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.


In Search of My Golf Ball

I’ve joked a few times on various social media that the Rules for Retirement require men to take up golf, if they haven’t already. I don’t know what it says for women – I was only issued the men’s version the rulebook. Being a solidly pro-rulebook, upstanding member of polite society, after I told my boss (and the entire company by email) to take this job and …. well, you know, I dusted off my twenty-plus year old set of Arnold Palmer irons and moseyed over to the local golf course to see what I could do.

I had played before, which is why I had the clubs already. But despite living literally within walking distance of a very nice nine-hole, city-owned golf course for the past eighteen years, I had not swung any of the clubs in anger in all that time. Now was the time, according to the rules.

Golf is a sport (yes, it’s a sport – ignore John Daly’s waistline!) that requires quite a bit of skill to play decently enough to enjoy. Even though the little ball sits there propped up on its tee invitingly, unmoving, swinging a four foot stick with a minuscule flat surface on the end in such a way as to not only contact the ball but impel it more or less in the direction of the fairway is just not that easy. More likely you will whiff on the ball, duff it ten yards on the ground or send it on a trajectory towards that nice expensive Mercedes parked over there on the street. If you do manage to hit it a fair distance and keep it within the confines of the golf course, you’ll undoubtedly lose it in the trees. Golf balls are masters at hiding in the trees. This is why even those who can hit the ball fairly well still keep a second ball in their pocket when they go to tee off. Saves a trip back to the bag.

Me, I’m no different than the average schmuck who takes up the game. Possibly I have an advantage in that I’m a good tennis player, or I was at one time. Swinging a stick is something I already know how to do. That advantage has allowed me to at least enjoy the game from the get go. I can’t hit the ball very far but that also works to my advantage as the ball sometimes doesn’t make it to the tree line.

Still, I seemed to lose a lot of balls, sometimes even ones that apparently landed in the fairway. The problem was my eyesight. While my left eye is decent, my right eye was horrible. I kid you not – I could not even make out the big E at the top of the eye chart with that eye. Tracking an itty bitty golf ball more than a hundred yards was a challenge. A challenge I’d often lose.

You may notice I drifted into the past tense. That’s because I had cataract surgery on the right eye recently – replacing my natural lens with a new one that focuses at distance. Or so I’d hoped. Turns out it only gets me to about 20:35 or so. I still lose sight of the longer ball flights . So, it was on to step two: find a ball that can be seen more easily.

Golf balls are white, mostly. You’d think that a white sphere sitting on and in green and brown stuff would stand out. Turns out, not so much. There are times when I hit the ball in the middle of the fairway and couln’t see it until almost on top of it. If the sun is at an angle where you actually get reflections off leaves, damn near everything looks like a ball until you get close. Trying to find the thing in the rough, where it has sunk below grass top level, or in the trees (think small forest around here) is orders of magnitude harder.

I checked out the internet, the font of all wisdom and bullshit, to see if there was a ball that is more visible. I already had a few yellow and orange balls (yellow balls and orange balls, not yellow/orange balls. That would be weird.), but they didn’t work either. White balls are actually easier for me to see. But some people were saying that this new Volvik matte pink ball was the bees knees. All other balls have a gloss covering and pink apparently provided the best contrast against green & brown. So, I moseyed over to the local golf equipment purveyor and negotiated the purchase of a dozen.

And you know, they’re right. These things are amazingly visible, not only in the fairway, but also in the trees among all the leaves. I can still lose them if the ball hides itself under leaves but if any substantial part is showing, I’ll most likely see it. I love them. In fact, I’ve become a little obsessed with not losing one. Take yesterday, for example. As was my norm on the second hole of the local course, I hit my tee shot into the trees on the right (I’m taking lessons to stop this unfortunate habit). This is an area that is basically one of those small forests I mentioned, and given that it’s the time of year where the trees have just lost all their leaves, and given the area slopes downhill quite a bit making footing dicey, finding a ball is a matter of luck. But this was one of my prized, unloseable pink balls! I searched and searched for a long time, but with no luck, although I found two other balls. Mind you, there are other players on the course, so you’re really not supposed to take too long looking for a lost ball. I gave up and continued the round with a feeling of defeat.

I mentioned I was a little obsessed. After the round, later in the day, I came back to the course and continued the search. I found it! So, I can say that I did not lose one of my pink balls that day. So far, out of the dozen, I’ve lost two. One went into another small forest and despite going back to look after the round, it remains lost. The other is at the bottom of the swamp that runs through the course. I know where it is, I just am unwilling to wade in to find it. Mind you, that one ended up in the swamp on two successive shots. After the first, I saw it go in the water not far from solid ground, so I spent several minutes dredging the swamp with my seven iron and came up with it, and several other balls.

I hate losing golf balls.