relaxed in front of the camera and give something to the interviewer. It is amazing for me that these behaviors, which are more laughable than abnormal in a golfer, are considered today features of Asperger’s Syndrome.
There was much in golf to engage the imagination of an accidental journalist. One of the beauties and the challenges of golf is the juxtaposition of art (play the game with artistic sensibility) and science (the golf stroke is based on abstract and well-established principles). De Vicenzo was, in himself and in his records, the prime source of inspiration for the sport journalists in Argentina. Golfers create great shots with their hands. The hands are the absolute basis of control in the swing, confidence and sensibility, and the absolute basis of all performance accomplished by champions. He had strong, skillful hands, and had mastered wonderful control of the club with them. “I’ve always had big hands,” he explained while introducing a valuable element of his sporting career: his palms, which De Vicenzo moves copying his body’s fluid rhythm.
It would take three years before I would travel to a foreign country, the United States, during the 1995 Ryder Cup at the historical Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York. The excitement with which I experienced the Ryder Cup comes back vividly; I marveled at the singular courage of the European team, and ardently desired to become European just to be able to have that sense of unity. Competition was a healthy thing for the European players and the tour flourished and grew strong. In fact, the European Team became the first to build on the ideal of a united Europe which had been born immediately after the war, rising like a phoenix from the ruins of a war-devastated continent. The United States lost the Ryder Cup on Sunday when Philip Walton, an Irish professional golfer, picked up his ball on the 18th green, his six-inch putt having been conceded by Jay Hass, who could have squared the match by winning the last hole with par 4, but he snap-hooked his tee shot into the deep rough at 18 – a shot he lamented until he came back to Oak Hill in 2008 and won the Senior PGA – and still had a six-footer left for 5. Europe won 14 ½ – 13 ½. Nobody who watched the European team win this biennial event for first time since 1989 will ever forget it. It was also a high point in my career as writer.
But not many people seemed to notice that extreme aloneness dominated my behavior. I’ve built a world of my own at the A.A.G. Library. Given my photographic memory, I learned to preserve an obsessive desire for sameness by going through La Nation newspaper, copying the complete leaderboard of each pro and national amateur championship organized by the AAPG and AAG from 1905 to the seventies. I have a phenomenal rote memory for scores and Anglo-Saxon names, and a good precise recollection of every champion of the modern Grand Slam of Golf, which is composed of the Masters Tournament, the U.S. Open, The Open Championship, and the PGA. During two years I worked as a golfing reporter at La Razón newspaper in Buenos Aires, and after the 1995 Open Championship at Saint Andrews, I found myself reciting year by year the winners of The Open since 1960. When I finished the newsroom was attentive, clapping and cheering.
My second trip to an international event was the 32nd Ryder Cup at Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain, on September 1997, which Ballesteros captained successfully guiding the European team to victory. He was the winner of the Open in 1979, 1984 and 1988. He played in eight Ryder Cups, claiming 22 ½ points from 37 matches. He was the first from the continent to claim the Masters Tournament in 1980, a feat he repeated at Augusta three years later. It was not an uncommon question that other golfers asked Ballesteros: “Were you born with your great ‘feel’”? He did not really think about how to describe the feeling of the motion of the golf swing. He had too much reason to “listen” very carefully to his body all the time during the swing. He was interested in how golfers – their minds – treat sensory feel for motion. How do we build a swing and maintain it? “What relationship my head, shoulders, arms, hands, hips, legs and feet have to each other,” Seve said. “Once you ingrain the proper preliminaries and get a basic mental picture, then you can tinker with various patterns and combinations of action until you find your swing.”
I later discovered that the artistic patterns supported my initial research of a theory about the hidden factor that makes for a great golfer. The Theory of Sensibility, being mentioned also by Sam Snead, can properly be regarded as the center of De Vicenzo’s thought. I knew that I had thought my first real idea. I did not trouble to search for a champion’s unique gift that was lost and in need to be rediscovered. Rather, it may be that the development of other abilities, intuition, imagination, visualization, touch, concentration, killer instinct, etc., will allow golfers to gain a feeling of certainty and steadiness on the golf course. Such a conception of golf is, above all, proper to a champion. It could also be an aspect of autism. Dr. Hans Asperger said, “Autistic people are able to produce original ideas. They can only be original. Behind the originality of language formulations stands the originality of experience.” But of what use was it for me to take things from one area (art) and mix them with things in another area (sport) if I lacked the ability to come with a new synthesis? To see golf differently I believed I must, therefore, let a new synthesis be made by somebody else. If I trust only in my own intelligence, my own power of association, and my own intuitions, that means that God has given me to find my way to fulfillment of my own potential through Others. I’ve already found the central point, and I would seek to explain sensibility through the experience of players like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. Useful and original in itself, the Sensibility Principle is a kind of looking at golf in a way that is different from everyone else.
Claudia Mazzucco is a savant on the autism spectrum. She is a history teacher, journalist, and philosopher.
Suggested Reading: Autism’s First Child – An article about Donald Triplett in the Atlantic