Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Hole in None"

"Hole in None" is a John D MacDonald short story that was published in the January 4, 1947 issue of Liberty. It was only the twenty-fourth story published under the author's name and was his first work to appear in a general-interest mass market periodical. And, depending on how broad your definition of science fiction is, it was his first such effort in that particular genre. Appearing as Liberty's "Short Short Story" of the week, it ran a brief 3,100 words and filled a mere two pages, along with illustration.

It's a silly little piece, more fantasy than science fiction and I suppose it could also be categorized as MacDonald's very first comic short story, although I have no way of really knowing that at this time. It's an enjoyable tale with a twist ending that teaches the age-old warning: "Be careful what you wish for."

As the title implies, "Hole in None" is a story about the game of golf. The protagonist is one George Fingerhaver, a "cherubic and bovine" forty-something suburbanite. George is a terrible golfer, despite his working at it for twenty-six years. He typically plays with his business partner Bert, who is every bit the golfer that George is not. Bert continually tells George, with "an air of careless superiority, 'You just haven't got it, George. No muscular co-ordination. You'll never get any better at the game.'" George has tried so hard, yet after all this time he still plays with a thirty-stroke handicap. One late afternoon, after a typically embarrassing thrashing by Bert, George contemplates his problem. He knows he has the muscle, if only he could practice with no one around. It's dusk now and the course at the Elmwood Club is empty, so he heads out to the seventh tee.

His drive is typically off, slicing wide toward a deep ravine. When he goes to retrieve his ball he slips and slides head-over-heels down the slope, hitting his head on birch tree. As he lays there he sees, right in front of his nose, a "gleaming golf ball of gigantic proportions," shining with a pale blue luminescence. Then he hears a remote voice:

"George Fingerhaver, it is my privilege to bestow on you one wish -- by courtesy of the golf immortals who, from the nineteenth hole above, have been watching your dogged efforts to improve your game. Please submit your wish."

George doesn't hesitate and asks to be able to play par golf. Always.

"I regret that we cannot grant a wish so beyond the realm of credibility... It's against union regulations. I can offer you a substitute. The golf you will play from now until dusk tomorrow will be composed of the best shots that you have ever made. You will make those lucky shots again."

With that the world darkened, George hears music and the golf ball was gone.He climbs back up and drops the ball on the fairway, where he once hit it right into the hole for an eagle, way back in 1931. Sure enough, the balls whistles straight to the green and into the hole. Thinking about it, George comes to the conclusion that after playing eighteen holes for twenty-six years, even "a dub" will get a few breaks a few times a year. He goes back to the clubhouse and does some figuring. If he compiled a score using his all-time best shots for each hole at Elmwood, he would hit fifty-eight, eighteen holes under par. He quickly calls Bert and challenges him to a game the following morning, even taking a smaller handicap and wagering a hundred dollars a stroke. Bert agrees and on the following morning the round begins

George plays exactly as the "golf immortals" promised, to Burt's initial surprise and eventual amazement. George's newfound skills increasingly cause Bert to begin to screw up his own game, and by the time they reach the eighteenth tee, George figures his betting proceeds to be in the neighborhood of seventy-seven hundred dollars. Then, as he hits a drive from the fairway, he repeats a shot he had long forgotten about...

"Hole in None" is a whimsical piece that reads like one of the lighter episodes of The Twilight Zone -- "Mr. Bevis," say, or perhaps "Cavender is Coming." It's fairly amusing, surprises nicely at the end and is almost unrecognizable as a JDM work. MacDonald would refine these little pieces over the years and he eventually filled the pages of This Week with stories of this ilk, albeit without the fantasy element. 

Whether or not one would consider this tale to be one of JDM's science fiction stories -- Martin H. Greenberg did not, since it's missing from his listing in the back of Other Times, Other Worlds -- depends on the reader. The story has been anthologized only once, in the ultra-rare 1949 collection titled Best Stories from Liberty, edited by D.E. Wheeler.

1 comment:

  1. Finally got around to reading this after getting the magazine a couple days ago. It is more fantasy than science fiction; but that's true of quite a few of the stories on the OTOW list. It's also arguably one of his sports stories; while even I know enough about golf to follow the story the cadences of the middle part struck me as probably more meaningful to somebody who plays the game.

    I did have one problem that threw me my first time reading it: I know a Bert who looks at least slightly like the protagonist's picture. So I kept wanting our hero to be Bert, not Mr. Fingerhaver. I had to read very carefully to make the story make sense.

    Still, a fun addition to the collection that I'm glad to know about. Thank you again for pointing these stories out to me.