A Year In The Life

One year ago today I hit a golf ball for the first time. Since then I’ve hit 20,000 more.

Every day for the past 365 days I’ve played golf, practiced it, watched it, read about it, or thought about it. When I haven’t been outdoors hitting balls, I’ve been rolling them across the purple putting green of my living room rug. My instructor calls it the most acute case of golf obsession he’s ever seen.

Every five or 10 years a new sport takes hold of me and I throw myself into it completely, attain a sort of superficial mastery, and then go into a holding period until a new one comes along. There is, after all, so much to do on this short day of frost and sun that is our time on earth. Following my badminton burnout some five years ago, I’d been playing tennis but without a fire in the belly. That I was ripe for a new challenge wasn’t a surprise to me, but I’d never have guessed it would be golf.

Regular readers may remember a post I did last year about learning to golf on a super high-tech simulator on the sportswear floor at Brooks Brothers. On more than one occasion somebody has seen me there and said, “Are you that blogger who learned to golf here?”

I owe so much to Brooks and the guys from Golf Manhattan who run the simulator, which can play back your swing in super-slow motion to reveal every minute fault in your technique. Most of the guys I see at the range seem to have no clue what they’re doing wrong. Golf is the greatest physical and mental challenge mankind has ever devised, and you’re not going to get very far trying to figure it out yourself.

In addition to Brooks, where I’ve been able to get free instruction and hit balls in inclement weather, check out this perfect storm of serendipity. It’s as if the stars aligned and spelled out the words “Thou shalt play golf”:

• My girlfriend plays, so no resentment from my significant other when I disappear for six hours. She’s right there with me.

• My first winter after starting golf was a mild one with no snow, so I wasn’t forced to stop playing. If it was above 35 degrees, I was out hitting balls.

• A flexible schedule allows me to devote the time necessary for regular practice.

• I take a gig at a magazine whose office is four blocks from Brooks, allowing me to hit balls twice a day, at lunch time and after work.

• The Flushing Meadows par-three “pitch and putt” is right off the 7 train, where you can play 18 holes cheaply and quickly and work on the all-important short game. Think of all the golfers who don’t have such a great, convenient practice spot.

• There are over half a dozen affordable municipal golf courses right here in New York City. Who’d have guessed?

• I take a new apartment that’s a 15-minute bike ride to the Randall’s Island Golf Center, and finally….

• … this same apartment turns out to be two blocks away from my golf instructor, who just so happens to not need his car this season as he’s not commuting to the Westchester country club where he worked last year. He agrees to lend me his car whenever I need it, thereby eliminating the punitive $100 Zip Car fees that were the biggest financial obstacle to regular play.

Thanks to all of this, the past six weeks or so have brought a tremendous acceleration in performance, though the ghosts of faults past still linger. I’ve made several big changes in fundamentals that have made the good shots better but the bad ones worse. It’s as if the more correct your swing becomes, the more the one thing that’s off messes everything up. Having addressed every part of my body and 50 aspects of the swing, I’ve finally found the culprit of all my frustration: my right elbow. More than ever I feel like there’s a battle going on between my ever-evolving and improving new swing, which is close to correct but counter-intuitive, and the old swing, which is wrong yet comes out naturally.

But despite the struggles there’s been a constant flow of new benchmarks. Each time I go out, even if the round as a whole doesn’t go well, I seem to pull off something new: holing a bunker shot, getting on the green in two at 400 yards, making my first birdie on a par four, or making the most pars in a round (seven, for a score of +5 over 12 holes; unfortunately the other six holes didn’t go so well).

The most satisfying accomplishment came a few weeks ago, when, after previously hovering around +10 on the Flushing Meadows par-three course, I played an even round. I was in the zone, and when you’re there you feel like you can do no wrong. Maybe it helped that I was playing with a philosophy professor; lively conversation probably kept me from overthinking my golf swing.

Golf is certainly the most philosophical sport, and therein lies much of its appeal for me. It’s also an absolute feast for anyone with a sharp appreciation for tragicomic irony. Golf is the only sport where you can suffer the humiliation of nailing your girlfriend in the back (done that), and then bouncing one off a tree and into the hole (haven’t done that one yet), and both seem not only a normal part of the game, but somehow inevitable.

