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.
• 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