I’VE been wracking my brains for the best part of two weeks now and I’m still not 100 per cent sure. In just over a year I went from a handicap of 17 to 9, played thousands of shots and typed twice as many words and yet the biggest conundrum has been trying to decide what it all meant. Did it mean anything at all?
Golf, like any sport, has a capacity to reveal character in a way that is sometimes startling. Confronted by our own inadequacies there is no hiding place, even when there is no one else there to witness them.
Maybe I’m alone in these thoughts though I would guess not from watching so many different golfers over the last while. We all retain our own idea of perfection and how we can achieve it. If our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond all measure then our greatest weakness, at least for the average golfer, is the limitless nature of our own self-destructive thoughts.
A golf mind coach, Karl Morris, once sketched the thought process of a golfer having a bad day. In concentric circles, it begins with a bad shot that grows into an all-encompassing malady that sends his head pointing to the ground and his mind believing that he is not worthy to suck in the air around him. I have been that golfer. I have struck bad shots and quickly become a badly adjusted human being. I have cursed loudly on the course and cried painfully in the car afterwards. I have, at times, turned into the person I most despise. Golf brings you closer to your alter-ego then you ever could imagine.
Of course that is only partly true. In the struggle to put words to these thoughts, I have often neglected the positive ones. It is too easy to write about the dark stuff and paint a picture of myself that might evoke some sympathy. My alter-ego, the person I try to deny, wouldn’t have it any other way. Without that inner voice of doubt it wouldn’t be a challenge. Maybe I wouldn’t have the motivation to better myself without it. As much as I hate myself when I get angry, there’s nothing wrong with it so long as you accept it and move on. That’s the only truth that matters on the golf course.
All of which reminds me of another thing that Karl Morris said to me. “Anger is just emotion. E-motion (his emphasis on e) is just energy.” After that, it’s up to you how you channel it. You could, like one of Karl’s former clients, use that anger against yourself. Or, like the same client learned to do this year, use it as energy and let go of the negative connotations around it. If Darren Clarke could succeed in spite of himself and confound the opinions of others then humans really are more powerful than they imagined.
You might consider this a lot of effort just to begin my story but I’ve spent too long searching for perfection. If this article is flawed then that’s as it should be – my quest for a better golf game was not a quest to be flawless. It was about reducing the number of mistakes and ensuring that whatever mistakes I did make were made for the right reasons. In that sense golf taught me more than I ever could have imagined. And now, having achieved my goal to become a single handicap golfer, I realise what it was that I really wanted from all this.
Game. The ability to stand on any tee at any golf course and not feel inadequate. To stand up to a shot and know what to do. To feel comfortable in the company of other golfers. If that sounds strange then that makes two of us – I only realised all this the other day.
Wednesday afternoon at Ardglass, Co Down, on the east coast of Ireland, the Irish Sea was to my left, so close I could have jumped into it. It stretched down as far as the eye could see and the tee shot off the first was across some rocks, 150 yards of carry to the start of the fairway. Like all great links courses, it was intimidating to the eye. Unlike a lot of links courses, you could hear and see the water. In the annual Writer Cup, a Ryder Cup style event between two teams of eight journalists from Northern Ireland and the Republic, I was the first man off in the crucial singles matches on day two. Poised at 2-2 after the opening day fourballs, it was all to play for. I was the second lowest man in the field but I eager to prove the validity of my handicap.
I stood on that tee without any anxiety. No thoughts of hooking the ball into sea or topping it down into the rocks. I felt comfortable with the driver in my hands. The ball sailed off the middle of the clubface and landed in the fairway where I’d seen it landing in my head seconds earlier. There was no doubt in my mind before, during or after the shot.
12 months earlier, playing the same competition, I stood on the first tee at Lough Erne full of tension. At that stage I had worked my way down to a handicap of 12 but I was nervous about playing in front of my peers. I wasn’t sure of myself and felt out of my comfort zone. I still hit a decent drive and made a bogey on the hole but it was like an out of body experience. There was still a degree of separation between myself and who I appeared to be on the golf course.
And for a lot of my 27 years on this earth, I’ve often felt that way. In all kinds of different situations from school to college to work, there was a nagging sense that I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. When I reached the point, at about the age of 23 with my first real job, when that sense of separation began to fall away it was liberating. I stopped living in my head. It was like a cloud lifting.
And when I took up golf seriously that feeling came back to me – the cloud of doubt had returned. I was taking on a golf challenge but confronting myself in the process.
