Monday, January 30, 2006

Zen and the Art of the Golf Swing

Golf is on my mind.

Yesterday saw the completion of one of the most exciting golf events in recent memory. And it wasn’t even a major.

The Buick Invitational is held at the North and South courses at Torrey Pines, and the weekend rounds are played on the South Course, which will host the 2008 U.S. Open. It’s a course with very sharp teeth. The Buick was Tiger’s first tournament of the season, and the presence of the world number one added to the sense of anticipation, especially since he hadn't played in two months. Going into the final round, Sergio Garcia and Rod Pampling (if you just said “who?” don’t worry, you’re not alone) were tied for first, with local boy Phil Mickelson and Tiger one shot back. Then the rest of the pack joined in the fun: with the last group of golfers already well into the back nine, there were something like eight players tied for the lead at -9. Jose-Maria Olazabal walked off the 18th at 10-under, alone in first, but both Tiger Woods and a tour rookie made birdies on the 18th to join him in a three-man playoff. The rookie, Nathan Green, seemed to crumple a bit under the pressure of playing for a title against two guys with six of his jackets (that is, green) between them. He pulled his second shot into the grandstand, and stubbed a chip to make bogey and settle for third. Olazabal bogeyed the second playoff hole (the major stain on the tournament’s memorability) allowing Tiger to win with just a par.

But that isn’t why golf is on my mind. Golf is always on my mind. Or nearly so.

I’d hacked around a bit when I was a kid, playing only rarely until giving it up entirely for about seven years. A little over two years ago, I started to play again, with greater regularity. I broke 100. And that was it. I knew a former heroin addict who told me “heroin isn’t great until it’s got its hooks in you.” Breaking 100 was how golf got its hooks in me. I love a rating system, always have. I love an empirical measure with which one can measure progress. Now that 100 was in my rear view, a new goal stretched out before me: to break 90. (Mission accomplished, but only six or seven times so far.) Next in my sights is breaking 80, a far tougher proposition. I’ve managed an 82 (on a 5743-yard course) but haven’t gotten close to that again. But I will. After that, well, we’ll see. As much as I love the game, I don’t really have the time that seems to be required to get one’s game to the point where you can shoot in the 70s, let alone do so with any regularity. But, older and fatter guys than I have managed to do it, so I’m not ruling anything out at this point.

As I continue to practice and to play, pursuing those elusive lower scores, I find myself wondering what it is about golf that has pulled me and so many other men into its clutches. Given the history and complexity of the game and my own meager skills (at both golf and self-discovery), any insight here provided will likely be sparse. But I'll try a few angles.

Let’s begin with perfection. In my bathroom mirror is stuck a postcard reproduction of a print by artist Jonathan Borofsky. It is a handwritten manifesto entitled “WHAT IS DRAGGING ME?” It reads, in part: “I am unhappy because I am not perfect. I want to be better than everyone else. I want to be unique and I do not know that I am unique! I want to be unique by being “better” – this a false premise. This feeling keeps me in a state of tension which I seem to enjoy. I don’t like where I’m at now (that I’m not perfect) and instead I want to be there (god state) now. I don’t want to work for this because I know deep down inside I never can be god-like, so, though I don’t give up, I never work really for what I can do – namely, MY BEST.”

Golf has a perfect score. 18. From tee to hole in one shot, eighteen times in a row. It is, however, currently physically impossible. So instead of pointing at an unattainable mark, golf sets a standard of excellence. Par. Par is the score an expert golfer should make for a round of golf. (Interestingly, "par" in golf is territory only a handful of players ever reach, but in the wider world has become synonymous with average.)

Golf is the only major sport with the possibility of an objectively perfect score - unless you count bowling as a major sport, and if you do, we need to have a talk. Besides, bowling’s perfection is achievable. There are more than 40,000 perfect games in league play every year. Quite a few more are probably rolled in casual games or practice. Virtually all other perfect score possibilities have subjective criteria – skating, gymnastics, etc. There are a handful of other, minor sports where perfection is possible: e.g., shooting, horseshoes.

But I can think of no sport where a standard of perfection has been set – and is entirely unattainable under the laws of physics and the current Rules of Golf. Nobody, not even the world’s greatest, gets anywhere near perfection. A 59 is the lowest score ever recorded in a PGA tournament. 13 under. Pitiful. Not even close to a level of “perfection” that is possible given today’s golf equipment and the limits of the human body. Conceivably, someone could shoot a 32 -- an eagle on every par three and four, a double eagle on every par five. Not going to happen, but within the realm of physical possibility. How about a more achievable goal, say making birdie on every three- or four-par and eagle on every par five? Shooting a 50. Not likely. Even a birdie on every hole -- a 54 -- seems still far out of reach, since only a handful of 59s have ever been carded.

It’s comforting that the very best golfers in the world struggle along with me, never nearing perfection. Sometimes, they make shots even we hackers can relate to. Nathan Green's chip on the first playoff hole was the sort of abject failure that would make even me roll my eyes in self-disgust. Golf gets in your head that way.

Another reason golf is so addictive is that it is inherently democratic. Despite its elitist reputation, golf is quite inclusive. Few people ever experience the thrill of dunking a basketball, or running a sub four-minute mile or flinging a football 60 yards downfield. And though few of us can drive the ball 300+ yards, from time to time, every golfer hits a shot that is identical to the sort Tiger, Vijay, Ernie or Phil make with somewhat greater regularity: the 60-foot putt that curls in, the chip from off the green that hits the flag and drops, the approach from 180 yards that nuzzles up close. (I do it with a 3-wood, Tiger with his 7-iron.) And 18 times a round, every golfer gets to hear the same lovely sound the pros do when the ball finds the bottom of the cup.

Now that golf has me in its clutches, I have decided to put it to my advantage and turn golf into a sort of meditation practice. Instead of paying attention to my breath, I pay attention to how my body moves in swinging the club. Like meditation, golf is about being in the moment. The shot you just made is already in the past; nothing can be done about it. The shot after this one is in the future – all you have is what’s in front of you right now. The ball sits there patiently and waits for you. All you can do is stay focused, put the best swing you can on the ball and accept with equanimity whatever is the result. At least, that’s what I'm aiming for.

Like life, golf is deeply nuanced, complex, maddening, joyous and a bit random. You can attack it with everything you have – and it will still beat you in the end. So you might as well enjoy while you’ve got it.

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