Honneur et Patrie. Honor and Country. The words were drifting through my mind as I contemplated The Sculptor and His Muse, a brilliant and troubling bronze sculpture by Rodin. The poor sculptor (Rodin himself?) was being tormented, or loved, or consoled, it was hard to tell, by a petite and beautiful woman. She stood hard on his thigh, leaned with all her weight on him as he bent away in despair, or longing, or frustration, her flowing hair draping his head while he covered his mouth with one hand.
There were other, more famous, Rodins around me—The Thinker contemplated existence in the courtyard I’d just crossed; The Three Shades stood tall and powerful before me carrying the weight of this life on their shoulders—but I was transfixed by The Sculptor. It spoke to me of pain and agony, of joy and possibility, of the thrills and disappointments of a creative life, of life itself. It was the perfect metaphor for a round of golf.
I had come out to Lincoln Park Golf Course alone, as I often do, to learn that I wouldn’t be able to get onto the course for a couple of hours. This wasn’t bad news—just the opposite. I had many options: I could take a walk along the cliff-side trails of Land’s End, mess around in the ruins of Sutro Baths, stroll the expanse of Ocean Beach, or sip coffee and watch the waves crash in at Louis’, the best breakfast joint in town. I went to the museum instead.
Honneur et Patrie. The words are carved in stone above the entrance to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a grand replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris placed in the most striking museum setting in America. It sits high above the sea with views over the Pacific, the Golden Gate, the San Francisco city skyline, surrounded by the rolling green hills and towering cypresses of Lincoln Park Golf Course.
Lincoln Park is one of the country’s most beautiful municipal golf courses. It is not beautifully manicured, not a difficult course to play although it has its hazards, but it has a rough and wild grandness that perfectly matches its setting. It has quirky holes that bend and twist, and views that shift from the sea to the skyline to the Golden Gate Bridge, always something dramatic through the trees.
I felt privileged to be inside the museum again. For three years, from 1992 to 1995, it was closed, undergoing seismic retrofitting and expansion. I would play golf, circling the fenced-off museum, and look longingly at the exquisite limestone structure that had become a construction site. Things changed from time to time: signs pointed golfers “this way” around the museum to the sixth tee; a month later the signs directed us the other way; the sixth fairway became an access road and the grass vanished under the weight of sand and heavy vehicles. I wondered if the museum would ever reopen, if the course would ever recover. But now the grass has returned, the fences are down, the museum is back.
Which led me to Rodin. I hadn’t noticed The Sculptor and His Muse before, but now it supplanted his other works in my mind. I’d never thought of a golfer’s muse, but seeing Rodin’s work with fresh eyes I saw how the sculptor’s relationship with his inspiration mirrored my experience with golf: there were flashes of brilliance, periods of effortless excellence, inevitably followed by a mysterious abandonment of skill. I’ve always viewed golf as symbolic of life, each round a short life of its own, beginning with promise, dependent on skill, full of hazards and ups and downs, building to success or colossal failure and subject to the whims of fate, luck, or divine intervention. The game could be completely humbling; the muse could torment and flee.
I wandered through several other galleries until it was time to play, and then got matched up with two recent Irish immigrants and a native San Franciscan. They were friendly, easy-going—a good sign, because when you play with strangers you never know what to expect. Over the years I’ve played with idealists, bigots, saints, and jerks. Often these people have added to the experience, sometimes they’ve detracted, but never have they ruined it. One of the game’s great beauties is that it’s both superficially social and deeply private. You can play with others but stay completely within yourself and never suffer an awkward moment, or you can have a party.
We got underway and I made sweet, solid contact, driving the ball straight down the fairway. Usually I take this as a bad omen, figuring I’ve just hit the best ball of the day and it’ll be all downhill from here, but today my swing felt fluid and relaxed.
We strolled through the damp grass, hit our shots in turn, smelled the scent of turf and sea. The trees stood by like old friends, silent in the stillness.
After several holes I was still hitting the ball extremely well, better than I’d ever played. Then my mind filled with the face of a beautiful young woman with large eyes and a confident, serene smile. It was the face from the terra-cotta Portrait Bust of a Young Woman by Jean-Jacques Caffieri that I had just seen in the museum’s Robert Dollar Gallery. But it was also the face of a woman I knew, a friend who recently had died so young. The face looked at me with comfort and reassurance. It led me forward, looked down through the centuries, through the smell of grass and dew, seeming to say, “It’s all right, we’re all fine, you’re fine.”