And I love the solitary man vs. nature/man vs. himself aspect of golf. Yesterday at 5 o’clock I went to my nearest course, Kissena Park, and was able to play alone. In the final rays of twilight, when the place is all but deserted save for a couple of other lone souls who pass you with a silent nod, the fireflies come out and with them the primal adventure of this this crazy game man invented to test his skill against the wilds of forest, rock, water and sand, overcoming obstacles external and internal in the quest to send a little white ball 500 yards into a four-inch hole within five strokes. I was the last golfer to emerge from the gloaming and head towards the empty parking lot, smiling at having made it through another round and come through all the struggle with deeper understanding.

“It takes a special kind of person to play golf,” one of the Golf Manhattan guys told me one day. It’s just too hard for most people. But maybe some day the stars will align for you too, at some point in your life when you least expect it, and you’ll rise to this great challenge and learn a lot about yourself in the process. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

56 Comments on "A Year In The Life"

  1. Bricktop Polford | July 13, 2012 at 10:44 am |

    The great thing about golf is that once in a while you have that moment of brilliance and hit a great shot and know that Woods, Nicklaus, Hogan or Snead couldn’t have done it better. They string great shots together like Christmas lights, but mortals rounds have mainly dead bulbs. That’s what drags you back.

  2. Johnny Reb | July 13, 2012 at 10:47 am |

    What do you regularly shoot on a real course?

  3. Very well written love letter to golf. You make golf sound so poetic!

  4. Johnny, it’s still wildly up and down at this stage, but my best day was +15 for 17 holes, unfortunately a quadruple bogey made it +19 for the full round.

    On a different day, over my best 12 holes, as I mention in the post, I was +5. It’s still really tough to hold it together for an entire round. But the scores are falling fast. Ask me again in six months. Or six weeks.

  5. Christain
    Bogie golf is excellent for a beginner, even with quality instruction. You will learn that improvement in skill will be in a series of steep curves and long plateaus. I’ve played golf for over forty years and excelled in every sport I ever participated in, but golf is the most difficult of all, to do well. Golf teaches humility.

    A girlfriend that plays golf, BONUS!

  6. Golf as the most philosophical sport is debatable. Fly fishing, equestrian eventing, and backcountry skiing provide me with a more meaningful understanding of yourself, man, and nature than golf ever has. Admittedly, I’ve not dedicated the time and energy to golf that I have to the others.

  7. That should say myself. I wrote it to apply more generally at first, but I think everyone has their own preference in philosophical/competitive sport category.

  8. I think being a golfer really suits you, Christian.

  9. LRD
    I agree, it’s personal, like women, every man has his different attractions. Every sport has it’s own amount of Zen, to different individuals, but alas we were talking Christian’s present infatuation with golf (and his luck of having a golf playing girlfriend). 😉

  10. Sherlock Holmes | July 13, 2012 at 1:23 pm |

    I surmise from the photo, that Chistian does not belong to a country club. Obviously, after a round, his clubs would have been cleaned and shoes polished while he took refreshment in the men’s grill.

  11. Johnny Reb | July 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm |

    What an impressive deduction Sherlock! You must be a true genius. Why do you think he plays at public golf courses?

  12. MeMyselfandI | July 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm |

    So you flit from a sport to another sport without ever really mastering it, a bit like how you approach style?

  13. Christian | July 13, 2012 at 3:05 pm |

    I’d like to take up skiing at some point and learn to sail if the stars align right.

    And the only style one need master is one’s own.

  14. Johnny Reb
    It was my “sock puppet” attempt at humor,sorry. That and get Christian or someone else to comment on NY publinks.

    Christian what stix are you swinging?

  15. I enjoyed the article, but I also found it hilarious. I am an avid, competitive distance runner and as such read about it a lot, and all of the grandiose superlatives Christian uses for golf are the same ones used when runners talk about running. I could have sworn that he had copied and pasted from an essay I had read recently and just replaced running with golf every time. Not saying that either are wrong, but I think its incredible that these different activities can lead people to this same wonderful feeling, and how we all insist that it is our activity which provides that transcendence better than any other. Thanks for making my day! I’m going to go for a run now.

