Certainly you have experienced this feeling. If you are human, if you are equipped with a searching and hungry ego (and even if you think you aren’t– but then you’d be lying to yourself). Surely, if you have lived in society and not in a monastery your whole life, you have been discomfited in this way. An irritating seed of ambition niggles at your psyche like a raspberry pip in your teeth which your tongue can’t leave alone. This sprouting ambition, nebulous, nameless at first, doesn’t have a specific target, just the desire to achieve something not just remarkable but unlikely. Spurning more natural, inborn talents, this naive seed of ego casts about for a more remote even impossible option for greatness: an Everest, an Olympic Medal, or perhaps just breaking 100 in the game of golf.
In the summer of 2008, after a battle with cancer, as I labored to regain my physical strength, and vent the fighting spirit that cancer engenders, my husband, Ralph, took me golfing at Palmer Golf Course, Palmer Alaska. Strangely, in spite of the briefest of seasons for lush fairways and velvet putting greens, golf is a highly popular pastime in Alaska. According to the sales person who ushered me through the aisles of tees, gloves, hats, and golf shoes one Saturday, the Sports Authority in Anchorage is one of the chain’s highest sellers of golf equipment. With the long summer hours of daylight, Alaskans have the luxury of tee times well into the evening hours.
In pictures of those first few rounds, I look gaunt, slightly hunched over, a bundle of skin and bones sitting in the golf cart pretty much just along for the ride. As the summer progressed, the game got into my blood along with the strength to walk a full 18 holes. I would describe myself as a singer, a dancer, an artist, not the athletic type. But that all changed that year as I plowed my way through round after round at 14 strokes (or more) per hole.
I didn’t suspect the transformation that golf would ultimately demand. This is not just a sport. It is a mental breakdown in slow motion, round after round. The seed of my golfing ambition planted itself firmly as I looked forward with enthusiasm to punishing myself mercilessly on the course along the banks of the Matanuska River. Thorny emotions got tangled with the mechanics of the swing. Prickly weeds of confusion ran riot over the tender skills of chipping, putting, and keeping track of way too many strokes. My voice, made husky by radiation, succumbed to fertile expletives which had never before passed my lips. But given one terrific drive and a handful of well-struck putts and the strangling vines of frustration dropped away. I would leave the course happy and hopeful.
In the summer of 2011, my husband signed us up to play in a Cancer Society fundraiser best-ball tournament. This was a graduation day of sorts for me. I was healthier and stronger. The florid scars of cancer treatment had faded. The energy of my cancer battle had fully transferred to my improbable crusade to golf well. I am not competitive. I am profoundly self-conscious. I prefer not to have anyone see my pitiful golfing skills. Nevertheless, there I was playing in a tournament with veteran seekers of par. Ralph and I arrived at our shotgun starting hole before any other teams. I stanched my fear of being watched by jumping to the tee first. I planted my feet solidly and hit the ball with a satisfying ping. A well-timed rush of adrenaline sent my drive sailing high, straight, and long right down the middle of the fairway into the face of Pioneer Peak. My husband’s drive duck-hooked into the woods along the river. The other two men on our team sliced their drives into a grove of birch and highbush cranberry. My drive was the best ball. I marched proudly down the fairway to hit my second shot. I was captivated. I was also completely ignorant of the fact that my progress in the game up to that point was an illusion; a combination of tenacious will and pure naive luck.
In 2012, we moved to the Boise, Idaho area which is blessed with a wide array of golf courses from the mediocre to the deluxe. We bought a pass to River Birch Golf Course, a friendly and mildly challenging course with wide fairways and refreshing views. With the encouragement of our real estate agent, I joined the Boise chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association. At the opening chapter event of the 2013 season, the veil of my Alaskan golfing experience was stripped from my eyes. These women could really golf. They outdistanced my childish strokes by dozens of yards. I was in way over my head. By the end of that summer season, I was both frustrated to the point of nervous exhaustion, and still, even more serious about the game. Golf is a game of inches, not yards; of delicate body placement, not just crudely wrangled clubhead speed. Both the mechanics and the mindset require a humble assessment of things you thought you knew, and things you never supposed about who you are.
I dragged out every back issue of Golf magazine we owned and studied like a freshman hungry to get on the dean’s list. I developed a taste for viewing golf tournaments on television, which my childhood self would have found stupefyingly boring. I jealously examined the techniques of my fellow players. I drooled as I watched 11-year-old, 100 pound, Lucy Li’s 250-yard drives. It finally dawned on my brain, clear as the sunrise over the ball choked ponds at River Birch Golf Course: the golf swing is not about thousands of infinitesimal golf tips and the minutiae of equipment specs.
The golf swing is raw physics. The right movement of the body, in the right space, with the right rhythm, at the right pace. Grasp that firmly first. Only then can you manage to keep the physics clean AND increase clubhead speed with the whipping action of the club. Swing with your body, not your arms. My mind was blown. Everything I had been doing to improve my game was all wrong. Just a random set of categorically unrepeatable actions.
My epiphany about the physics of the golf swing focused my attention on the science behind how my body should move. However, my mental state was as out of sync as my motions. I was too tightly wound. My heart raced. My thoughts shot about wildly resembling the wayward hooks, and slices of a crowded driving range. My hands gripped the club like it was the edge of a capsizing canoe sinking in a deep water hazard. I would run from ball position to ball position as if an Alaskan grizzly was chasing me. Quite simply my head was not in the game.
A bit of luck gave me the opportunity to attend a seminar on irons by a well known Boise golf pro. This man is the embodiment of ease and grace. He languidly moves through the golf swing with relaxed focus. His first instruction: make no exclamations of dismay for bad hits and applaud every good one. His second instruction: never go out on the driving range and feverishly hit ball after ball after ball getting more and wound up and out of breath with every stroke. He encouraged hitting four or five balls, then stepping back to rest, slow down, and establish peace of mind.
The swing is physics, the mindset is calm. The pros don’t jog from position to position as if they are in a race with their opponent. They saunter. When tempers flare, they quickly shake off their nerves and irritations or they lose. The LPGA pros are even more collected.
No more racing, no more ranting, no more unwelcome worries on the course. Play one stroke at a time with full attention. This is the ultimate triumph of my crusade to break 100. I am fascinated by the physics of golf, but more importantly, the game has changed my inner life. I am learning to saunter, to slow my heart, to shake off anxieties, to move away from my ego. My golf ambition propelled me into a new phase of self-discovery: the peace of mindfulness, the endless grip of now.