The Brathwaite albatross as religious experience

Second shot
Philo Brathwaite’s second shot for albatross, Beaver State Fling, June 2016

In 2006, David Foster Wallace wrote an article about tennis called “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” This essay may be the most beautiful expression of a man’s love for sport that has ever graced the pages of a newspaper.

But when I read it for the first time, years ago, as a younger, intellectually snobbier version of the man I am today, I was skeptical at best. It didn’t seem fitting for the greatest novelists in the land to be writing about men’s tennis.

Seriously, Mr. Wallace? Dudes in white shorts and sweaty hair swatting fury yellow balls back and forth on perfectly mowed grass? Wealthy onlookers in sunglasses sipping Pimm’s Cup? Child drones scurrying here and there like Labradors, scooping up errant balls as they hit the net? This is your muse, Mr. Wallace?

But that was then. And now … well, now is different. Now I am living through what some might call a midlife crisis, but what I’ve termed my “sports renaissance period.” Following a sports-obsessed youth and then a gradual, numbing, long-term divorce from sports, I’m back. Miraculous athletic endeavors are suddenly, stupendously awesome again.

My sports renaissance period began four years ago when I started playing disc golf, but I didn’t really appreciate the experience until a year ago. The awakening was delivered by a disc golfer named Philo Brathwaite, who carded an albatross on an 850-foot hole at the Beaver State Fling held in Milo McIver State Park on June 11, 2016.

As posted below, Central Coast Disc Golf captured the stunning shot in all its mystifying, glorious detail. Like watching Michael Jordan’s free-throw line dunk, it was, at least for disc golfers, the kind of iconic, televised athletic feat that you can watch again and again and still feel a slight electrical charge as the shot goes in.

Much has been written about the attractive flight of a Frisbee. But Brathwaite’s second shot for albatross was remarkable for its un-Frisbee-like qualities: the raw, kinetic power and distance of the throw, the disc’s magical, gyroscopic turn and graceful fade, its arresting proximity to the trees below, its ruthless, knifelike descent and the resounding slash of chains.

A Frisbee has never accomplished these tasks and never will. This was a disc golf moment.

In Wallace’s homage to tennis, he describes the experience of watching truly great shots as transformative: “These are times when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

That sums up my initial reaction to the albatross. But this shot was more than entertainment. Throws of this caliber represent the motor of aspiration, the crucible of disc golf dreams. They add color to our otherwise black-and-white vision of the perfect flight.

Intention precedes behavior on the disc golf course. And a disc golfer’s intentions are always flawless. We see the exact arch of a putt before we throw it. Before releasing a forehand, we envision its zippy flight line between the trees. We throw that booming hyzer line, having already watched it crest just below the arms of an oak tree and fade left beyond the mulberry bush.

Of course, when we visualize our shots, we know we’re dreaming. We know that the actual future and our earnest plans for it rarely meet. Like so many aspirations in life, the Brathwaite albatross will not be achieved again any time soon.

But that’s what makes the albatross a transformative moment. It gives us permission to dream, to expect what is rarely found in everyday life: something beautiful, intended and impossible.

~~~

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