I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the title of this piece may have turned a few heads. So, now that I have your attention, I’m going to tee up (pun most definitely intended) a few thoughts about how I’ve learned to be a more positive person by sucking at golf.
Anyone who’s ever held a golf club or watched Caddyshack understands the frustration of shanking a shot, rolling a 3-foot putt over the edge of the cup, or hooking a drive into the woods. One or more of those things happens to me every time I play. I’ve also seen them happen to others. Once, years ago, I watched my best friend snap the club head off his driver after sending two straight balls into the woods. That kind of thing will ruin your day in a hurry!
Thankfully, he doesn’t do that anymore. And I’ve never been much of a club-thrower. I’d like to say it’s because I have just that much self-control, but it’s more likely that I can do basic math. You’re allowed to carry 14 clubs and there are 18 holes on the course. The way I play sometimes, if I was a club-thrower/breaker, I wouldn’t be able to finish the round.
In fairness to myself, my game has improved considerably since the early days. Which brings me to the first point…
It’s okay to keep score.
Fifty years ago, Ben Hogan (Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, 1957) said that people who try to tell you they just play for the enjoyment of the game are… well, full of it. I’ve said those words—even recently—and you know what? Ben was right. Even if we think we mean it, there’s something inside all of us that craves accomplishment. We all want to improve and do better “next time.”
Life is the same way. But too often we define better by what others have and do. If I got upset every time my friend, Frank, blistered a drive up the center of the fairway, every time my friend, Dean, called his fade and then delivered the ball perfectly, or every time my friend, Rick, snaked a 40-foot putt into the cup, I’d be one unhappy person. And I’d be a lousy friend.
The trick is to remember that on the golf course—and in life—we aren’t playing against other people. It should make us happy when others do well. If you can be happy when others succeed, you’re already successful. And you might find that it improves your “game” as well. For example, I was spraying the ball all over the course a few weeks while Frank was cruising at 3 under par. A funny thing happened when I shifted focus from wondering if I had run out of golf balls to keeping Frank out of his own head. I got out of my own head and started playing a little better.
We all want to be better tomorrow than we are today. On the golf course, that means keeping track of little things like hitting fairways and greens, and how many putts it takes to get the ball into the hole. I’ve started doing that again, and I’m starting to see small improvements. Eventually those improvements will find their way to my score. And keeping those scores enables me to get out of the trees and see the forest.
Play to your strengths.
I’m a risk-taker by nature. My first impulse is to reach for the biggest club in my bag and try to hit it as far as possible. Often that lands me in jail (golf jail; not literal jail). Even when it works, there’s good chance I’ll have a distance left that I struggle with. So lately I’ve been keeping the big clubs in my bag and hitting the ones I’m more confident and consistent with. And—big surprise—I’m more successful on those holes. Not only that, the confidence I’m building is spreading to my other shots, too.
Am I suggesting that you take fewer risks in life? Not even a little. That would make me a hypocrite. It’s fun to go for it all in one swing. It’s even more fun when the ball goes where it’s supposed to go. But remember to pick your spots. Build your confidence by repeating the things you do well, and not obsessing over where you’re struggling. I don’t get too concerned about not hitting greens or putting well if I’m consistently chipping the ball to within a foot of the hole. Conversely, chipping poorly doesn’t much matter if I’m hitting lots of greens.
It’s never the same from one round to the next. In every round, something isn’t working quite the way I want it to work. Sometimes it feels like every part of my game is struggling and I’m spiraling backwards. Life can be that way, too… if you let it be. But I always manage to hit a few shots that do what they’re supposed to do. So, the lesson in this is to pay attention to what you’re doing well in each round (or each day) and try to put yourself in a position to hit those shots. Then you can ride the memory of those wins into the moments when it feels right to take the big swings. Those risks won’t always pay off, but you’ll be glad you weren’t afraid to take them. And there’s always another round, which brings me to my third and final point.
Lose yourself in the experience.
Let’s say you’re playing the worst round of your life. You’ve put a dozen balls in the water. The groundskeeper is mad at you because you’ve carved up the fairways. And you’re pretty sure you found poison ivy looking for one of those errant tee shots. Before you entertain thoughts of dumping your clubs in the lake, stop and look around you.
You’re outside with friends. You may not be playing well but they are—and you’re happy for them (remember my first point?). You’re getting some exercise and some sun. And you’ve seen plenty of nature—because that’s where your ball has been most of the day. This is the time to remember that your game on that day is one moment among a lifetime of moments. One speck in a much larger picture.
Pay attention to your surroundings and take in all the good parts. The great shots you and your playing partners make—even if they are few and far between. The lessons you learned from the bad ones. The jokes you told each other. And the stories you shared about your jobs and families.
If you’ve come this far, why not hang out a bit longer while I sum up with a little help from some friends:
It’s okay to keep score. If you don’t believe Ben Hogan, remember Jimmy Dugan’s words from A League of Their Own… “Anything worth doing’s worth doing well.”
Play to your strengths. Tom Rath and the good people at Gallup are very smart. I’ve met a few of them and they know… Putting yourself in a position to do what you do best leads to more success and less stress (Strengthsfinder 2.0, 2007).
Lose yourself in the experience. Ferris Bueller had it right… “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” You could also lose out on a smile that lasts much longer than the dozen golf balls you’re leaving at the course.
I’ll just close by restating the obvious: I am not a good golfer, but I want to be better. More importantly, I want to be better at life, and I’ve found a connection between the two. I may not get much better at either one, but now I have a much better outlook on both.