I practically lived on my local public course when I was a teenager. I worked there to earn money to play there and I had a set of good golfing friends with whom I played every day, usually more than 18 holes. I met my wife on the same course and her father tolerated me mostly because I liked golf. By the end of high school, however, I was burnt out. My last year on the high school golf team was a disappointing one and my game wasn’t getting any better. I was frustrated much of the time when I was playing and so I went off to college and forgot about it. I would play once a year in the summer with my wife and in-laws, but that was it.
But I remembered how I felt on those very early spring mornings when I would go to a local par 3 course in Gambier, Ohio and play in the melting snow and relish every shot and how excited I was when I got my first set of Hogan blades and persimmons for $50. Before that, I had used borrowed ladies’ clubs from one of my mother’s friends. In some ways, golf saved me in those days. I was a moody 13 year old who had been forced to leave all my friends behind and moved to a strange small town in Ohio and then watched as my parents’ marriage fell apart. Everywhere else I was miserable- but whacking my Acushnet ball around those simple one-shotters was pure joy.
So when I returned to playing golf regularly over 30 years later, I told myself I would not let golf become a miserable chore again, but rather try and keep it that simple and wonderful game that it was in those early years. I am in my early sixties now and playing the best golf of my life, but I hear the footsteps behind me and watch my older friends struggle to maintain their affection for a game that is increasingly more difficult for them to play well. My time is coming. Yet I am pretty sure I will enjoy golf for as long as I can physically play it, especially if I am able to still walk the course. So here is some unsolicited advice about how to keep golf enjoyable. It won’t work for everyone, no advice does, but maybe it will help you think about how to find your own way to keep coming back to the links.
1. It’s Not About the Score
I like to play well and I get mad at myself when I hit bad shots. But golf is essentially about walking and thinking. It’s a contemplative game and sometimes it’s a social game and getting angry and frustrated ruins of all these things which make golf enjoyable. So when I am playing well, I try not to focus too hard and to enjoy the round. It’s hard not to think about where you might end up, but when I think ahead too much, it usually brings bad results. If I’m playing poorly, I try to enjoy the other aspects of the game- my friends, the views of the river, the late afternoon light on Pete Dye’s nasty moguls. I also use bad rounds to practice new kinds of shots or make changes to my swing. This allows almost every hole to be a new round- and we all know if you finish strong you feel good about the day even if the score wasn’t so great. In fact, I am making changes to my golf swing all the time and sometimes it is watching the results of these changes or tinkering with parts of my swing that make the game enjoyable. I don’t practice much- I like to play golf. Because I don’t practice and because I change swings and irons and putters and wedges with some frequency, I know I will never be “as good as I can be.” On the other hand, I have become a much better golfer by having this attitude. I can live with that paradox.
2. Stay Connected with the Game
Discovering links golf has contributed enormously to my love for, and appreciation of, the game. On a links course you hit the ball, walk a bit and hit it again. Try doing that sometime. I mean, REALLY try just doing that. It changes everything. No drawn out, melodramatic pre-shot routines, no searching electronic devices for exact yardages, no walking a round a putt from twenty angles. Try to just make a solid swing that moves the ball towards the green. Remember that golf is a game and see your clubs as toys. Play. Go out with no woods in your bag and try to tee off with a long iron on every hole. Putt with your sand wedge. Find an old set of blades and persimmon woods and put them in a pencil bag and go walk the course on a bad day in November. Making the game even harder can be liberating and great fun. I know, “but golf is hard enough.” What I mean by making the game harder is letting go of expectations. When you play in a 20mph wind with occasional rain when its in the upper 40s only an idiot would expect to play well. That’s why you’re more likely to have fun and bond with the band of brothers or sisters who have chosen to brave the elements at your side.
3. Always Be Trying to Get Better
I know, this sounds like I am contradicting what I said above. But I do go home after a round like so many golfers and work through the round, trying to figure out where it went wrong. On the course, if I am going consistently left with my irons, I try swing changes to correct it. Sometimes they work and I have a much better back 9. As my playing partners will confirm, when I have a bad front, I also go to the 10th tee and say “OK, I just have to shoot a 33 to break 80.” I know it won’t happen, but I also know it could happen and it allows me to set a goal and work hard to finish the round better than I started it. When you “give up” on a round, it shouldn’t be so you can sulk the rest of the day, it should be so you can forget about score and just enjoy playing with your friends and trying out new things. Usually, when you relax your game will get better and you will end the day in a much better frame of mind. Easier said than done, I know.
4. Play Golf Like You Would Play Jazz
I am not a musician, so I will apologize in advance if this metaphor seems uninformed. When I think of jazz, I think of improvisation. Change and creativity is the goal, not perfection. Perhaps classical musicians are more likely to strive to play a piece “perfectly” or as the composer intended it.
Professional golfers are mostly classical musicians, using this distinction. With the help of their coaches, they groove a swing that is repeatable and will always produce the exact same result (in theory) each time they do it. Perfection. Maybe that is why so few of them look like they are enjoying themselves. Too many amateurs take the same approach to golf. Maybe that’s a mistake. Make your game a constant work in progress and let it mellow with age. Strive to be Coltrane, not Bach.
5. Don’t Play Like a Pro!
For the vast majority of professional golfers, golf requires constant practice and a team of coaches, caddies, trainers and shrinks to keep them at the top of their game. Does that really sound like fun to you? Even someone like Bubba Watson, who does play golf like a jazz musician most of the time, spends way too much time whining about why his shot didn’t go where it was supposed to or yelling at people for taking pictures with their phones. (No offense Bubba, I love to watch you hit the ball.) The pre-shot routines of many pros are getting distinctly painful to watch, suggesting deep-seated psychological doubts that need constant attention. Many look like they just don’t ever want to actually hit the ball for fear that something terrible will happen. We weekend warriors should relish the near certainty that something terrible will most certainly happen several times a round and, if we are lucky, it will be so terrible as to merit retelling over clubhouse beers for years to come. Golf is a game for amateurs- don’t spoil a good walk!
6. Enjoy the mental game
Some golfers simplify the game by trying to hit every drive as far as they can. Or always going for what my friend Doug calls the “hero shot.” There is something to be said for this style of playing. If you give yourself over to it genuinely and completely, you can have a lot of fun. But most of us can’t do that. When our long drives slice out of bounds or our hero shots fall into the water in front of the green and the double-bogeys and triple-bogeys start adding up, we get discouraged and throw our clubs and vow never to play this stupid game again. Golf is far from a stupid game, but it can be played in a very stupid manner.
We all know the term course management. Course management involves thinking your way around the course, playing to avoid high numbers and relishing the opportunities for reasonable risk-reward shots that may get you a birdie or save a par. Even when your swing is less than stellar, knowing that you played intelligently is a very satisfying part of the game. When your swing is feeling good, take a few more risks, when it’s not play smart.