The Painful Life Lessons of Golf

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Just hit the ball

“The Zen philosopher Basho once said, a flute with no holes is not a flute, and a doughnut with no holes is a danish.” – Chevy Chase, Caddyshack

Golf is a guilty pleasure that puts me at odds with one of my heroes, George Carlin. Carlin had a famous bit where he refers to golf courses and cemeteries as the two biggest wastes of space on Earth. His argument was that golf is a game for the rich and that the space could be better used.

Possibly. But efficient use of real estate aside, an examination of the game itself reveals a challenging endeavor that can teach you a lot about life. On the surface, the main life lesson seems to be “you suck, and should probably just give up.” But because I’m stubborn and don’t know when to quit (even when my partner turns to me and says “you should probably quit”), I have ascertained the following life lessons from the game of golf, which I share with you, free of charge.

First of all, while expensive equipment is nice, it doesn’t make you good. You can buy all the stuff that the greatest golfers in the world use, but if you don’t practice, you are in for 18 holes of pure, soul-crushing hell. To be good, or at least passable, you need to take hundreds of practice swings on the practice tee. You need to practice your short game. You need to practice putting. No short cuts, no excuses. You can dress like Tiger Woods, but you’ll still play like Ron Wood (note: I have no idea what Ron Wood’s handicap is, but I suspect he’s a much better guitar player than he is a golfer).

The next thing you’ll find is that even if you practice diligently, once you step onto the course, every shot is an adventure. There are things on the course that you don’t encounter during practice. Like all the goddam trees. And the rough. Rough left there by some vindictive greenskeeper who was too hung over to bother mowing it that morning. Grass so long that you’ll think you’re on a PT boat trip 20 clicks outside Da Nang with Martin Sheen and Laurence Fishburne on a quest to locate Marlon Brando. So, just as in life, your aspirations are often thwarted by the lazy and the drunk. And trees. And possibly Charlie.

If you manage to find your ball without getting napalmed by Robert Duvall, you will find the next similarity between golf and life: no matter where you go, there you are. No matter how crappy your lie, you’re not supposed to move your ball. Sure, you can cheat, but you’ll know it and the stroke you save will still be there. There may be one less tick on your scorecard, but you still cheated. And if there’s a God in heaven, that knowledge will eat away at you until you awake, screaming, in a pool of your own sweat and call me to apologize for cheating. Pardon me, I think I’m projecting. Suffice it to say, that in golf, as in life, cheating only hurts you.

Lastly, if you stick with it, you may discover the great Zen moment of golf. Every shot, like every breath, is a single moment in time completely independent yet strangely connected to every other moment. The ball is just lying there in the grass waiting for you to hit it. How it got there is no longer of any consequence. The only truth that remains is that you must either continue to play or give up.

Continuing to play is not always easy. Particularly, if you’re taking your sixth shot in a sand trap or carefully lining up your third putt. It can be embarrassing. Every shot can be loaded with shame, fear or guilt. However, if you forget about keeping score, forget about the equipment, forget about that useless excuse of a greenskeeper and, most importantly, forget about all the bad shots that came before and focus on what’s in front of you…well, occasionally you’ll get one of those gorgeous lofting shots that drops just a few feet from the pin. And that makes it all worth it.

Until the putt rims out.

“I don’t play golf for money…against people.” – Chevy Chase, Caddyshack

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