Golf Transcendentalism

A renewed effort to hit the perfect shot
Golf Transcendentalism Justin Thomas

There’s something about the perfect shot. It all happens in just a split second, but the feeling is eternal: You did everything right and life is OK. You’re Jack. You’re Tiger. Not even God can hit a 1-iron, Lee? You beg to differ.  

I still remember many of my perfect shots. And after a self-imposed exile from the game, I’m chasing them again.

I grew up playing golf. My first set of woods were actually wood. I never spent much time on the range or thought about my game. My dad would give me little snippets of wisdom from his 40 years of playing time: Don’t break your wrists too early; keep your weight on your back foot; keep your head down. I never thought about how they all added up. I just went out, set up at the ball and swung hard.

Occasionally, I’d hit one perfectly. I had a beautiful ball flight; it started low and climbed, like a rising stinger. I always felt a rush of pride sweep through my body when I did it, and I’d pose and watch it go.  

Then, I stopped. You know what teenage years are like. My friends didn’t golf, so I didn’t golf. I went and got a history degree. There was a golf course near my school, but what little money I had wasn’t about to go to greens fees.

I graduated 14 years ago. I got a job and didn’t have the time, means or motivation to golf. I just wanted to do other things—the things single guys in their 20s do while living in the city.

But I changed as I got older, as everything does. Perhaps it was a goal to get more exercise, a wish to have a better excuse to get a drink in the morning or an unfulfilled desire to compete. But I knew I wanted to hit those shots again.

This rekindled desire happened to coincide with the pandemic during a Canadian winter. With nowhere to play, I fashioned the 10-by-10-foot room I use as a work-from-home office into a practice space. I found a spot where I could make a full swing with an iron and not hit the TV behind me, the window to my left or the desk to my right. As more golfers try to emulate Bryson DeChambeau by swinging as hard and fast as they can, there I was, swinging as slowly as possible so I wouldn’t break anything.

I fell deep into a hole of golf tutorials. I watched hundreds of videos of golf teachers breaking down the swing into its individual parts. I bought alignment sticks and stuck one through my belt loops, turning so it pointed toward the floor. I held one along the shaft of the club and started my backswing. I shoved one in my right armpit to fix my backswing.

While the pandemic raged, I found refuge in the mechanics. I obsessed over every inch of the swing, how it feels to turn at the hips, where my club face should be at 90 degrees, when to break my wrists and how shallow the backswing should be. Then the downswing. Start with the left knee and turn; keep the wrist cocked and head down. That club face had better be flush when it hits the ball. I could control that.

Now when I watch the pros, I don’t admire how they can curve a shot around the trees; I’m jealous of how much rotation they get in their backswing. Not every shot of theirs is perfect, but they know how it feels.

And that’s what it is for all of us, right? First we hope to hit that shot once in a round. Then it’s 10. Then 20, and so on. It’s a quest for impossible perfection. It’s a boat against an invulnerable tide. It’s a Sisyphean struggle up an insurmountable hill.

But I remember those perfect shots. That birdie chip when I was 12. That shot through a tiny window of tree branches. A bombed drive with that beautiful ball flight from my childhood. 

So now I hope I’ve turned into something resembling a decent golfer for an overworked 30-something who’s barely emerged from his practice room. Maybe I’ll hit that perfect shot and it’ll be something more. Something transcendent.