Identity Crisis: Or how the way we play defines who we are
It’s a two-plus hour drive from Dundee, a bit north of the River Tay and St. Andrews, to my home in Kelso near the border with England. And yet, as my friend and I made our way along the southbound A90 after teaming up in an open competition earlier this week at Downfield Golf Club, neither of us felt compelled to cue some music on the car stereo to distract us from what had just transpired.
Instead we talked: About our lackluster play that day, about our ups and downs with the game over the years and our belief—or at least a persistent hope—that more links glory still awaits us somewhere down the fairway.
Simply put, the round left both us a bit disillusioned. But that’s not to say we were delusional. As we rapidly approach our 60s, neither of us expects to play the game at the same level of proficiency we enjoyed in our 20s. Yet, there remains a baseline of performance that, we are certain, is still within our grasp. And every time—like on that day—the minimum standard slips through our fingers, we feel the failure. Our psyches are wounded on some deep, fundamental and ultimately inexpressible level.
Golf’s Eternal Question
Yet, here I am, attempting to express it.
I’ve certainly been thinking about this a lot lately, as my game has continued to flounder. But, truth be told, it’s a dynamic that’s been in play almost from the moment I took up the game, hit a good shot and then followed it up with a bad one. If we can do it once, we tell ourselves, why can’t we do it every time? It’s the game’s eternal question that has yet to be resolved with a definitive answer. Instead, we exist in the gap between what’s possible and what we actually experience, a space that at times (like the open competition in question) can feel as cavernous as the Grand Canyon.
Unlike that natural wonder, however, we can’t rely on a string of metaphorical pack mules to extricate us from this predicament. To play golf with passion and commitment is to willingly and knowingly place ourselves in a precarious mental and emotional place. On a good day, when we get swept away by that magical phenomenon known as “the flow,” we manage to rise above the quagmire. But, far more often, we struggle and flail away, only sinking deeper with each flawed stroke.
Now, we can try to ease the pain by telling ourselves that “it’s just a game.” But folks like us are not so easily duped. We know that, in the end, our very identities are at stake—intertwined with how well we strike a small dimpled ball with an oddly shaped metal implement toward a ridiculously small hole cut amid a vast expanse of green.
For non-golfers, this is insanity. And perhaps they are right. But for people like my friend and me who had the misfortune to fall down this particular rabbit hole at an impressionable age, it is reality—or at least a virtual version that is as all-encompassing to us as water is to fish.
Moving Toward Peace
So here we are. I’ve acknowledged the problem—which, it’s been said, is the first step to solving it. Although, in this context, I seriously doubt the “solution” means eliminating all disappointment. But can we at least tip the scales from incompetence to competence, from frustration to satisfaction, from turmoil to an inner peace? We’ll never fully get there on the golf course, any more than we will off of it. But I have to believe it’s possible to move in that direction. Otherwise, I might as well just admit I’m a masochist and be done with it.
Alternatively, one step down this path could well involve professional guidance. My friend recommended a teaching pro at the club in his hometown. There’s a reasonable chance that a fresh set of eyes, especially well trained ones, will spot flaws in my set-up or swinging motion that—given my decades of bias—I can’t see or feel for myself. What do I have to lose?
Another step would be to adjust my expectations. I’m a member of the Shivas Irons Society, a group formed by fans of Michael Murphy’s cult classic Golf in the Kingdom. At the start of the golf season, they sent me an orange rubber bracelet emblazoned with the acronym “FOEGB.” It stands for one of the game’s many tenets, as espoused by the story’s mysterious Scottish golf pro: “Fuck our ever getting better.” I acknowledge the wisdom in that, Shivas. But I’m not ready to go there. Not just yet.
Another step would be to quit the game. So simple. Just step back from the ledge. But after more than 40 years of fighting the good fight, I’m not about to fool myself into thinking that’s ever going to happen. See water and fish analogy above.
Nope. I must soldier on. One way or another. And I can take comfort in knowing I am not alone on this trail of tears and double bogies. Better days are waiting for me, just around the next dogleg.