Because I’m still not completely comfortable in my own skin, at least not all the time. There are times when I feel like an outsider, an imposter in the world but I’ll always feel that way some of the time. Now I know to ignore my mind and plough on. It’s called living.
And now I know the same about golf. It’s called playing.
And when you can play it’s the most rewarding game in the world. I love it simply because it never stops challenging you. I love it because it humbles you and salutes you in equal measure.
You can smack a ball 300 yards and still not make par. You can top a ball in the fairway and still not lose a shot to the course. Golf is full of endless possibilities. No matter how much you practice, the game asks you to apply your skills in ways you could never have envisaged. It’s like an exam where you can’t rehearse the answers, just be sure of your knowledge. The test is how you apply it. Some days you’ll do well, others not so well. Learn from that and become better.
I don’t practice much anymore. The game is my practice. For a long time I lived at the driving range, spending hour after hour in bunkers, at chipping greens and putting greens. I was trying to achieve perfection a lot of the time but that’s not golf. I wasn’t preparing myself for the game and even though I got get better and shot enough good scores to get my handicap down to 12, I wasn’t really developing game.
That took much longer and could only come about with experience. Golf demands maturity in your decision making but once a decision is made, you must execute each shot with the fearlessness of youth. You must separate the mind and body but not completely. It’s a little like the swing itself – the lower body and upper body separate and for a brief moment there is a sense that they are completely apart at the top of the backswing but what happens next determines the outcome. How the two parts reconnect is crucial to the shot. That is why a good golfer must have rhythm.
In order to have game you must know when to engage the mind and when to make it quiet again. You must know when to let the body take over. Bad putting is usually caused by mistrust.
That lesson was hammered home to me while playing foursomes golf – where you play every second shot. It was one of the best pieces of training I ever did.
You’re playing for two people, instead of one, which forces you think more. The next shot is what matters so you have to make better decisions. You have to decide on the shot that leaves your partner in the best possible position if you happen to hit a bad one. You have to stop your partner making unnecessary mistakes and you have to listen when he is trying to stop you doing the same thing. Foursomes golf builds your character. I know because I didn’t always stop my partner making the mistakes that I could foresee and I didn’t always listen to him when he tried to stop me doing the same. Playing foursomes teaches you the importance of playing the shot in front of you. You cannot make amends for the previous shot if it put you in trouble. You cannot worry about making a meal of it just because your partner has put you in a great position.
Just because you hit a good shot doesn’t mean the next one will be good. Equally, just because you hit a bad one doesn’t mean the next one will be bad. Game is keeping grounded when you’re going well and relaxing when you’re going badly. Golf is often a game of opposites.
You can play well and score poorly and you play poorly and score well. It happened me lots of times – even in the round that took me to single figures.
That day, three weeks ago, I shot a gross 78 but I’ve done that score half a dozen times. There were good shots and bad shots in each one but they were rounds full of good decisions. It took me the best part of 12 months to realise that being a single figure handicap golfer is about keeping double-bogeys off the card rather than putting birdies on it. That’s game.
When you get in trouble, take one shot to get out of trouble. That’s game too. When you miss the green in regulation, make sure your next shot makes the putting surface. That’s some of the most important game you’ll ever have.
The day I made single figures, I had 12 pars and 6 bogeys. I kept out of trouble as much as possible and had a good day with the putter. Knowing that the real work of a round begins on the putting surface is huge. Until you putt, nothing has been decided. That’s why matchplay golf is such a great learning curve.
On the first at Ardglass, I hit a weak second and came up well short of the green. My chip was woeful, landing in some gorse and rocks above the green. My opponent was off the edge of the green in two. I stood about 10 foot above the green for my fourth, which was sloping away from me. The Irish Sea was far too visible.
My mind was clear though. I knew I just needed to pop the ball up and let gravity do the rest. It was a one in 100 shot but that’s all the odds you need sometimes. The chip worked, I holed a good putt and my opponent took three from the edge of the green for a half. I’ve never been happier on a golf course. To me that bogey summed up how much progress I’ve made at this game. I couldn’t have done that 14 months ago or even four months ago. Becoming a better golfer is as much about attitude as ability.
I’ve always had ability. We all have. And there is a limit on ability because not everyone can spend the same amount of time working on skills but anyone can have the right attitude. And when you have that the possibilities really are endless. I was able to go from a handicap of 17 to 9 because I learnt how to get up and down from the top of a rock.
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