  16. You are striking it a bit toward the toe, son.

  17. You mean the hosel, dad.

  18. A couple of thoughts on skiing.

    First, it is expensive. Second, it cannot be acquired casually: you will need lessons. Third, if you can go to a slope that bans snowboarding, by all means, go there! Snowboarding and skiing are incompatible on the same mountain; they co-exist uneasily at best, and all too often, antagonistically.

    Skiing is a wonderful sport. Let us know when you decide to give it a try (and stay off the double black diamond slopes your first year).

  19. Roy R. Platt | July 13, 2012 at 8:25 pm |

    If you haven’t already, you might want to watch the 2005 film, “The Greatest Game Ever Played”.

  20. The sport played in heaven – rugby. Golf is an effete sport and a waste of a good training run.

  21. Stainless | July 14, 2012 at 4:07 am |

    @ GI Zhou

    Why does it have to be a competition between the 2 (or any other sporst)?

    Growing up in Scotland, my friends and i always had either a rugby ball, a football (soccer for any colonists) or a golf ball on the go. As well as tennis, squash or badminton rackets.

    It is allowable to enjoy more than one sport… variety is the spice of life.

  22. Golf courses make great condos.

  23. Are there any ski hills that don’t allow snowboarding anymore? Around here, the kids all board and their parents and grandparents ski. If you want the family together, you have to go to a place that allows both. All the places here finally gave in and allow boarding in order to stay in business.

    Re golf: Before I gave it up, we took a friend of our son’s with us to a local “executive” course. His parents belonged to the fanciest club in town. He’d taken lots of lessons and had a beautiful swing. But their course was too challenging for a beginner and so he’d never played, and had no idea about chipping or putting. It was sad, really.

  24. Curmudgeon | July 14, 2012 at 8:08 am |

    Is there anybody else out there who follows this blog religiously because he’s interested in ivy style, not in tobogganing, tiddlywinks, or hopscotch?

  25. @AggieK: The only hills left in North America that remain skiers-only are Mad River Glen, Alta, and possibly Deer Valley. Taos gave in 2 years ago, I believe.

  26. Religious is a pretty strong word. This blog is about Ivy history, availability and what is and has been in our closets. Well, those things and Christian’s exciting NYC life style. Although, I’d like Christian to show a little humility and admit that his awesome golf playing girlfriend kicks his ass on the links.

    Seriously, Christian has a well rounded, interesting Ivy blog. What’s not to like?

  27. Christian | July 14, 2012 at 8:44 am |

    @MAC

    I don’t understand the point Curmudgeon was trying to make.

    As for stix, I play the Callaway Razr irons; Taylormade Superfast driver, fairway wood and hybrid; Titleist lob wedge; and Odyssey putter.

  28. AggieK
    That is sad, in both cases. It’s unfortunate for that young beginning golfer. Many exclusive clubs provide youth with instruction, but not actual playing time, they are trumped by adults members. I had the same problem as a youth on military bases, service members trumped dependents regardless of recreational pursuit. Evidently, golf fulfilled the PE requirements for fighter pilots.

  29. Christian
    You have newer clubs than I, but very good choices. I swing Taylormade Big Bertha driver and three wood, full set of Callaway X-18 irons, and a very old Acushnet Bulls Eye putter. The beauty of it, is that if you find a set that works for you, it’s a one time expense, unless they get stolen or get old like me and can’t swing shotgun barreled shafts with old fashioned forged blades anymore.

  30. Christian | July 14, 2012 at 9:38 am |

    I’m by no means an equipment snob, and my choices were all very practical. I chose the Callaway Razr irons simply because I was hitting with them so often at Brooks Brothers I thought I might as well be playing with the same clubs. I got them used on eBay in excellent condition.

    I had Big Bertha driver and fairway woods, too, but they had the Taylormades at Golf Manhattan and I couldn’t believe the extra distance I got from the very first swing. My girlfriend, too. Has to do with their lightness or balance or something, but I just swing them much faster. We went out the next day and got them.

    The Titleist lob wedge was recommended by my instructor.

    I only recently got the putter, a fairly recent model. Until then I’d been using the one I got when I first started, which I thrifted for $8.

    I agree that there’s no reason to change unless your swing requires it. Since I don’t yet swing super fast, I’ve got regular-flex graphite shafts. No sense in changing equipment until it’s time for steel down the road (if ever).

