Gulf Coast Floridians share a great body of water with Santiago, the heroic old Cuban fisherman of Ernest Hemingway’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Hemingway’s Santiago has had a long streak of bad luck, but he maintains his life and dignity by using courage, willpower and intelligence to catch a truly great fish.
“The Old Man and the Sea” ends with a profound, thought-provoking twist. Santiago — all alone in the deepest Gulf waters in a small skiff — hooks, battles, kills and lashes to his boat a giant marlin. But as he sails back toward port with the fish “two feet longer than the boat,” sharks attack.
By the time Santiago gets home to his little village, all that’s left of the big fish is the marlin’s bare skeleton, “18 feet from nose to tail.”
I love Hemingway’s book not only because it’s set on Gulf waters, but also because it’s the story of a heroic senior, an old person who works as hard as he can to maintain his skills, strength and dignity as long as he lives — even if he can no longer achieve what he sets out to accomplish.
I’m certainly well aware of the differences between Santiago’s struggles and my own as a senior golfer during these past seven years in Venice. But if you had seen me out there on Gulf Coast golf courses these recent summers — all alone in mid-afternoon heat when not another soul was out playing, drenched in sweat before and after every swing, endlessly coaching and coaxing myself on — you’d understand the compulsive energy of my quest, too.
“Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman,” Hemingway’s Santiago says to himself during a bad moment in his long battle to bring the big fish to port, “but that was the thing I was born for.”
Out there sweating on the fairways these last few summers, I was one with Santiago. Except that golf, not fishing, was my passion. To change just one of Santiago’s words, “Perhaps I should not have been a golfer, but that was the thing I was born for.”
My quest was both great and modest: to regularly play nine holes with an average score of about 43. But I hadn’t played much golf from the time I was 20 to the time I was 70.
So, my opportunity in retirement these last seven years was to improve my game even though I hadn’t worked seriously at it until my mid-70s, well past my “prime” as an athlete.
I was as hooked on golf as Santiago is hooked to his giant marlin.
On several occasions, Santiago sees the giant fish on his line rise majestically out of the water and breach. At such moments, he’s deeply happy — though he always remains focused on whatever is required of him to bring the big fish to port.
That’s how I felt whenever I hit 38, 39, 41 or 42 during these last few years.
But like Santiago, who returned to port with only the skeleton of his great catch, I never fully achieved my goal. The average score for my innumerable, solo, sweat-drenched, mid-afternoon summer rounds was more like 47 than 43.
And just as Santiago was disheartened by seeing his big fish eaten down to its skeleton, I was troubled recently by images of my own aging skeleton, as revealed by X-rays and an MRI.
A doctor and physical therapist suggested that I stop playing golf for a while. I told them I’d try.
But what I really wanted to say was that Santiago’s words about fishing were equally true for me about golf: “Golfing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.”