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On Par: The Everyday Golfer's Survival Guide


They say golf is like life, but don’t believe them.

Golf is more complicated than that.

—Gardner Dickinson, longtime American tour pro

I BEGAN PLAYING golf seriously after college and was soon invited to an upscale private country club in Connecticut. As a former caddie, I knew how to dress the part and how to act, but my game was barely suitable for a dusty municipal course, let alone one of the more challenging layouts in the Northeast.

So, it was not a surprise that by the third hole I found myself in the deep rough a few feet behind a slender tree. I tried to chip out to the fairway but instead hammered my ball directly into the trunk of the tree before me. The ball ricocheted backward and struck me square in the forehead.

I hadn’t hit the ball very hard, so I was mostly dazed by the impact. And, like many a beginner, I was frustrated. With an exasperated “That’s unbelievable,” I casually tossed the pitching wedge I was holding backward over my head. I didn’t fling it; I just lofted it in the air.

The club lodged in the low-lying limbs of a pine tree about 10 feet off the ground.

Now this was getting embarrassing.

Fortunately, my hosts at the club—nice people, but they were my elders and they certainly expected me to behave—were busy on the opposite side of the fairway looking for an errant shot in the woods. No one had seen my clown act. I was alone and unnoticed on my side of the hole.

I quickly grabbed another club from my bag, and since the tree branch with the pitching wedge was almost close enough to touch, I tossed the second club at the wedge, hoping to knock it free.

If you play golf, you know what happened next. The second club caught in the tree, too.

Now, with great haste, I drove my golf cart under the tree limb and stood on the back of the cart so I could shake the branch with one hand as I smacked it with a third club held in my other hand. It was at this moment that the cart with my gracious hosts pulled up beside me.

And there I was, well dressed and well mannered, except I was standing on a golf cart using both hands to extricate not one but two of my golf clubs that had somehow ended up suspended in a tree.

I turned and tried to smile.

“What’s that big red welt on your forehead?” one of my hosts asked.

“I hit myself with my ball,” I answered.

You might wonder how an early golf day like that could have led to the next two decades of (mostly) happy golfing. I admit, at that moment, it’s not what I would have predicted.

But then, I didn’t expect my hosts to break out laughing. I didn’t expect to laugh, too, trying to explain myself. And I did not expect them to then recount their own stories of golf misfortune, stories that might not have ended up with them shaking a tree for mislaid clubs but were nonetheless in the category of “the things this game will make you do.”

So it was at that moment, perhaps for the first time, that I felt like a golfer.

Does being a golfer mean enduring clumsy embarrassment? Well, yes, it does sometimes, but that wasn’t the point. Being a golfer is to join a tribe with an elaborate set of tenets and canons, one with its own mores and protocols and no definable mission other than to chase a little ball into a hole.

It is a silly game, somewhat childish, a good walk spoiled, as Mark Twain said. It is all those things. So why do we love this game?

The allure of golf is its simplicity, which leads to a thousand complexities. It is sophisticated because it is subtle. It is perfect because it is wholly and forever imperfect.

I once asked David Duval, the 2001 British Open champion, what makes golf so difficult and yet so appealing. He said, “It’s all the time to think between shots.”

I asked the great Phil Mickelson the same question and he said, “It’s all the choices you have.”

I asked Jack Nicklaus and he replied, “Because you must master so many elements, including yourself.”

I asked the golf commentator and author David Feherty and he said, “Because it’s a ridiculous game and it’s our fault for playing it.”

I was tempted to ask Feherty if he had ever lost two clubs in a tree on one hole but realized it wasn’t necessary. He would understand.

This is a book that speaks to both the exultant and troubled souls of golfers everywhere, men and women like me who are transfixed by the game and long to understand it. Golf is an endeavor of hope, fear, disappointment, glee, perseverance, abandonment, unrelenting gratification and unexpected reward, certain punishment, integrity, cheating, camaraderie, isolation, technology, and oneness with nature, all governed by a stifling set of ancient rules frequently undone by an unseen yet officially recognized karma called “rub of the green.”

We, the golf tribe, take our golf with eyes wide open—the better to let tears of frustration and of joy flow freely.

I have played golf seriously for the last thirty years and have covered and written about the game throughout that time as well. For the last several years, I have written a weekly golf column in the New York Times called “On Par,” which has let me come face-to-face with all the simplicities and complexities of golf in its many arenas. But newspaper columns are brief. A book allows us to examine golf’s length and breadth, to propose and ponder solutions to the seemingly unsolvable. Because golf is much more than the quest to master the actual game. Golf transports the player to a foreign land and culture with its own set of mores and protocols. It is a world with quizzical and ever-changing weaponry and settings of great beauty but treacherous hazards.

