Sayonara, golf season
Very few sports are as frustratingly addictive as golf.
That’s not exactly a groundbreaking statement. Long ago, probably in the pages of a ragged “Playboy,” I came across the classic quote from old-school PGA pro Jimmy Demaret: “Golf and sex are about the only things you can enjoy without being good at it.” Wikipedia says it was repeated nearly verbatim in the 1996 golf flick “Tin Cup” (I haven’t seen it), and it’s easily the go-to joke at scramble tourneys the world over. And for good reason — it’s the truth.
I’m far from a good golfer, but I’m also not miserable enough to quit trying outright. (No comment on the other half of Demaret’s saying.) Let’s put it this way: I’m a sub-100 player who hasn’t even bothered to figure out a handicap. To be honest, I don’t play enough to even have a useful handicap. With just a few weeks remaining in the High Country golf season, I’ve played a whopping four rounds of 18, one of which was in March at a flatland course in Scottsdale, Arizona. The rest were spread between Vail, EagleVail and Silverthorne’s Raven at Three Peaks.
Needless to say, I want to be better at golf, but I simply don’t practice enough to get over the hacking-through-it phase. Sure, I’ll have a gorgeous par (nearly birdie!) on a long, uphill Par 4, then shank my ball into the trees on the downhill Par 3 right after. I’m so inconsistent that it’s frustrating, but damn it, I enjoy the game enough I can’t say no to a random round of 18. I can’t even say no to a random round on the EagleVail Par 3, and that’s in another county.
Like most everything in “Playboy,” Demaret’s quote was more bawdy than deeply insightful, but, for some reason, I remember it to this day. I can’t say the same for the centerfold. It’s one of two mental flashes I see just about every time I step up to the first tee box of the day, the second being John Updike’s collection of essays, “Golf Dreams.” In the book, the Pulitzer Prize winner and self-professed average golfer writes about his first experience with a golf technique book. He dissects the nonsensical jargon shared by all coaches and sports pros, the sort who are just naturally gifted at whatever sports they teach. They’re trying to explain an unnatural movement (the golf swing) to people with less natural ability, all while using a wildly unnatural medium (the written word). Updike compares this convoluted approach for a guidebook to drinking tea with a saucer.
The essay, titled “Drinking from a Cup Made Cinchy,” debuted in “The New Yorker” in 1959, some four or five years before Demaret compared sex to golf. It’s funny and vibrant and lively — just like his fiction, minus the unrelenting ennui — but it’s also frustratingly true. Updike claims he wrote the article after reading far too many “how to” articles about golf, and anyone who’s consciously tried to get better at golf can agree. The harder you try, the harder it seems, at least for someone like me with very little natural golf talent.
In some ways, it reminds me of snowboarding. And not just carving down groomers — I’m talking freestyle and backcountry snowboarding, the type that require a perfect storm of practice and confidence and plain natural ability. When I was a kid, I hid my purloined “Playboy” under stacks of snowboarding magazines. Those magazines usually had at least one step-by-step breakdown of a trick, as explained and demonstrated by a pro. I won’t lie — I never read the text. I just studied the photos, then tried to envision and replicate the movements when I was on the snow.
It all changed when I bought my first snowboard video, Mack Dawg’s “Stand and Deliver.” I’d seen snowboard edits before then, but that was the first one I could pause and rewind and study for hours on end. And I did. I finally saw the 720s and 900s (then the cream of the crop) in real time, not cut and cropped into stop motion for a magazine. That tiny bit of real-life perspective made a difference, and, when I was finally able to buy a ski pass with my own cash, I was finally able to practice like the pros.
Golf, like snowboarding, is a finesse sport. To be the best — to be the guys throwing 1260s and playing 10 strokes under — you need the touch. You need the feel. But, like many finesse sports, you can enjoy both without being the best of the best. Sure, all sports are about individual goals, even the team variety, but golf and snowboarding are oddly similar for such dissimilar sports.
To be honest, I didn’t reach all of my golf goals this summer. I didn’t play 10 times, and I didn’t sink a single birdie on a Par 3. That said, I did play consistent bogie golf (yes, that was a goal) and sunk my first-ever birdie on a Par 5. It’s still as addictive as ever, and still as frustrating as ever. And, so, my goal for next season is to play 15 times. Why not?
Which brings me back to snowboarding. Like golf, I set personal goals before every season. I want to get better, and for me, that’s the only way it will happen. But after three seasons, I still haven’t landed a 720 consistently. Sure, I get close, but like my unpredictable tee shot, I usually come up short, and more often than not it’s ugly as hell. Every so often, though, I hit or land a beauty that convinces me I actually know how to play these games.
So. I love and hate golf, even though I’m lousy at it. I figure that’s all the more reason to get better. And I love and hate snowboarding, even though I’m lousy at 720s. Again, all the more reason to get better.
Funny how that works.
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