Some rounds feel like you’re hiding under the sheets, staring at the ceiling and waiting—the awful waiting—for that second shoe to thump the floor above you. Sometimes we play golf and sometimes we play pretend, and on this morning I was stuck firmly in the latter, cringing over each shot, wondering if this was the one that would reveal my grand golf fraud. I tried to tell myself that I belonged, that I was in the running, that I had played golf before—often, and everywhere—but doubt is an obstinate wretch. Truth was, I was lucky to be clinging to 2 over, and golf was ready to call bullshit.
I’d already spent my allotment of good fortune by the sixth—two unlikely up-and-downs, and a chunky wedge that rolled to the edge of the cup—and karma’s flip side arrived promptly on the eighth tee, when wind, gear effect and fossilized hip flexors conspired to jettison my ball from the golf course. I watched it leave and my shoulders sank with surrender and with knowing: The snowman cometh.
I didn’t DFL in my mid-am qualifier—there were plenty of WDs to spare me that ignominy—and while I’d rather not relive the hard math of that day, I believe that if you play, you post. And that day I posted Eric Lindros.
I didn’t hide behind a W and a D. I didn’t blame the setup or my sticks. I didn’t bemoan my pairing or my start time or my caddie (though I could have, since I was carrying my own). I howled no profanity; I heaved no clubs. I signed my card and thanked the scorekeeper before finding my car and laying my clubs to rest, pressing my trunk shut like a coffin.
I exited with dignity that day because someone once told me that such defeats are a gift, for they grant us that which can’t be claimed when perched atop a podium. They don’t engender ego or arrogance; rather, they teach us resilience. Humility. Our trials make us better because they build character. And on my long drive home, as I tallied up my tournament life’s character-building outcomes, I realized golf wanted me to be Gandhi instead of a medalist, and that whoever espoused such platitudes about the silver linings of losing was, by definition, a loser.
Battling for not-last place at Australian Q-School. Whiffing in front of a full gallery on the first tee at Lahinch. Losing in the opening match of the club championships to a kid in high-tops. Golf had been pumping me full of character since I was a kid, when I shot 37-50 in the high school state championship and when I finished triple-double-triple to get uninvited from the final round of college tryouts. The game had forced me to face my shortcomings and accept my bad bounces, and that’s worthwhile wisdom, but for the better part of 30 years golf had been jamming humility down my throat like I was a French goose. I imagined my character stockpile beanstalking into the stratosphere, where planes dodged my towering shrine to graceful defeat.
As friends discovered my symmetrical score on Golf Genius, the messages pinged—Tough course? What happened? You start drinking again?—and I felt my mind descending the spiral of golf misery. The first turn is deciding you’d wasted five hours of your life. Then you regret the money. The time away from home. The weeks of practice. The months. The years squandered on a pastime that won’t love you back, until you’re not really thinking about golf anymore—rather, you’re stuck in an existential abyss where you’ve wrapped your life around something that was never really there. Then finally, down at the spiral’s dank bottom, you find yourself considering it: pickleball. Your neighbor seems to like it, and he’s as athletic as a mailbox.
We climb our way out, somehow. Less than an hour after signing for double ocho, I had a foursome booked for the following afternoon. By the time I reached my driveway I had golf solved, again: I’d been snatching my club inside, and if I just got a little more upright, I could find that contact from last week when I was tossing tidy strips of turf at pin after pin. People debate whether golf is a sport or a game, but for those of us who keep ramming our heads into walls, bewitched by golf’s ruse, convinced that someday the ball will finally hear us, it’s the con we crave. It’s an enchanting frustration, the kind we can’t live without. And when it slips through our fingers or stands us up again, it’s not character that we’re acquiring. It’s more proof, rather, that we need to come back tomorrow. Funny how we’ve all had our career rounds on the same day: tomorrow. It’s like being stuck in a foursome where Godot always bails. (Samuel Beckett did play golf, and I guarantee he was a grinder.)
From the non-golfer’s perspective, it must all seem rather unhealthy. The task—place this tiny ball in that yonder hole via the least intuitive method possible—is plainly absurd. The aim—a number that might always be lower—is patently unattainable. But what might look like (and often feels like) an exercise in futility is, in truth, an ideal way to practice being human. As a species, our every upward step has sprung from frustration; progress comes not from comfort, but from dissatisfaction, not from the pickleballer’s dull grin, but from the golfer’s gnashed teeth.
So the next time you see a little girl weeping at the driving range, or a beginner bruising himself with an Orange Whip, or an old man mopping the green with his putter, pay them no pity. Admire them, for it is through sucking that they celebrate our human journey. Save character for Sunday school; frustration is the gift. And a game that feeds it to us in such large servings—no wonder we can’t get to the next tee quickly enough, even as golf leaves us wanting and waiting and banging our heads, ever desperate for the thinnest crack.