Frank's Place: Golf offers an antidote to aging

While I was walking recently through Laurel Hill Cemetery, one of Philadelphia's most serene and underappreciated treasures, an inspiration, like a voice from the ornate mausoleums, whispered to me:

This wonderful terrain, these acres of rolling hillsides overlooking the Schuylkill, would be a spectacular setting for a golf course.

Sadly, the trend is working in the opposite direction.

It's dying golf and country clubs, beset by an ongoing decline in active participants, that are more likely to be converted into burial grounds.

Golf courses and cemeteries have a lot in common.

Both are wide-open, green expanses. Both are well-tended. Both demand a quiet reverence. And both are overpopulated with senior citizens.

According to a 2016 National Golf Foundation survey, the average American golfer is 54 years old. And that's the average.

Go out some weekday afternoon to a popular public course like Paxon Hollow, Jeffersonville, or Cobbs Creek, and the graying hordes you'll encounter there are as liable to have Medicare cards as scorecards.

Oddly, at a time when 20-somethings are dominating the professional game, amateur golf, especially in states such as Pennsylvania, is becoming the preserve of aging baby boomers.

Many in the industry think they know why. Younger Americans, busier and more financially strapped than ever, apparently haven't the time, money, or inclination for golf. And those who do, don't play nearly as often as their predecessors.

But I'd like to think that we senior golfers are something more than hangers-on clinging mindlessly to a longtime habit as we round life's Amen Corner.

Many, like me, were drawn to the game late in life, after the nest emptied and the days lengthened. What keeps us coming back is something deeper than boredom or the tyranny of routine.

At an age when it's often too difficult or too unpleasant to contemplate the past and future, we find each fresh round of golf offers us a clean slate, a landscape of limitless hope.

No 18 holes are ever alike. Anything and everything seems possible as, with your scorecard blank and your panorama unspoiled, you stand on that first tee.

Because of the nature of the sport, the length of a round, and the intimacy of the shared experience, your golfing buddies come to understand you in a way few others can. They see you stressed, excited, angry, ecstatic. There are no facades possible in mid-swing.

In these fogey foursomes, a closeness develops among men who often have no other emotional relationships beyond their families.

When a member of his regular foursome died suddenly many years ago, my father asked me to accompany him to the viewing in Manayunk. I wasn't sure why until, as he stood over his friend's casket, I saw how deeply he felt the loss.

"Many men," wrote John Updike, the late novelist who became an avid golfer late in life, "are more faithful to their golf partners than to their wives and have stuck with them longer."

Golf, as Updike also pointed out, is one of the few activities where, up to a point anyway, you can continue to improve with age.

At 67, I can't jump or run well enough to play basketball, can't depend on my reflexes anymore in baseball. But in golf, I can continue to chip away - not to mention putt and drive away - at my lofty handicap.

"What other game holds out hope of improvement to a man or woman over 50?" Updike wrote. "For a duffer like [me], the room for improvement is so vast that three lifetimes could be spent roaming the fairways, carving away at it, convinced that perfection lies just over the next rise. And that hope, perhaps, is the kindest bliss of all that golf bestows upon its devotees."

We find bliss elsewhere, too:

In that moment when we unsheathe a driver, push a tee into the dewy ground, place a clean white ball atop it, and survey a wide-open first fairway.

In that swing - admittedly rare for hackers like me - when we connect perfectly, hear a sweet click, and watch the ball disappear toward the target.

In that round, impossible to duplicate or technically dissect, when our drives somehow find the fairways, our approach shots the green, our putts the cup.

Among the many jokes about old men and golf is one in which a man returns home and informs his wife that his golfing buddy collapsed and died during that morning's round. She tells him how sorry she is, how awful it must have been to watch a friend die.

"It was horrible," the husband says. "Hit the ball, drag Harry. Hit the ball, drag Harry."

Perhaps that's more fantasy than joke. I've known plenty of golfers, after all, who've told me that when their time comes, they'd like to die with their spikes on.

My father was one of them. And while he died bed-bound in a Broomall nursing home, a third of his ashes were scattered over Paxon Hollow's 17th hole, a downhill par-3 nestled alongside a creek in a grove of old trees.

Cremation and eternity at a golf course were, for him, a far more palatable end than a deep grave in a cemetery.

Why settle for one hole in the ground, he believed, when you can have 18.