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Excerpt from my book “Never Despair” – It All Comes Back to Character

February 4, 2015

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.

Khalil Gibran

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

– Winston Churchill


“Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the game where it lies.”[i] So claimed O.B. Keeler, the famed golf writer who, from 1916-1930, travelled over 120,000 miles covering the career of Bobby Jones. We do indeed play the game where it lies. Each day is different, even if the course remains the same, and the challenges are at once maddening and intoxicating.

We play the game. It doesn’t matter if frost covers the ground in winter, if rain water fills the cups on the greens in the spring, or if wind blows sand in our eyes after a bunker shot in the summer. We just love to play.

Walter Simpson, in his 1892 book The Art of Golf, seemed to understand the golfer’s psyche. He wrote that the game “has some drawbacks. It is possible, by too much of it, to destroy the mind.”[ii] His admonition notwithstanding, true golfers rarely get enough of it. We know that if we keep plugging along and keep trying, sometimes good things come to us when we least expect them, just as in life.

Golf is a game with incredible staying power, having been played for over 500 years. Men and women; young and old; royalty and artisans; CEOs and taxi drivers; people with bad backs and creaky knees; amputees and the blind, all play it. A few even play from wheelchairs. What is it that draws people to golf and holds them in its grip until they are too old and feeble to play any longer? The reasons are many. The game engages both body and mind in a very particular way, and some might argue, the soul as well.

James Balfour, who began playing golf in Scotland in the 1840s, explained it this way in Reminiscences of Golf on St Andrews Links:

It is a fine, open-air, athletic exercise, not violent, but bringing into play nearly all the muscles of the body…It is a game of skill, needing mind and thought and judgment, as well as a cunning hand. It is also a social game, where one may go out with a friend or with three, and enjoy mutual intercourse…It never palls or grows stale, as morning by morning the players appear at the teeing ground with as keen a relish as if they had never seen a club for a month.[iii]

It is a game requiring not only physical skill but the ability to control our emotions, as we try to beat our best scores each time out, as well as the scores of our friends who join us in the endeavor.

The game is different because the ball must wait for us. It isn’t baseball or tennis where a ball comes towards us that we have to react to in a split second. The golf ball just lies there passively, sometimes seeming to taunt us.  It’s up to us to make it go.  “There is no hurry,” wrote John Low in Concerning Golf, rather “we fix our own time, we give ourselves every chance of success.”  It is this deliberate quality of the game which “makes it so testing to the nerves; for the very slowness which gives us opportunity for calculation draws our nerves out to the highest tension…”[iv]

Golf certainly can make our stomachs churn and scramble our brains.  Mark Twain famously described it as “a good walk spoiled.”  In the short space of the fifteen minutes or so it takes to play a hole, it’s possible to experience a full gamut of emotions – you name it and it can be felt, in a million different combinations.

Fear and trepidation of the opening tee shot, followed by joy and relief after a great drive nailed straight down the middle, then consternation at the fat second shot plunked into the water, and ending with sadness and disappointment as we walk off the green with a triple-bogey. Herein is a great part of the golf’s attraction.

People are also drawn to the game because it takes them into the great outdoors; to open spaces away from the office. Theodore Arnold Haultain discussed the tactile lure of the course, each with its own personality and varied terrain, in his book The Mystery of Golf. Speaking of the delights of the game in 1910, he described the varied elements that stimulate our senses:

The great breeze that greets you on the hill, the whiffs of air – pungent, penetrating – that come through green things growing, the hot smell of pines at noon, the wet smell of fallen leaves in autumn, the damp and heavy air of the valley at eve, the lungs full of oxygen, the sense of freedom on a great expanse, the exhilaration, the vastness, the buoyancy, the exaltation.[v]

“We live in small spaces,” wrote Henry Leach in The Happy Golfer, “with many walls and low roofs.”[vi] Away from the city, and its cacophony of angry noises that strangle silence, the golf course provides us with a few hours of refuge. Steaming asphalt and concrete, honking horns, and the incessant buzz and clatter of people coming and going gives way to a quiet oasis of cool grass, green trees, chirping birds and the smell of pine needles. “A golfer on the links is uplifted to a simpler, freer self,” claimed Leach.[vii]

Michael Murphy, in his classic book Golf in the Kingdom, spoke of golf in terms of “walkin’ fast across the countryside and feelin’ the wind and watchin’ the sun go down and seein’ yer friends hit good shots and hittin’ some yourself.  It’s love and it’s feelin’ the splendor o’ this good world.”  To David Forgan, who crafted “The Golfer’s Creed” in the late nineteenth century, golf offers “a sweeping away of mental cobwebs, genuine recreation of tired tissues….It is a cure for care, an antidote to worry.”[viii]

ENDNOTES

Epigrams after chapter title from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes

[i] Sidney Matthew, Bobby: The Life and Times of Bobby Jones (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sports Media Group, 2005), 48.

[ii] Walter G. Simpson, The Art of Golf (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1892), 5.

[iii] James Balfour, Reminiscences of Golf on St Andrews Links (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1887), 54.

[iv] John L. Low, Concerning Golf (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903), 6-7.

[v] Theodore Arnold Haultain, The Mystery of Golf. 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1910), 244.

[vi] Henry Leach, The Happy Golfer (London: Macmillan and Co., 1914), 13.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Michael Murphy, Golf in the Kingdom (New York: Viking Arkana, 1994), 65; “Golfer’s Creed” by Forgan,in The American Golf Teaching Method (Ft. Pierce, FL: United States Golf Teachers Federation, 1999), 68.

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