In essence, Adam Sandler’s outrageous character in the film easily showcases the joy and frustration most golfers go through during a round. In golf, your objective is simple: put the little white ball into the hole. You have fourteen clubs of assorted lengths and club trajectories in order to do so. Just smack the ball straight and you’ll have no problem.
To someone who has never played before, it may seem this simple. But to someone who’s stepped on a course or a driving range just once, toss that all out. For all its mind-numbing simplicity, golf is the hardest sport you can play. Just one minute change in your swing can spell the difference between hitting a bomb down the fairway (safe space) and hooking it into the woods, forcing you to hopelessly dig around for that tiny little ball.
This past Saturday, I spent a lot of time in the woods. Not on a nature hike, but because I was playing golf and couldn’t figure out how to hit the ball straight. For four hours, I found a way to hit the ball into the woods (and lose said ball) on almost every one of the eighteen holes. One hole was particularly traumatizing, a hole where five strokes is average. Here are the gruesome details, in shot-by-shot form:
- Spray first ball right into the woods. Dig around in the woods for five minutes before giving up and using a new one.
- Drop ball back on grass. Hit the ball, ball hits tree and ricochets back into the woods. Spend a few more minutes to find that one.
- Throw ball into middle of fairway (aka safe zone). Hit the ball into the woods on the left this time, as it felt like it wasn’t able to join in on the fun. Abandon ball and any more opportunities to lose another in the woods on the hole. Near tears (I wish I was kidding).
It’s not like I’m a golf novice, either. I’ve been playing for about ten years, which is nothing compared to some, but has led to significant improvement in my game. But golf is so difficult for so many reasons that it’s hard to begin explaining.
There’s the obvious physical difficulty of the game: training oneself to master the movement of an artificial extension of one’s body. The arc of your swing, the position of your hands on your club, the position of your hands at impact of the ball, the angle of your arms as you swing through the ball, making sure the club travels straight so you don’t slice (spin it way left) or hook (spin it way right). These are just a few of the countless moving parts that make up a golf swing. On top of all that is how one deals with the golf course.
Even though you’re golfing with others, every shot you hit will be uniquely yours and only yours. The ball may be sitting low in the long grass while a friend’s ball sat on the top of the grass, forcing you to hack with all your might just to hit forty yards to get in better position. Perhaps your ball is sitting below a large tree branch, making it impossible to hit a full swing. Maybe you’re stuck in a sand trap, with a lot of difficulty hitting it out. And once you’ve finally navigated the majority of the hole, you have to putt the ball into the hole. A three hundred yard drive counts the same as a three foot putt!
All of this contributes to quite the mental challenge. Golf is a notoriously finicky game. That is to say, the outstanding way you struck the ball on Tuesday could be all for naught on Wednesday, when you can’t seem to hit the ball in the direction you’re aiming.
That’s why you see so many commercials, books and television programs on how to improve your game. With so many parts to fix, it often feels like you’re flooded with the best technique to add distance to your shots, boost control or finally flex your mental prowess. You also see tons of advertisements that claim the same with new sets of clubs and balls that will cost you hundreds of dollars. Some of it is hogwash, some of it isn’t, but it’s a lot to mull over.
After my round of 96 strokes on Saturday (72 is par, which is the average number of strokes needed to complete the course by an expert), I was exasperated. Crazily enough, I was also excited to get back out there. With my game in more shambles than usual, it took all my mental fortitude to be patient, laugh it off and focus on the next shot, as there’s no one else but yourself to do so. That kind of challenge is unique because golf’s constant ups and downs force one to be consistently patient, often to the point of exhaustion. This is one of the biggest reasons I like playing golf (and often hate it), much like my obsession with another mental sport, tennis.
The last, and perhaps best way I can explain the mental challenge of golf is through a video of former NBA all-star Charles Barkley. Charles was an amazing athlete in his prime, including being a good golfer. He once had a great, smooth golf swing and averaged ten strokes over par–pretty solid. Then that all changed. Here’s a clip of what his swing became, with a great reaction to it all at the end. While an extreme example, this is what golf can do to you.
So as I continue to improve, have good days and bad, and experience the occasional club throw, I’ll tell myself that I hate golf–but I love it too.