    Golf is a big industry that works hard to convince you to buy new clubs every year.

  31. Bill Stephenson | July 14, 2012 at 10:25 am |

    Also a great way to try out clothing choices, such as plus 4s, that you couldn’t otherwise get away with.

  32. Chistian
    From your choices, I never thought you were a equipment snob. Those equipment snobs, always chasing the holy grail, allow us to purchase great equipment at affordable prices. I to purchased my Callaway irons used from a guy, that purchases new clubs what seems like monthly. It was a perfect, my old Wilson Staffs had been stolen, which was OK, I was beginning to struggle with them, too much club for my age. As I was shopping and demo-ing a new set of Callaways, my golf pro friend turned me on to the “snob” looking for the new thing, I’m sure the pro put him away on the new set.

    The golf industry markets just like the camera and electronic industries, some might say the fashion industry, planned obsolescence.

  33. Bill Stephenson
    I actually own a pair of Ralph’s in baby blue linen. Unfortunately, I’m not Payne Stuart, God rest his soul, and my golf buddies refused to play with me after the about the third time I wore them, losers. So, the plus 4s have been relegated to the period croquet lawn party my old friends have been giving for years, as has the boater I’ve had since high school.

  34. “Golf courses and cemeteries–the two biggest wastes of real estate!”
    -Al Czervik, “Caddyshack”

    J/K. Love the game…and you’re spot on with the “solitary man vs. nature/man vs. himself aspect of golf.” You learn a lot about yourself when you’re out there alone, battling only the course and yourself. Flashes of brilliance and despair come and go in no predictable order, leaving you excited to see what happens next time out. Enjoy it, Christian.

  35. Johnny Reb | July 14, 2012 at 12:32 pm |

    Deer Valley is a ski-only mountain. So is Alta. I may be biased, but I’ve skied everywhere in the US and I’d say Utah is the best.

  36. Curmudgeon | July 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm |

    MAC:

    Adv. 1. religiously – by religion; “religiously inspired art”
    sacredly

    2. religiously – with extreme conscientiousness; “he came religiously every morning at 8 o’clock”

  37. Crumudgeon

    I get your drift, as in habit (oh shit!, a religious term), no offence was intended.

  38. I think Curmudgeon is saying he doesn’t like to read about sports (etc.) on a blog ostensibly about Ivy Style.

    Too bad for Curmudgeon. Judging by Christian’s enthusiasm for golf, as well as his catholic tastes (shoot! another religious term), I’m afraid he’s going to have to put up with quite a few more non-clothing-related posts, as well as those that are only marginally about Ivy League style.

  39. If you want authentic “Trad ” golf, my brother plays golf with our late grandpa’s post-war golf clubs, and I am not referring to the Second World War. he also wears tweed on the golf course when the weather is cool enough.

  40. I been playing golf for 45 years. I currently play Callaway 2009 X-forged irons, a diablo driver and Walter Hagen fairway woods bought on sale for $ 10 each, and an Odessey putter.

    Because I’m older, no “fitter” would advise me on forged irons with extra stiff shafts. Only for the better golfer. Nonsense! My game improved dramatically when I replaced my Callaway X-12’s. I still have them, and it is unbelievable how chunky and awkward they are in comparison to the x-forged. For me, the forged are straight as an arrow.

    Go forged! Today, I only played 9, and scored a 38 with one birdie. The round also included one double bogey.

    Pipe smoking also is a natural for golf. So is walking instead of riding.

  41. Wiggles
    I got to ask, your Callaway X forged irons still have a slightly hollow back don’t they? I mean, they are not like the old forged Wilson Staff Tour Blades, I once had, that look like 1950s clubs. I imagine, your old X-12s preceded my forged X-18s, which are hollow backed like Pings, but not as extreme. I love the X-18s, can’t hit them as far as the old Tour Blades, but more control at 60. I was just curious.

    I love the aroma of a pipe, reminds me of my grand father. Congratulations on your great day on the links, I on the other hand have been painting my house, poor poor pitiful me. How’s that for 60 year old whine?

