They say golf is like life, but don’t believe them.
Golf is more complicated than that.
—Gardner Dickinson, longtime American tour pro
I BEGAN PLAYING golf seriously after college and was soon invited to an upscale private country club in Connecticut. As a former caddie, I knew how to dress the part and how to act, but my game was barely suitable for a dusty municipal course, let alone one of the more challenging layouts in the Northeast.
So, it was not a surprise that by the third hole I found myself in the deep rough a few feet behind a slender tree. I tried to chip out to the fairway but instead hammered my ball directly into the trunk of the tree before me. The ball ricocheted backward and struck me square in the forehead.
I hadn’t hit the ball very hard, so I was mostly dazed by the impact. And, like many a beginner, I was frustrated. With an exasperated “That’s unbelievable,” I casually tossed the pitching wedge I was holding backward over my head. I didn’t fling it; I just lofted it in the air.
The club lodged in the low-lying limbs of a pine tree about 10 feet off the ground.
Now this was getting embarrassing.
Fortunately, my hosts at the club—nice people, but they were my elders and they certainly expected me to behave—were busy on the opposite side of the fairway looking for an errant shot in the woods. No one had seen my clown act. I was alone and unnoticed on my side of the hole.
I quickly grabbed another club from my bag, and since the tree branch with the pitching wedge was almost close enough to touch, I tossed the second club at the wedge, hoping to knock it free.
If you play golf, you know what happened next. The second club caught in the tree, too.
Now, with great haste, I drove my golf cart under the tree limb and stood on the back of the cart so I could shake the branch with one hand as I smacked it with a third club held in my other hand. It was at this moment that the cart with my gracious hosts pulled up beside me.
And there I was, well dressed and well mannered, except I was standing on a golf cart using both hands to extricate not one but two of my golf clubs that had somehow ended up suspended in a tree.
I turned and tried to smile.
“What’s that big red welt on your forehead?” one of my hosts asked.
“I hit myself with my ball,” I answered.
You might wonder how an early golf day like that could have led to the next two decades of (mostly) happy golfing. I admit, at that moment, it’s not what I would have predicted.
But then, I didn’t expect my hosts to break out laughing. I didn’t expect to laugh, too, trying to explain myself. And I did not expect them to then recount their own stories of golf misfortune, stories that might not have ended up with them shaking a tree for mislaid clubs but were nonetheless in the category of “the things this game will make you do.”
So it was at that moment, perhaps for the first time, that I felt like a golfer.
Does being a golfer mean enduring clumsy embarrassment? Well, yes, it does sometimes, but that wasn’t the point. Being a golfer is to join a tribe with an elaborate set of tenets and canons, one with its own mores and protocols and no definable mission other than to chase a little ball into a hole.
It is a silly game, somewhat childish, a good walk spoiled, as Mark Twain said. It is all those things. So why do we love this game?
The allure of golf is its simplicity, which leads to a thousand complexities. It is sophisticated because it is subtle. It is perfect because it is wholly and forever imperfect.
I once asked David Duval, the 2001 British Open champion, what makes golf so difficult and yet so appealing. He said, “It’s all the time to think between shots.”
I asked the great Phil Mickelson the same question and he said, “It’s all the choices you have.”
I asked Jack Nicklaus and he replied, “Because you must master so many elements, including yourself.”
I asked the golf commentator and author David Feherty and he said, “Because it’s a ridiculous game and it’s our fault for playing it.”
I was tempted to ask Feherty if he had ever lost two clubs in a tree on one hole but realized it wasn’t necessary. He would understand.
This is a book that speaks to both the exultant and troubled souls of golfers everywhere, men and women like me who are transfixed by the game and long to understand it. Golf is an endeavor of hope, fear, disappointment, glee, perseverance, abandonment, unrelenting gratification and unexpected reward, certain punishment, integrity, cheating, camaraderie, isolation, technology, and oneness with nature, all governed by a stifling set of ancient rules frequently undone by an unseen yet officially recognized karma called “rub of the green.”
We, the golf tribe, take our golf with eyes wide open—the better to let tears of frustration and of joy flow freely.
I have played golf seriously for the last thirty years and have covered and written about the game throughout that time as well. For the last several years, I have written a weekly golf column in the New York Times called “On Par,” which has let me come face-to-face with all the simplicities and complexities of golf in its many arenas. But newspaper columns are brief. A book allows us to examine golf’s length and breadth, to propose and ponder solutions to the seemingly unsolvable. Because golf is much more than the quest to master the actual game. Golf transports the player to a foreign land and culture with its own set of mores and protocols. It is a world with quizzical and ever-changing weaponry and settings of great beauty but treacherous hazards.
Golf is often likened to a battle of self, a crucible of temptation and honor, and it is, but even that seems an understatement since golf means learning to deal with maddening playing partners, changing weather conditions, astonishing inequities, and ugly clothes, not the least of which is hopelessly goofy shoes.
Then there are the basic steps of learning the game and the behemoth of golf instruction. Everything about this helpful community of teachers is inherently confusing, which might explain why there are several hundred theories on the correct way to learn golf and another thousand theories on how to get better at it. The reality is that the golfing indoctrination never truly ends. The game even has its own ever-evolving language.
And yet, there is no more dedicated tribe than golfers. If they are not exactly the definition of contentment, they are hearty and resolute. If love means never having to say you’re sorry, then golf means never having to say you’re satisfied.
Why do golfers say that it never rains on the golf course? Because even when it does, there is nowhere else they would rather be. Why do few serious golfers quit the game? Because they are convinced they are one keen golf tip, or one discerning golf book, away from learning the secret to good golf for good. Why do presidents of the United States play golf? Because it makes running the free world seem easy.
In the pages th...