“Golf is a puzzle without an answer. I’ve played the game for 50 years and I still haven’t the slightest idea of how to play.”
– Gary Player, Golfer
Fickle is not a word I use often. But golf is a fickle sport.
Is it a sport? Of course it is. I get the argument but if it’s on ESPN and the athletes are on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it’s a damn sport. Can we stop this debate? It’s also in the Olympics now which means diving is just as much a sport as table tennis or the canoe sprint. Darts, on the other hand, I’m willing to have a debate on.
It’s funny how golf works. When you’re a kid, you watch your dad or your uncle or your grandpa sit on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, reclined, half-asleep, watching guys in bright collared shirts read a putt for thirty minutes while Jim Nantz whispers into the microphone about the grain of the grass. You wonder to yourself “How in the hell can people find this entertaining?”
“Golf is so boring,” you say.
Then suddenly something shifts. You hate it the first few times you play because – as is natural – you suck. Then you start improving – just a incy wincy bit. Little by little, you improve that one chip shot you couldn’t seem to hit properly, you sink a long putt, or you lick an iron dead-straight off the tee. Something in you says, “I think I can figure this game out.“
My grandpa used to abide by The Rule of Ten. You’ll hit nine God-awful shots, but it’s that tenth shot that keeps you coming back. Every round of golf has at least one of those shots. The shot that gives you hope that maybe I’m getting better at this… maybe I have some potential… if I just keep working at it.
Then four decades later, you’re still working at it…
That’s what great about the game. Even the pros hit terrible shots, curse themselves, and get frustrated. It’s not as common in a sport like a basketball, for example. Sure, guys might throw an airball or miss a layup, but it’s not a gigantic misfortune like slicing it into the woods or chunking it into the water. The shame and humiliation of missing a two-foot birdie putt, let alone the consquences, is far more mortifying.
“Golf and sex are about the only things you can enjoy without being good at.“
-Jimmy Dimaret, Golfer
It takes a certain patience. Brute athleticism, grit, or mental toughness alone won’t get you very far in golf. What’s needed is a particularly neutral, consistent approach coupled with an attitude of commitment and acceptance. In football it’s speed, strength, agility and hand eye coordination. In golf it’s focus, consistency, touch, and a little bit of torque. You have to be able to stay present more than you ever have. Basketball requires one to be fiercely athletic in one moment and in the next moment, to hit a calm, cool, and precise shot with touch. With golf, there is no dichotomy like that. Every shot requires stillness, focus, and consumes all your attention. The mind is much more porous to outside thoughts or sensory overload. There’s nothing to distract you, yet everything to distract you.
The ball is just sitting there, waiting to be hit straight and far. Then, the self-talk starts. Alright, keep your feet shoulder-width apart, arms straight, ball in the middle of the stance, head down (you forgot that on the last shot), weight a little forward, front arm straight, keep the back elbow tucked close to my body, don’t hinge the wrist too much, transfer my weight from the back foot to the front, keep the midsection tight, swivel the hips forward, don’t sway, eye on the ball, keep your head down, swing down into the ball, swing through. Don’t forget, head down!‘
Then your buddy yells to you “Hey make sure you keep your back straight!”
SHIT I forgot about that one.
“Golf is the only game I know of that actually gets harder the longer you play it.“
-Bobby Jones, Golfer
After five minutes of searching for your lost ball, you have ten more things to remember for your next shot. Will you hit it straight? Top it again? Or slice it like you did on the first hole? Your guess is as good a mine. You try to correct your swing as you learn. “I’ll get a lesson someday,” you say. It’s frustrating yet at the same time, so much fun. There aren’t many sports like it in that regard. It requires such a unique set of mental and physical assets. I call them assets rather than skills for a reason. I think the things needed to be a good golfer are assets you acquire throughout your years rather than skills you can bring naturally.
- You need to be powerful and straight with the Driver, using your legs as a source of power to set yourself up in the fairway. You also must be straight and consistent, less you’ll end up in the woods or the tall grass.
- You need to hit your long irons with incredible accuracy off the fairway or out of the thick grass. It’s easy to hook or slice these if your swing isn’t consistent on each stroke.
- You need to hit your short irons with the correct yardage to get you on or around the green. If you mess up the yardage, you may fly it over the green, hit it into the water, land it on the cart path, come up short, or land in the sand trap.
- You need the ability to blast the ball out of a sand trap with a ferocity and softness that seem impossible to master.
- You need rhythm and touch with your wedges for shots under 100 yards. This will set you up with a good putt depending on your ability to hit high loft shots or low bump and run shots. This takes years of practice. It also takes strategy and creativity as there are many different ways to approach each shot.
- You need the ability to roll the ball in or close to the hole with your putter with the grace of a bocce ball or shuffleboard contestant.
You can do things exactly the same each and every shot and get ten different results. It’s infuriating. Every time I step up to the tee, I do the same pre-shot ritual, the same swing thoughts and the ball strike feels the same – yet one time it will go dead straight and the next time it will hook 70 yards into the woods. I don’t get it. It’s not like that when I shoot free throws in basketball – ten times out of ten I will at least hit the rim.
“One minute you’re bleeding. The next minute you’re hemorrhaging. The next minute you’re painting the Mona Lisa.”
-Mac O’Grady, Golfer
Then there’s the weather. Like football, the weather changes everything. Your strategy, the way you have to think about the competition, the physical exhaustion and the mental wear and tear. You may have a 120-yard shot that you’d normally take out a Pitching Wedge for. But if there’s a 40mph wind in your face, you have to figure out which club will even make it that far in the wind and how low you can flight the ball to keep it under the wind. Rain effects the greens and how fast the ball will roll. It also effects the sand and how your club face makes contact with the ball.
Carts are fun, and they may be the best part of the game (or least infuriating, really). You can throw a cooler with beers, waters, sandwiches in the back, or play music from a speaker (if you’re one of those people). That’s where all the gossip happens with your partner. Although when walking a course, you can truly appreciate the course and also understand how tiring it can be. Walking allows you to think with the course more. It may sound weird but you can understand the course better when you’re able to feel it with your feet. The uphills, downhills, undulations, tall grass, roots, shoots, and greens. Walking allows you the time and patience to reflect on what you’re doing wrong and how you need to correct those things on your next shot. You can think through your approach, how the ball will roll, how the wind is moving, and how your body is moving that particular day.
Golf is the ultimate test of patience. The ability to focus minutely on the task, but not to focus too much. You need to trust your rhythm, your process and your athletic ability to hit the ball far and straight. You need to have the feel in your hands to hit the delicate touch shots, not to hit it too far or too hard, you need it to roll just right. Only it’s not in our hands, it’s in a piece of iron.
It’s a motherfucker of a game and I curse the sportevery time I play. But god damn am I hooked.
“We learn so many things from golf—how to suffer, for instance.”
-Bruce Lansky, Author