  42. Dickey Greenleaf | July 14, 2012 at 8:38 pm |

    “We said that happiness is not a habit or trained faculty. If it were, it would be within the reach of a man who slept all his days and lived the life of a vegetable, or of a man who met with the greatest misfortunes. As we cannot accept this conclusion we must place happiness in some exercise of faculty, as we cannot accept this conclusion we said before. But as the excercise of faculty desirable in themselves, it is evident that happiness must be placed among those that are desirable in themselves, and not among those that are desirable for the sake of something else: for happiness lacks nothing; it is sufficient in itself…: Aristotle.

  43. Boston Bean | July 14, 2012 at 9:24 pm |

    My Old New England grandfather told me that the sport of gentlemen was walking.

  44. @MAC

    Thanks for the congratulations!

    The X-forged are slightly hollow back. They very much play like the old stuff. I still play regularly with 1969 Haig Ultras with the aluminum shafts. The Haigs are the equivalent to the Wilson Staffs. In fact, I played yesterday’s game with the Haigs and the matching stratobloc woods. Just a good day playing with a good friend. Usually I’m in the mid 40’s for 9 holes. My game varies from on extreme to another. But I have to say that the x-forged improved my game tremendously. I have many more sub 40 nines and sub 80 eighteens than I ever did.

    The stainless cast X-12’s are much bigger and awkward than the Ping’s I own. I own a set of Karsten 2’s from 1976, and they are much smaller than the x-12’s. The Karsten’s play somewhat like blades, but I have a tendency to pull shots, probably due to the fact I don’t play them that much.

    The x-12’s are extremely huge and very offset. I didn’t realize the X-18’s are forged. From what I’ve heard, they’re very good clubs, not much offset and smaller than my X-12’s.

    Finish the painting, my friend, and get out and play golf, whenever you can. Time passes too quickly. Cheers!

  45. Forgot to mention. I own a half set of antique hickory shaft clubs that I play a couple times a year. Add strokes for lack of distance and mis-hits. I’ve read that many guys play them exclusively. I feel that once someone got as proficient with hickories as with their regular clubs, their scores would not suffer too greatly.

    Something the golf manufacturer’s don’t want you to know.

  46. Business has taken me to Louisville, and I’ve worked in a few visits to Louisville Golf. They’re happy to custom make clubs.

    Amazing selection of used/refurbished clubs in their warehouse. I picked up a second driver.

    The website is fine, but you gotta see this place to believe it.

  47. With a dog and your wife by your side Boston Bean.

  48. Dickey Greenleaf | July 15, 2012 at 7:26 pm |

    Wow………

  49. Dickey Greenleaf | July 15, 2012 at 8:00 pm |

    I guess I don’t have any input after all, we’ve all made typing errors at some point in our lives, and grammatical errors as well, but that’s no reason to judge someone, and ban them from you’re blog just because you think they’re stupid. Also, if you don’t type really fast on your responses, your site will call it spam, so maybe I’ve made some typing mistakes and grammer mistakes because of this feature on your website. Come on man, I’ve apologized to you several occasions about you’re taste in dialogue, conversation, etc. and it hasn’t been pleasant being rejected, I’m really supportive of you, and hope you find some humane aspect in this.

  50. Boston Bean | July 15, 2012 at 9:13 pm |

    @GI Zhou

    “With a dog and your wife by your side…”

    Precisely!

  51. And are you reading Wodehouse’s golf stories?

  52. I’m not, though I’ve seen several times the “Jeeves and Wooster” episode where Bertie golfs. What are the stories?

  53. Most are set in a country club on Long Island and narrated by the Oldest Member. They’re not as heavenly as Jeeves and Wooster or Blandings, but still very good. He gets the tension between golf and tennis (horrors!) members and the importance of golf playing mate.

  54. The wiki says that it’s not clear where they are set, but it always seemed to me that it’s Long Island: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldest_Member

  55. oobopshbam | July 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |

    wise words…

  56. OK, tonight I got it nailed down, just a few weeks late of the one-year mark. It wasn’t my elbow (before that I thought it was my wrists, and before that my right thumb and forefinger, so used to squeezing from badminton).

    Working my way up, the elbow was extending because my right shoulder was throwing across rather than down, which was happening because my head wasn’t still and behind the ball enough, which was because I wasn’t maintaining the spine angle.

    So after one year of constant practice and 20,000 balls, if I were helping a beginner I’d say concentrate on your spine angle.

    Well, that and the hundred other things…

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