On Melted Wings

A deep dive into the tortured golfing soul of Icarito
Flying too close to the sun can cause clubs to fly into a lake. Photo: Stephen Denton

Winning is a habit. It’s a lesson reinforced on the football field, in the movie The Pope, by the company that must make ALL the money licensing inspirational quotes to be framed in school locker rooms and horrible offices, and on the golf course. Losing is a habit too. I’ve learned this the hard way, both in football and in golf.

I went to Columbia University with high hopes of reversing its horrible football tradition, but after losing game after game over four years, I got a firsthand look at how a losing culture can strangle even the best intentions. My football days are long over, but I’m reminded of them when I’m on the golf course. Not unlike my beloved Lions bungling a game in the most embarrassing fashion, it seems whenever I come close to breaking par, some ridiculous, self-inflicted tragedy befalls me. Icarus, the sun, rinse, repeat.

At Columbia, it wasn’t the losses that stuck with me so much as the Miltonian turning points that led to those losses. A 12-men-on-the-field penalty on fourth and 4 as we’re getting the ball back with good field position and a three-point lead. The 64-yard breakaway run late in the fourth quarter to the 1-yard line, only to have a goal-line fumble scooped up and run back 70 yards the other way to set up the winning score. (Fuck Yale.) The ever-so-slight pre-snap forward lean of our running back causing an illegal-motion penalty and wiping away a 45-yard touchdown pass that would have put us up a comfortable 24 points. We never knew how it was coming, but we always knew that, despite the momentum flowing our way all game, it was going to cut back faster than Barry Sanders and deliver another excruciating L.

One of the great gridiron poets of our time—Shane Falco, played by Keanu Reeves in The Replacements—summed it up best: “Quicksand. You’re playing, and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong, and then another and another. And you try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink, until you can’t move. You can’t breathe because you’re in over your head.”

And so it goes for me on the golf course. A thinned iron using a club I’ve hit perfectly all day. A putt somehow breaking away from the water. Hitting a drive too well and helplessly watching it dribble into a bunker. 

My fiery ejections from under-par rounds have become so common that they’ve even garnered me a nickname: Icarito. I can now pinpoint that moment somewhere on the back nine when I step into the quicksand. It’s the point in a round when I find myself realizing I’m in a position to make the leap—to truly go low—and then consciously feel it all unwind in real time. It feels too fast and too slow all at once, and, in many cases, it feels almost nostalgic, as if I’ve seen the trees blow in an eerily similar way.

It’s to the point now where I can recognize it in other players, even professionals. Witnessing a golfer battle the quicksand may be the most fascinating thing in the game. It’s watching Rory McIlroy fall to his knees on the 13th tee at Augusta in 2011. It’s watching Sergio Garcia come up short year after year in major championships and come apart at the seams in the following press conferences.

But I’ll never forget watching Sergio break through at the 2017 Masters, knowing he finally beat it. He somehow overcame his losing culture, dragged his ass out of the quicksand. That’s the feeling I continue to chase. I can’t go back and change all those horrifying losses at Columbia, but I still have the chance to defeat this debil-itating mental concept on the golf course. For me, breaking par has become a smaller but still meaningful chance to slay the dragon. Fly Icarito, fly.  

Neil Schuster, aka Icarito, is co-founder and merchandise czar of No Laying Up. When he’s not running the NLU Pro Shop, he’s on the course battling his big right miss.