Golf is often likened to a battle of self, a crucible of temptation and honor, and it is, but even that seems an understatement since golf means learning to deal with maddening playing partners, changing weather conditions, astonishing inequities, and ugly clothes, not the least of which is hopelessly goofy shoes.

Then there are the basic steps of learning the game and the behemoth of golf instruction. Everything about this helpful community of teachers is inherently confusing, which might explain why there are several hundred theories on the correct way to learn golf and another thousand theories on how to get better at it. The reality is that the golfing indoctrination never truly ends. The game even has its own ever-evolving language.

And yet, there is no more dedicated tribe than golfers. If they are not exactly the definition of contentment, they are hearty and resolute. If love means never having to say you’re sorry, then golf means never having to say you’re satisfied.

Why do golfers say that it never rains on the golf course? Because even when it does, there is nowhere else they would rather be. Why do few serious golfers quit the game? Because they are convinced they are one keen golf tip, or one discerning golf book, away from learning the secret to good golf for good. Why do presidents of the United States play golf? Because it makes running the free world seem easy.

In the pages that follow, I will lead every golfer on the path to golf fulfillment. Do you believe that?

No? Thank goodness, because there is no fulfillment in golf. We might treat it like one but golf is not a religion; it is a game. However, there are golf canons and principles. There is golf enlightenment and golf secrets, too. There are golf commandments. There are saints, or at least really nice, helpful people. There are golf gods. There is a golf promised land, if not many promised lands. And there is surely golf hell, again, in multiple forms.

But perhaps most central to being a golfer is something truly indispensable: the belief, even the conviction, that you will get better.

Just as fundamental: the ability to distort reality so you will likely get better or at least have fun trying.

Let’s examine each.

1. The belief or conviction that you will get better

Golf is so routinely humiliating that if we didn’t know we were going to improve, it’s doubtful we could press on. “One of the real truths about golf is that even the best players in the world sometimes shake with terror and wonder if they will ever hit the ball straight again in their entire life,” Lee Trevino said. “I’m serious. I’ve stood over the ball and prayed that the clubface would find the ball at all. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world.”

Annika Sorenstam once told me she wondered—in the middle of several competitive rounds—if she could get the ball airborne. “I would hit a couple of shots that just squirted away across the ground,” she said. “As a professional, you would think those shots would never happen again, but they do. I took whatever club I thought would get the ball anywhere up in the air. That was my entire goal. I think it was a 7-iron. It wasn’t the right club to reach the green; I just wanted to see the ball in the air for a change.”

But in these dark depths, even the best players, who in struggling moments like these have fallen farther and lost far more touch than the average beleaguered player, nonetheless were resolute in their belief that they would get better.

“I feel sorry for the people who give up golf because it’s too hard,” Trevino said. “They miss the exhilaration of getting it right, even if for just an hour or a day or week. And that exhilaration is not just watching the physical turnaround, like the ball soaring in the sky and dancing on the green. They miss the feeling of knowing they refused to give up and hung in there long enough to make the turnaround happen. That’s golf, too, proving you can do it.”

Said Sorenstam: “People say golf is unforgiving but it’s not. Golf can be unkind, yes, but golf rewards those who persevere. If you stick with it, when you might least suspect it, golf can suddenly be very generous. Does any golfer really think that eighteenth-hole birdie or that last beautiful drive or iron shot is an accident? How often after your worst holes do you play your best golf? Golf has mercy.”

It is the nature of all golfers to believe the elusive secret of golf awaits around the next dogleg. That’s not true, but some clues to the secret unquestionably lie in our path every time we pick up a club. Because great shots can and do appear like magic, golfers are imbued early on with the sense that the same magic lingers on the golf course—eager to return on the same whim with which it exited. Which is, in fact, likely. That is the happenstance part of golf, which is more real than it may sound.

But it is also an elemental truth for every golfer that he or she has executed several, probably hundreds, of indisputably great golf shots. That is the basis for the steadfast conviction that we will all get better. The experience, sensation, and impression of a good shot are so primitively nourishing that all bad shots, however unremitting, turn into annoying but seemingly unrelated interludes—nothing more than long pauses between good shots.

That is golf.

2. The ability to distort reality so you will likely get better or at least have fun trying

I once surveyed dozens of top golf teachers on an unusual subject: What does the typical everyday recreational golfer do well?

We talk about what we do wrong all the time, so I was wondering what we do right, you know, what are we good at?

The first thing golf pros mentioned was how good a game average golfers talk after a round. Which is another way of saying we talk about our good shots and purge from memory most of the bad ones.

“The most endearing thing about the average golfer is the ability to see the good in a shot that may not have brought a good result,” John Elliott Jr., a top-ranked teacher, said. “People say, ‘I hit it good; it was just a bad lie.’ Or ‘It was heading right for the fairway until it hit that little tree limb.’

