Golf Concerto No. 10

Tracing the first steps of an ambitious journey to reach a lower handicap, by someone who still needs to get one

Note: This is part one of a year-long series tracking our editor as he attempts to reach a 10-handicap. As of this writing, he is not confident.

In 2010, Alan Rusbridger made an aggressively reckless decision. At the age of 56, he committed to learning Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, which is, according to the New York Times, “one of the most complex and challenging pieces in piano repertoire.” The only things that stood in Rusbridger’s way were his position as the editor-in-chief of England’s Guardian newspaper, which was about to become embroiled in the release of the Edward Snowden Wikileaks documents and the British phone-hacking scandal that would rock the nation, and the fact that he was a novice piano player who gave up seriously playing in his 20s in large part because he couldn’t memorize music. The subtitle of his 2013 memoir, Play It Again, says it all: “An amateur against the impossible.”

Rusbridger’s schedule meant that he mostly played for 20 minutes in the mornings. But he pressed on. Over time, he found that those brief sessions became vital to his mental health. Not unlike how others need yoga or the gym, Rusbridger felt a substantial improvement in his productivity and decision-making on days when he got in front of the keys. 

After more than 16 months of practice—and decisions that would shape the future of British journalism—Rusbridger played the Ballade for a small group of friends and family. And damned if he didn’t pull it off. 

Every golfer can relate to Rusbridger’s odyssey. Golf, perhaps more than any other sport, lends itself to chasing wildly ambitious goals. Golfers will rearrange their lives in order to accomplish everything from merely getting an 8-iron off the ground to winning the club championship. The insatiable need to improve is universal—they’ll stay on the driving range as the sky fades from blue to pink, hammering balls into the dusk. 

I am also a golfer with a goal: to reach a 10-handicap by the end of this year. But friends, I am here to tell you: I am no Alan Rusbridger. Not yet, anyway.

When skies go pink these days, I’m slamming the laptop and sprinting into the kitchen to cut chicken and fruit into tiny pieces. Then my wife and I are tag-teaming on baths and books and bedtime for our two young daughters. Hopefully by the time I pass out, I remember to check back in with work, ask my wife if she had a good day, and maybe, just maybe, respond to family and friends’ text threads.

On the surface, my goal appears almost too easy—especially when considering the built-in advantages available to the editor of the world’s greatest golf magazine—but considering real life’s nasty habit of getting in the way, it is far from a guarantee. After being a father, husband, son, brother, friend and editor, there isn’t much time for extra range balls. 

There is also the not-insignificant matter of being terrible. Of the myriad reasons I’ve never registered an official handicap, one is avoiding the sucker punch of a computer spitting out the cold calculation of my incompetence. Over the years, to save a little face, I’ve claimed anywhere between a 15 and a 19. But all those 93s I’ve had tell me I’m much closer to a 20.

Then, the hardest reality: This will require a fundamental change in the way I consume the game. Golf has always been purely a social outlet for me. The biggest reason I don’t have a handicap is that I never gave a shit about one. I have gone out of my way to not take the game seriously, fearing that would get in the way of what I love most. Talking trash one hole and the most serious things the next. Winning a ridiculous press. Furthest from the pin buys drinks. Warm up? Hahaha, I’ll have another Bloody and see y’all on the first tee. 

As I considered this project, a foreign concept called “practice” kept coming up. You don’t improve by playing once every six weeks where you make more jokes than warm-up swings. This journey would force me to change my family and work schedule, to make the driving range a priority, to actually concentrate on my backswing for once. I was intimidated.

So, why do it? Why not wait for the girls to get old enough to put on their own damn pants and start then? Because I’m no different than any golfer who wants to get better. Because I’m finally ready to know what it feels like to give strokes instead of taking them. Because if not now, when? Because Rusbridger learned how to play Frédéric fucking Chopin.

Finally, I worked a Sunday afternoon tee time to coincide with the oldest’s nap and my wife inviting a fellow mom to swing by with a bottle of white. It was on.

Poor Mike had no idea. We were standing on the range, under the Titleist tent at the end of the Southampton Golf Club range a few miles west of my home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. We had just said hello, and all Mike knew was that he was fitting the editor of The Golfer’s Journal for a new set. Put yourself in his shoes and imagine the skill level that title implies. He had the Trackman ready. He never asked for my handicap, he just got to real-golfer business. This was a mistake.

“So, Travis, what’s your miss?”

“Buddy, how much time ya got?”

After I created a dispersion pattern that was more nuclear fallout than competent player, he looked up from the Trackman screen and it was clear he realized we were now in a long-term relationship.

“Yeah, so, uh, it’s gonna take the full hour just to get through your irons. Can you come back and finish next week?”

Step 1 of the journey to a 10-handicap was going to see Mike. One could argue that finding a place to practice, taking lessons, or even, you know, registering for an actual handicap would be a more logical first step, but this is my journey, not yours, and getting fitted for the first time in my life sounded fun as hell.

Sure enough, it was! After dramatically lowering his expectations and extending his calendar, Mike figured out what was best for me. I finally understood why people spend so much money on fittings—if every yard matters, if the club championship is within reach, if you always wanted to be a NASA engineer but turned out to be an accountant instead, the technology and science that goes into fittings is insane. (I also learned that people truly care about what clubs a fitting prescribes. So you know, my new bag is way too good for me: T-300 6-P irons, TSi2 10-degree driver with a Tour AD Di stiff shaft, TS2 metals and hybrids, Vokey SM8 Brushed Steel 52/56/60 wedges, old-school Scotty Cameron Newport 2 putter. There may even be a Fastback lying around in case the gamer acts up.)

The next step: Breaking out these fancy new sticks, right? Absolutely not, my friends. Real life won the next two weeks while the clubs gathered dust in the garage. Finally, I worked a Sunday afternoon tee time to coincide with the oldest’s nap and my wife inviting a fellow mom to swing by with a bottle of white. It was on.

Our group was a friend, his 8-year-old son, and another buddy for a spin around Dye’s Valley on a gloriously sunny day. I am no stranger to not having a clue where the ball is going off the club, but flying greens by 10 yards and running through fairways was an entirely new experience. I made a note never to pick a guy who just switched clubs on my fantasy golf team.

Mistakes were made. I left a ton of opportunities out there, a few balls in the water on No. 16, and taught my friend’s son some thrilling new expletives. But the numbers on the card added up to 89. Eighty-nine? A hopeful number, indeed. As I sprinted home to help with dinner, I plotted Steps 2-4 of my journey: Find a place to practice, make time for a lesson, and—gulp—get a real handicap.

My mind flashed to Rusbridger, on a cloak-and-dagger reporting trip to Libya in the midst of the Arab Spring. In the middle of a deserted Tripoli restaurant, he spied a piano. Amid the chaos, he jumped on and played a few notes.