I hit another perfect shot, not daring to wonder at the miracle of my play today. Maybe this was divine intervention at work.
We made our way up and over the hills, through the trees, along the green fairways beneath the museum that sits on the knoll like a shrine attainable only by circling long enough to prepare our hearts. I remembered images from other times I’d played here. A friend who insisted we start at the crack of dawn one autumn weekday staring into fog so dense we could see only a dozen yards ahead, but we teed off anyway and found our balls through some extrasensory perception; another foggy day on the tenth hole I looked up to see a horseman galloping along the crest of the hill, realizing after a second that it was the statue of Joan of Arc near the museum’s entrance and the contour of the hill and the racing fog created the illusion of movement; another dreamy day looking for an errant shot in a grove of trees and discovering for the first time a stone monument that dated back to the time the park was a cemetery for Gold Rush pioneers.
On the third hole I had hit the ball over the cliff into the sea a dozen times (thirty fathoms, we always said), seen a friend hit a hole-in-one on number eight, stumbled upon a marble sculpture in the bushes on number ten. Today I swung easily, the ball flew straight, putts dropped strangely into the cup, and my mind kept flowing back to the museum, now to the haunting eyes of the girl sitting at the well in The Broken Pitcher by William Adolphe Bouguereau. She looked at me with a calm forlornness that was chilling. What was she feeling in that moment? That nothing mattered but it all mattered? That there was nothing to be done, so she rested there, staring at strangers without entreaty?
Much as she troubled me, I was more drawn to a painting next to it, The Bath by Jean-Léon Gérôme. An alabaster-white woman with black hair was being sponged by a brown woman in a brilliant headdress, cloth wrap, and silver bangles. The light in the room was soft, mystical, washing over the blue Middle Eastern tiles of the bath. The brown hand on the white back, the flow of black hair, the colors of the cloth were stark yet soft, intriguing. It was a simple act full of peace, in a Turkish bath, perhaps, or Moroccan, or Algerian. The tranquility of the light made me want to be there, lose myself there, feel the warm sponge on my own back.
My mind was drifting as we waited on the 14th tee for the group ahead to move on. I thought of the upcoming holes, how I’d played them in the past, how a record score was within reach if I kept shooting par. Thin fog had settled in the tops of the cypresses. The air was cool. Suddenly out of the trees a missile streaked into my vision and a sharp pain zapped in my hand. “Yow!” A ball ricocheted off my thumb and fell at the feet of my companions. I cursed and shook my hand and everybody wondered what was wrong with me.
“I just got hit by a ball,” I growled, and slowly it dawned on them as they stared at the inanimate, white sphere lying there in the grass. Of course, this was one of the hazards of the game, but it rarely happened and usually there was some warning, shouts of “Fore!” A moment later the culprit came out of the trees, but what could I do? He couldn’t have seen us, couldn’t have known we were there. I cursed, he apologized, I shrugged, he shrugged, and we all carried on with our game.
One of the Irish guys hit his ball into the woods, and I was waiting for him to hit his second shot when the ball whacked against a tree and whizzed past me like a rocket, narrowly missing. “Good Lord! Again?” His friend laughed and said, “I’m not getting any closer to you!”
I laughed nervously, somewhat ill at ease. I’d never been hit by a ball before, and now almost twice in five minutes!
We made our way to the green and I was lining up my putt when another ball fell out of the heavens with a thud at my feet. My partners erupted in laughter but for me it was a sign. All I could think of was Rodin and his muse, the torment in the sculptor’s face, the heavy weight of that sprightly being’s caress.
After that I’m not sure what happened. I began hitting the ball everywhere but the direction I was aiming. On the 15th hole I went into the woods. On the 16th, I went across the road. On the 17th, a long par three that parallels the Pacific’s entrance to the Golden Gate with the magnificent bridge in full view, one of the world’s most picturesque golf holes, I hit three trees with one shot. Somehow I made it through the 18th, and my miracle of a round had become just another day on the golf course.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.