“In fact, they probably shouldn’t have hit it anywhere near that tree but they see the positive. Average golfers think they are far better than they really are. And that’s really important because golf is a hard game and you need confidence or you’re sunk. Average golfers seem to get this instinctively. Listen to them at the nineteenth hole. Their golf games are just great there.”

This is no random observation. Another top teacher, Don Hurter, who is based near Denver, said a golfer who lacks the capacity to overrate his or her game rarely progresses.

“I see it with promising junior golfers,” Hurter said. “Everybody plays badly some of the time, but the golfers who see their mistakes more than their accomplishments end up finding this game just too hard to enjoy. Some of the best golfers in the history of the game almost went out of their way to find excuses for bad shots.”

It is said that Jack Nicklaus in his prime would have a rationale for any shot that did not succeed exactly as planned. The rationale never came around to Nicklaus having a moment of ineptitude.

“I stood next to Jack during tournaments and watched him out-and-out shank the ball out of bounds,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning sportswriter told me years ago. “But when I asked him about it afterward, he would say, ‘Well, actually I was trying to cut the ball left to right and it was a little on a side hill and I just overdid it and it went too left-to-right.’ Or he might say the lie was bad and he was trying something else risky.

“I wanted to say, ‘Jack, I was there. You just missed it—you hit it on the hosel of the club.’ But I knew that in his mind, he always had a good plan and sometimes it just didn’t work out. In his mind, there were rarely truly awful shots, just awful outcomes.”

There is power in this way of thinking, and successful, happy golfers use it all the time. It’s a philosophy that spills over into how we play. Why do we have scramble tournaments? So many poor shots won’t count. Same thing in match play, and in many gambling games, like skins games or Nassaus. Lose the front nine? You can make up for it on the back nine. You can double bets when down two holes. Hit it into the bunker? So what? Get up and down in two and you win money for a sandie.

We rationalize the difficulties of golf in so many ways because we must.

Sean Foley, a Canadian pro who teaches in Florida and who has tutored many PGA Tour pros including Tiger Woods, tells many of his recreational students to ignore the scorecard altogether.

“People focus on the course rated par,” Foley said. “That’s a number set for what a pro is supposed to shoot. I tell my students, ‘Today, the first hole isn’t a par 4 like it says on the scorecard, it’s a par 6. And the next hole isn’t a par 5, it’s a par 7.’

“So you know what happens? Some guy makes a 5 on the first hole and instead of feeling like a failure who made bogey, he strides to the next tee feeling great because he made birdie. Next hole he makes a par-saving putt for a 7 and again he feels good. That gets him confident and pumped up and you know what? He starts slamming the ball right down the middle because he’s swinging easy and self-assured instead of tense and disappointed. He starts making real pars—4s and 3s—because his frame of mind is positive.

“That’s a real experiment that I’ve tried a hundred times and it works almost every time. It improves every level of golfer.”

It is not really about distorting reality; it’s about creating a new one.

Most golfers should practice this kind of mental gymnastics. Yes, you hit a 100-yard wedge poorly and left yourself 35 feet from the hole, but you’re still putting for birdie. Yes, you missed the green altogether, but it’s a chance to prove that your chipping practice in the backyard will pay off. Yes, you hit one into the woods, but hey, maybe you’ll find some lost golf balls. OK, it’s your fourth time in the woods today and you don’t need any more dirty, muddy found golf balls. But look at it this way: You haven’t had to reapply the sunscreen.

It is in this spirit of kinship that I give you the following chapters, which are meant not only to examine and illuminate golf in all its variety, but to make sure no golfer ever wanders alone. Golf’s perplexities and befuddlements are our strength, our badge of honor. We share them, and this book embraces them.

I have played golf with Tiger Woods, hit balls with Trevino, been schooled in the game by Sorenstam. I have also played golf with people named Scooter, Lulu, and Hopsy, folks I ran into during an idle Thursday afternoon playing a quick nine holes. You can learn a lot playing golf with someone named Hopsy, or Tiger. It’s all part of the journey. And like the ebb and flow of eighteen holes, it is about the journey. In the succeeding pages, let me tell you what I have learned. It will make you laugh and I promise it won’t hurt. Or at least not too much.

Speaking of things that sting, three years and many golf lessons after my initial outing at that swanky private Connecticut club, I was invited back to play the course again. I would like to say that I birdied that third hole where I had my misadventure in the trees, but golf is a game of integrity, so I won’t fib. My hosts were the same as they had been years earlier, and we spent several minutes laughing our way down the third fairway recalling our previous visit.

But there’s the news. I was in the fairway.

Still, standing there, I absent-mindedly rubbed my forehead. What a game.

On Par: The Everyday Golfer's Survival Guide
by by Bill Pennington

  • Genres: Sports
  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0547548443
  • ISBN-13: 9780547548449