Just over two years ago, I bought a new set of golf clubs. It was the first set I’d gotten since my freshman year of college, back when pleated khakis were acceptable going-out attire. The clubs were custom-fitted and had what their designers termed a “speed pocket,” which promised to help me hit the ball farther and straighter and higher than I’d ever dreamed. In theory, this was a purchase that would improve my golf game.
Instead, it’s sent me into the most extended slump of my life.
Most Sundays, I play with my dad and his friends, a group of seven or eight guys I have by 40 years and who I can hit it past by 80 yards. Somehow, I still slink home with a deflated wallet.
I can grit through the payoffs, and I’ve grown accustomed to the embarrassment. What I can’t handle is the inadequacy. I am tired of feeling inadequate. Most golfers experience this at some point, but it’s become my default headspace. I stand over a shot, I look at my target, and I’m just…lost. How is my golf ball going to get from here to there? It’s never good when your swing thought is, “There’s just no way.”
Initially, these struggles weren’t due to lack of effort. Just after the purchase, I spent the high season caddying at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, meaning I had free access to a world-class practice facility. And I was there frequently, praying the guests I was looping for weren’t present to see me shootin’ chili peppers in Lee Janzen’s direction.
Since I returned to the real world and started working a real-world job, my practice time has predictably diminished, and that’s done me no favors. That said, when I do make it to the range, I hit it OK, better than I did in Oregon, which tells me it’s more than physical deficiencies that are sustaining this nosedive.
That leaves the psychological realm—the realm in which I often find myself flailing. At the forefront has always been a lack of confidence. I’ve never been able to swing a club with authority, to get out of my way and allow any physical skills I might have to take over. Everything is an effort, and every shot feels as if it’s prelude to disaster—which means it inevitably is. This self-doubt has proven crippling, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m convinced it’s not at the root of my slump. There’s something else at play.
Golf has always been more than a game to me. Dating back to the first putt I stroked as a teenager to win a practice-green Masters, it was never enough for me to play for the fun of it; I wanted to play for something more. And in 2003, I tried to do just that. Quitting my corporate America job, I went to work in a country club bag room for playing privileges and waited tables to pay the rent. On some level, I hoped I’d one day compete professionally. But mostly, I wanted to give myself the chance to see how good I could become, and whatever that led to, I’d figure it out.
After two years, though, I had to stop. I was tired—of cleaning carts, of sweating every $5 trip to McDonald’s, of seeing my scores remain in the black. I couldn’t handle it emotionally. The weight was just too great.
Strangely, my failure didn’t lessen the sport’s importance. Even though I was retreating to the more traditional working world, I knew I wasn’t giving up. I was just giving myself a break, and at some point, I’d resume the pursuit to some degree. And while that hasn’t happened yet, I haven’t lost hope. Because while I now write for a living, succeeding at golf remains my dream.
That’s a lot to put on something, and in my twisted way, it’s caused me to transform the game from a recreational activity into this do-or-die epic, a measuring stick for my self-worth, a referendum on my life’s progress.
Growing up, my parents encouraged me to follow my dreams. And whenever I dreamed of doing so, I understood there were two potential outcomes: they’d come true, or they wouldn’t.
In regards to golf, that meant I’d either play professionally, or I’d end up with a job title other than “PGA Tour player.” This was the “what” of the equation, as in what could happen. And while I recognized the negative possibilities, I managed to relegate them to a hidden corner of my psyche, out of my field of vision.
But as I began my actual pursuit, the aspect that haunted me, the one I couldn’t escape was the “why”—why would one outcome prevail over the other?
I knew of the standard ingredients for success—discipline and dedication, hard work, perseverance, and grit. But I realized that all those factors would be rendered meaningless by a potential reality I wasn’t sure I could face:
Not being good enough.
That’s the part nobody talks about, the part of following your dreams that’s obscured by all the “You can do anything you set your mind to” rhetoric. What if you can’t do it? What if you work hard and fight through adversity and do everything you possibly can, and you just can’t do it? What then? Where do you go from there?
These are questions I’ve never wanted the answers to. And while sitting still and not doing anything is the obvious way to avoid them, I’ve resorted to a more duplicitous approach.
Whenever I step on the golf course, I hedge my bet by holding something back. I don’t leave it all out there, and I don’t give 110 percent, and I don’t live up to any other sports cliche you can think of. My gas pedal remains a millimeter above the metal.
For 17 years, I achieved this by playing the same set of irons. Golf equipment is like computers; use a club for a season and it’s already been surpassed by a superior version. Performance-wise, hitting shots with my late-90s irons in 2013 was like checking Prodigy email on a Compaq desktop.
A normal person would consider this a problem; I saw it as an emotional loophole. As long as my clubs were subpar, I had an excuse as to why my golf scores were not. Even when I played well, I could flip it around to inspire hope: Just think how good I could be if I had better equipment! It was a ridiculous mind game, locking me into this middle ground of naivety and fantasy. I could go after my goals while still shielding myself from the harshest of outcomes. How could I know if my best was enough if I never truly tried my best? It’s a rare instance where ignorance was more powerful (delusional?) than knowledge.
To be clear, it’s not that I didn’t try hard, and it’s not that I failed to take responsibility for my shortcomings. I always did both. If anything, I struggled too hard, and I internalized too much, and I latched onto this strategy for protection. Think of it as a cushion for my skull as I banged it against the wall of failure.
As an obsessed Texas Longhorns fan, it reminds me of my experience of the 2010 national championship game against Alabama, when Colt McCoy got knocked out early in the first quarter. The loss of my team’s starting quarterback was devastating, but after the disappointment wore off, I relaxed. The (imaginary sports) stress I’d been feeling disappeared. How could they be expected to beat the No. 1 team without their best player? What better excuse was there than that? And when the Horns did eventually come up short, I was sheltered from the reality that my team wasn’t good enough, comforted by the unending certainty of, “What if?”
The irony, of course, is that missing their best player minimized Texas’ chances of winning, just as holding back anything with my golf is stymieing potential success. But for whatever reason, that truth takes a backseat to blissful ignorance. The second my new golf clubs went in the bag, my safety net was pulled, and I’ve been on my own ever since. Playing the same irons as the guys on TV, any discrepancy in our scorecards falls squarely on my head. And I’m not handling it well.
This slump has been so demoralizing at times that I’ve questioned why I continue to play. But thankfully, that pity train derails, and the spirit and fortitude and Pollyanna outlook instilled by my parents reasserts itself. I don’t really dream of playing professionally anymore, but I’d still love to compete on the amateur level. I’d still love to see how good I can get.
Working toward that, I’ve shifted my focus to things I can control, like keeping a positive attitude and visualizing positive shots. I recently took a lesson so that my time on the range is devoted to practicing the proper technique. Though the struggle continues, I’m confident this is going to work. I’m confident that if I do the right things long enough and hard enough that everything’s going to get better. That I am going to get better.
And if I don’t, I can at least take solace in the fact that, with equipment technology advancing as quickly as it is, it won’t be much longer until it’s time for me to not buy a new set of clubs.
Photo: Flickr/ Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce