Hold on to the memories

I have often explored what golf means to people, and the many connections they make to the game. Certainly I never expected to one day be asked to make a connection between golf and a serious illness that afflicts many older people. But I was invited to do so at the Lorie Kane for Alzheimer’s tournament in Prince Edward Island in September 1998. Here are exerpts from my remarks. I hope readers of Fifty-Plus.net find them interesting.

Mr. Chairman, Premier Binns, Your Worship George Macdonald, Mr. George Proud, M.P. for Hillsboro, that terrific threesome of Marilyn, Jack and Lorie Kane, other guests, ladies and gentleman.

For weeks I have been thinking of what to say here today. My difficulty has not been in finding something to say about golf — of this mysterious subject I could speak, I’m sure, for hours. Why, I could launch into a dissertation on the swing itself; it’s a subject, after all, about which hundreds of books have been written.

I could launch into an examination of why I think Lorie Kane is a gift to all of us here and across Canada, and why I think she should teach classes in how to be the consummate professional. I could ask her to explain st how she manages to keep smiling after she misses a three-foot putt — well, not immediately, but soon enough after.

Coping with Alzheimer’s Disease

So I could talk about golf, at length. That was not my problem in coming to grips with what I might say here. But this is not only about golf, is it? This is about something so much more important than golf, even if it is called the royal and ancient game. It is about losses and deficits, losses of memory and language, diminished mental functioning, the slipping away of identity, the inability to recognize family and friends, to remember who we were or what we did or said five minutes ago or five years ago or forty-five years ago. This is about Alzheimer’s Disease, about finding a way to deal with this illness that cuts so close to the nub of who we are. It is about doing scientific research and about coping with the disease that attacks the brain and therefore the mind. It is about living with Alzheimer’s, studying it, perhaps one day conquering it and eliminating it.

It’s also about a terrible disease that I know nothing about. It’s about something that terrifies me, I admit, as I’m sure it does many of you. It’s about something I need to learn more about. And the curious thing is that should my fate one day be to suffer from Alzheimer’s, then I will very likely at that moment know nothing about it. I will have forgotten what I learned. My knowledge will be lost. My knowledge will have been erased, signified only by scars on my brain.

And so, how do I talk about Alzheimer’s, of which I know so little? And how do I connect this illness to golf, a beautiful game played in soft, serene places where sometimes the only sounds are the wind whistling and the birds singing and here, the sea pounding at the shores of your sweet province? How do I connect this illness to golf, where, to be sure, we often remember too much? I have often thought that I would prefer not to remember my bad shots, thinking that perhaps then I’ll have a better chance of hitting a good one in a similar situation. But selective, controlled forgetting is far different than random, uncontrollable forgetting — the forgetting of Alzheimer’s. So too is selective, controlled remembering far different than random, uncontrolled remembering, where the mind races and runs off on its own, tumbling with images, opening doors locked long ago, running headlong into rooms closed years ago, mixing memories and pictures, crashing oddly into distant places, confusing places.

Golf: A game of memories

Yes, the mind under a gentle hold, the mind that we can control and use, is a lovely, free thing. It chooses where to go, what year to visit, how to structure and organize the world. But the mind running wildly is an avalanche that picks up energy and sometimes cannot stop. The mind running wildly can be a frightening thing. Those of you who have had to cope with a family member or friend who has Alzheimer’s know what I mean.

But maybe there’s a link here. Thinking about my talk today and the golf and friendship that will follow, I realized that golf is a game of memory. The golfers in the crowd know this; those of you who will, I hope, take up this fine game, will surely come to know it. Golf is a game of memory all right. It is a game of stories, of locker room tales, of conversations between shots and at grill rooms and during summer barbecues at home, or here, I suppose, lobster fests. There are so many stories too. I recall the time, for instance, when I played with Arnold Palmer for a story I would write. Palmer and I played a match for five dollars, and he beat me by a narrow margin—having given me a few strokes. We played for five dollars but Palmer wouldn’t take the money. Instead he asked for that new Canadian two-dollar coin, the twonie. I gave him one and he used it as a ball marker in a Senior PGA Tour event the next week. Later I wrote him to ask whether it had brought him good luck, and Palmer answered, “I used it for five holes but three-putted three of those greens. So I gave it to my wife Winnie for her dispensation.”

Yes, golf is full of stories. A while ago I was chatting with the superb American golfer Tom Watson. Tom has been a professional for nearly thirty years, and has won just about everything there is to win in the game. He’s turning fifty soon and for some time he didn’t express much interest in playing the Senior Tour. I asked him what he would miss most about competitive golf, and his answer, I think, was most illuminating.

“What I would miss most would be the camaraderie,” Tom said. “I’d miss sitting around with the guys, telling stories, kidding around, remembering shots we hit and reliving tournaments. I’d miss really being inside the game.”

The treasured past

Interesting, don’t you think? Watson didn’t say that he would miss the feeling of coming up the final hole with a chance to win the Masters, although I’m certain he would. He said he would miss talking about the memories he had, the stories lodged in his mind, the shots he had hit. As I prepared my remarks for today, I thought how unfortunate it would be if someone like Tom would one day suffer a loss of memory, simply because he has so many treasured golf memories; it seems sad that an elderly Tom Watson would not have the opportunity to sit around his home club in Kansas City and reminisce about what he did way back when.

