This golf lesson had nothing to do with my swing

  • May 15, 2012

They say you can learn more about a person on the golf course than you can in a business meeting or a social setting. And I believe it.

Love it or hate it, golf has this magical quality of exposing fabrics of your personality very quickly to strangers. Sometimes these traits can be pleasant, or quirky, or annoying, or worse.

If you’re a golfer and have been paired with a stranger on the first tee, you know what I am talking about. From that first tee ball to the first green, before the first putt falls into the hole, often you can tell if it will be a long day or not. (Believe it or not, I have played golf with priests — an occupation not altogether unfamiliar with the game — who made for a long day and I knew it quickly! Most priests, however, are a delight to play with.)

The other day, I not only learned a lot about a particular playing competitor whom I had never played with before, but I was also taught something about myself, too. It was a golf lesson that had nothing to do with the swing, but a lot to do with everyday life.

I won’t embarrass this chap by identifying him, but I will say his first name is John. And John is a 10-handicapper, which means most days he will shoot a score of about 85. On very good days he will break 80 and on bad days he’ll shoot in the low 90s.

For John, this particular day was worse than bad. He was duck hooking the ball off the tee, miss-hitting irons and missing very makeable short putts. As the day wore on, I was thinking maybe this stranger was more like a 20-handicapper than a 10.

Throughout it all, he didn’t lose his temper or his composure or start talking incessantly to a stranger like me about how horrible his game was for some unexplainable reason. He even called a penalty on himself for double hitting a putt; something I certainly did not see. The closest he came to self-pity was when he said in his lilting Irish accent, “Bob, I bet you think I am lying about my handicap?”

He hit one bad shot after another, with a few good ones sprinkled in, and all the while we’d walk up the fairways talking about anything from the challenges the Catholic Church now faces in his homeland of Ireland to unusual rules in the game of golf to him inviting me on one of the periodic golf trips he organizes to Ireland.

After one atrocious shot, he turned and said: “What am I going to do? It’s one of those days. I’m reminded of that saying that Victorian mothers used  when their daughters came to ask advice for their wedding night: ‘Just close your eyes and think of England.’ ” We laughed and trudged off to look for his ball.

His delightful demeanor amidst his golfing despair was refreshing and, before long, my game began to soar, in part because I was so comfortable in his company.

After the game, I was washing my hands and looking in the mirror, both literally and figuratively. I started asking myself questions: Why can’t I be that positive when things are going badly? Why do I have to fight being morose when my golf game stinks? Why can’t I be more fun to be around when I am making double bogey after double bogey?

Then I started thinking beyond golf. It’s easy to be upbeat when things are going well, but not so much when things are going the other way. Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”

It is a much better way to approach life and I had to be reminded of that on the golf course by a stranger, who may just become a friend.

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