So I’ve just made triple on my 16th hole, another tough par-3 at Isleworth CC (yes, home of the fire hydrant), and I’m wondering to myself, why do I subject myself to this? Isleworth is an incredibly demanding course: the shot values are high all over the course, almost without letup. When the wind blows the difficulty increases. When it’s chilly as well, well, you can imagine. Its 7069 yards of torture, with tight fairways, deep bunkers in the fairway and around the greens, fast, firm, roly-poly greens replete with crowns, moguls, and false fronts. There are a number of shots over water, including the second hole, which is probably the hardest par 3 in the known world. That said, it is also a quite fair course, because a good shot is never punished. It’s just that on this course a “good” shot really has to be great, and just decent is liable to get you into all sorts of trouble. But then, that’s what a good, tough course is all about.
The answer to the question of “why I play” is pretty simple. When you think about your normal daily activities, including what is going on with your job and your family, what during that time is compelling enough to really get your blood going? What gets you going where your heart rate goes up and you have to concentrate 100% on what you’re doing (other than sex)? Playing golf in tournament conditions is completely removed from everyday life. You are nervous, focused, intense, facing 4 or more hours of relentless difficulty, every shot counting toward your eventual success or failure. Your heart is pumping, you are in the game, and the game usually wins. However, there are those odd times where you beat the game, your biggest fears and your dogged failures. If you win once, you are hooked. I got a trophy in my first event when I was 12, and I won my first tournament. Here was something at which I could win, and I didn’t have to be tall, or fast, or big. I could compete with, and be better than, anyone.
For a long time it was the winning that drove me. The question would come up in our PGA of America meetings about how to increase tournament participation amongst the members, and it occurred to me that there are two types of people: there are the results oriented people, and there are the experience oriented people. Here’s what I mean: if you are results oriented your success at whatever you attempt means everything. If you are experience oriented it is the playing that matters, not the winning. Up to about 3 years ago I was a results oriented person. I played to win, and if I didn’t win (and you certainly don’t win as much as you lose, unless you are the Tiger of 1997-2009) I was disappointed. My expectations were high, and I worked so that I could eventually triumph.
Now things are different. I haven’t played so well over the last 3 years or so, and it is getting so that I am not really a threat to win the tournaments I am playing in. This is a sea-change for me, as I am used to being in the hunt in every event I play in. So the question now is, if I can’t seem to play well enough to win, why play? And that is exactly what was going through my head as I watched another shot spin back off the green down the false front, heading for another double and another round in the high 70’s or worse. So I looked out over the lake (it was an absolutely beautiful day, the sun glistening off the water, the big birds taking off and swooping over us) and it occurred to me that I play because nothing else gets me going like this. I love the beauty and the challenge of the golf course. I love the attempt to master the thought process that would allow you to hit good shots all in a row. I just love being in the heat of battle, trying desperately on each shot not to let the course win, focusing 100% on striking the ball just as the picture in my mind suggests, watching the ball fly on that perfect trajectory and landing precisely where I imagined before I even moved the club. I am testing all the work I’ve done on my swing and on all the other elements of my game, and the result of the test will be to suggest what I need to work on next. It is a never-ending cycle, and I am inexorably wrapped up in it, with no escape.
Some people quit the game. When the results are not forthcoming, the results oriented person will bail. It is not the excitement of the competition that compels them; it is only the eventual success they crave. I know now that I am not one of those people. I just love to play golf, even if it feels like torture as I watch my shots go array and my scores go up. It really doesn’t matter, because when I wake up tomorrow I will have a few ideas about what I need to do to get better, and those ideas all came from the failure that I just concocted in my most recent ill-fated attempt at glory. If that sounds like I’m only playing because I still want to win, I guess you might be right. But I will play on even if I never win again, because the game calls me on, and I must answer the call.