Par For The Course – Therein Lies Madness

20161222_094934For those living on the precipice of madness, I cannot recommend the game of golf, for it will surely push you into the abyss. Only those firmly rooted in self awareness should make any serious attempts at mastering the sport.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying (paraphrasing) that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ He probably didn’t say that but the notion is a good one. A corollary to that maxim might be ‘doing the same thing over and over again and getting different results may drive you insane.’

And that sums up golf pretty well. Swinging a three and half foot long club in an attempt to propel an inch and half diameter ball in such a way to cause it to move a significant distance through the air in a direction close to intended and in a repeatable fashion is maddening. Even after you have learned and somewhat mastered (a relative term, to be sure) the key elements of the golf swing, making that ball do what you want is a very dicey proposition. You may think you are recreating the swing that just deposited the ball on the green on the last hole, but no. This time it flies off on a wholly unintended path, leaving you utterly perplexed and exasperated.

I’m vain enough to think I can play golf reasonably well despite not engaging the sport in any significant manner for most of my adult life. It was just two years ago that I took up the game seriously. Prior to that, I called myself a tennis player, if anything. Tennis is a sport I got pretty good at, especially on an intellectual level. I know the game and have taught others to play with some success. Tennis, like other sports where the idea is to hit something and make that something go where you want it to (baseball is another), requires hand-eye coordination and an awareness of what your body is doing. You can’t reliably hit a topspin backhand unless you know what your racket hand, your feet, your torso and the ball are doing in time and space. Although the golf ball is not moving when you strike it, the speed of the clubhead at impact and the relatively small area of contact ‘sweetspot’ make hitting a driver every bit as challenging as that backhand, or hitting a curveball. It requires precision of movement, something gained only through experience and repetition. I was convinced that my tennis skills would translate well to golf. Not so much, as it turns out.

The main issue is that, unlike with a tennis racket, I have no good way of knowing what I am doing with a golf club during a swing, at least not well enough to self-diagnose problems. It is very hard to know how you are presenting the clubface to a golf ball at impact, what the swing path through the impact zone is and whether you have hit the sweet spot. The last part is probably the easiest – if you hit off center, you can feel it. But not as well as with a tennis racket. Video helps, as does engaging an instructor.

Case in point. Last week, I played my ‘home’ course. It’s just a 9-hole, par 3 and 4 course but it’s actually quite challenging. Most of the holes are veritable death traps with only small target areas where you can hope to score well. Hitting the ball outside those areas often results in disaster. I’ve played the course many times, so I know where to hit the ball on each hole. Easier said than done. On one short par 3, a smooth lofted iron will put you on the green. Birdie or par is yours for the taking. Easy peasy, right? But if you hit it slightly left, long or right, well, you’ll be lucky to escape with double bogie. It’s an elevated green and the terrain around the green is horrible. After numerous adventures trying to get the ball on the green on my second shot – usually unsuccessfully – I’ve taken to not even trying for the green off the tee. Hitting short of the green and hoping for a good chip and putt for par is the way to go. Other holes are similarly treacherous.

My goal is to shoot less than bogie for the round. It’s a par 31 course so that means less than 40. On a recent Monday, I had a great round but managed just 40, which was still my best. I played well, for me anyway. Energized by that round, I played again on Wednesday, convinced I had a good shot at 39. Nope. Despite feeling good about my game, I played horribly. Couldn’t hit a thing and was constantly in the deep rough, which is brutal at this course. I actually ended up hurting my left arm from all the shots out of deep grass and quit after seven holes, a million over par. What a disappointment. Makes you think there’s no use trying to get better.

After staying away from the game so my arm could recover, I return to the home course a week later and shoot a cool 37. All through the round, I felt no different with my swing and actually was more than a bit worried about when disaster would return. Almost every shot I expected to shank into the trees. Nope. I even made a birdie on one hole, a rare thing for me.

It’s maddening, I tell you. It’s as if there’s no skill involved – it’s all luck, the mood of the gods, phase of the moon, whatever.

Tennis never did this to me.