Many of you will remember the chip shot that Watson holed for birdie from just off the 17th green the last day to defeat Jack Nicklaus and win the 1982 United States Open. The shot has been played time and time again on television, in Tom’s mind’s eye, in our mind’s eye; I can see it now, the ball popping out of the thick rough, landing on the green and then curving down to the hole and in. The shot will be a key element of any package of the golfing highlights from the 20th century. Tom himself has often gone to the spot beside the 17th green from where he holed the shot, and tried it again. Just about every golfer who plays Pebble Beach drops a ball in the rough and tries the shot. I’ve tried it myself. I try it because I remember what Watson did; I want to see if I can play the shot that I remember he played with such skill. Golf really is a game of memory, isn’t it?

A disease that can strike anyone

But why am I speaking of Watson specifically? In fact I could speak of any golfer, or any of us who play the game, because so much of our enjoyment comes from remembering past rounds and shots. Forgive me for referring to a specific person in the context of Alzheimer’s, in this case Tom Watson. But I believe this is necessary. As I have said, golf is such a powerfully individual game, and if we are to become sensitized to the ravages of Alzheimer’s perhaps it is important for each of us to understand that this can happen to any of us, and that we must do something about it. That, of course, is why all of us are here today. It is why I have come to your achingly beautiful part of Canada to participate in this event. Alzheimer’s seems such a faraway thing when we are healthy, but is it truly so far away? Who of us knows what lies in our genes? And if we did know, could we do something with that knowledge? The money raised through this golf event can help scientists learn more about Alzheimer’s — and much has already been learned and is being applied — so that we can all retain our own life stories. In golf we all want to remember our great shots and our terrible shots — yes, even the bad ones, because they are part of the experience too. We all want to be able to create our own highlights package so that we can share our love and appreciation of golf with others.

But to participate fully in golf, to play to the best of our abilities and to be fully ourselves, we need memory. It’s all very well for golf teachers to advise us to stay in the present. And that is important, no doubt about it. But those of us who preach the power of the present build that belief on an assumed foundation and awareness of the past. A knowledge of the past — that is, the faculty of memory — allows us to fully live in the present. Without this we suffer from what Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian who writes movingly of his mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease, calls “deficits.” We are deficient in memory. The past is not prologue, as Shakespeare wrote that it was. The past in many cases is gone. And we need the past. Imagine yourself unable to think of your past. I don’t think we can.

Another story: Jack Nicklaus was on the 15th green the last day of the 1986 Masters. He was forty-six years old, and had already won five Masters. For some time people had felt Nicklaus was past his prime, that he was only a ceremonial golfer and not one who could compete in any tournaments, let alone majors. Nicklaus, however, was right in the thick of things. He had about a 25’ putt for an eagle that could give him the lead. He and his son Jackie Jr., who was caddying for him, discussed the putt and decided on a line. But just at the last moment Nicklaus recalled a similar putt he had on this green some twenty years before. His memory clicked in; he saw the way the ball had to roll, and altered the line he and his son had picked by just that little margin he saw in his mind’s eye — memory’s gift, a remembrance of a golf game past.

Then Nicklaus rolled the putt in. He went on to win the Masters, and that putt will also end up on the highlights reel of golf in the 20th century. Would Nicklaus have won the Masters had his memory not clicked in just at the right moment? I don’t think so.


Helping others hold on to their memories

Yes, we need our past, and golf is a game of the past as much as of the present. This week we will all, living in the present, create our golfing pasts. And I hope that our chances of claiming those pasts will be enhanced because of your wonderful efforts at this event.

A final note: My father-in-law was a golfer. He loved playing courses all around Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my wife Nell was born. It was just the simple act of hitting the ball around and coming up with some good shots here and there that he loved. I didn’t meet him until he was pretty well past his golfing days, but he did remember players he had seen and shots he had hit. I recall his telling me he had followed Sam Snead, and he told me of his smooth swing. But then my father-in-law got Alzheimer’s. His memory slipped, his golf life all but vanished. Cruelly, the disease first took the language of this very articulate man. Every so often from out of the mists he would tell a golf story, but they were getting further and further away, receding. He was losing that part of his experience of this very strange life we all are fortunate to lead.

One evening he was staying at our home, and in the middle of the night he got up. My wife heard him walking about and went out into the hallway to see if she could help him. “What’s wrong, dad?” she asked. “Can I help you?”

He answered with the most amazing, far-fetched but telling words. “This box does not provide enough latitude,” he said. It took a minute for Nell to realize that he was saying that the bed was too small for him. “This box does not provide enough latitude,” he said. The bed isn’t wide enough for me, he was saying.

The box we are in — the world we live in — provides plenty of latitude for us just now. We’re all fortunate to be here today, and I certainly feel lucky to be so involved in golf and to be able to spend a few days in your company. By being here and helping out we are making sure that the box we are in continues to have plenty of latitude. It’s our obligation to fill that box with memories, and to enable others to fill it with theirs, and to hold on to those memories.

Thanks so much for inviting me here to make some new memories with you. I sure hope those memories include some birdies, but golf being golf, I’m sure there will be plenty of bogies as well. But so what? We can talk about it for years, as long as we remember, as long as we can remember.