I play golf, but I’m not a golfer. I think there may be quite a few of us out there. One of my older brothers, I believe, falls into this category. He, like me, enjoys the social interaction and exercise as well as being outdoors. But we’re not going to spend time between rounds practicing or taking lessons, trying to get better. Our golf game is what it is and it’s unlikely to improve. As far as my other brother is concerned, I’m reasonably confident he would opt for a root canal without painkillers over a round of golf. Even so, he still plays occasionally.
To describe this another way, when I’m on my way to play golf, I’m calculating “what time will I get home?” As a contrast, when I’m heading out to go fishing, I’m usually wondering “how long can I stay?”
This doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to playing. I love getting out on the course. I’m not very good, but I do play fast—I can shoot my 105 as quick as you can shoot your 80. Plus, I tend to have a positive attitude about the whole thing. It’s unusual that I get frustrated about my serial incompetence or upset because I just took six shots to travel a hundred and thirty yards. On the occasions that I do get aggravated, I’m laughing about it about thirty seconds later.
Unfortunately, I struggle with what the experts call the “mental aspects” of the game. For example, on one occasion I couldn’t decide which club to hit. My indecisiveness became clear when during my backswing I said, out loud, “this is probably the wrong club, but here goes.” The ball skewed away at an angle and stopped unceremoniously about twenty yards away. While walking over so I could try again, my buddy Tom (more on him to come) commented, “You know, the sports psychologists would probably point out that it’s not a good thing to question the shot you’re hitting during the actual swing.” I had to agree. During another round, I was faced with a shot over a pond. Actually, there was a choice between trying a safe shot that would maneuver around the water, or a “hero shot” to get to the green. As you might have guessed, I opted for the “hero shot” and kept muttering to myself “this is a mistake, this is a mistake” while I set up and hit the ball, which promptly bounced into the water. My response was to immediately shout “you stupid, stupid man!” To this day, Tom and I call this the “stupid, stupid man” hole (for anyone interested, it’s the seventh hole at Richmond Country Club in Goochland, Virginia.) I once asked Tom, who is a good golfer, if I should spend more time getting ready to shoot (I tend to walk up, take quick aim, and strike the ball. I don’t take practice swings.) His response sums up all you need to know about my tendency to overthink on the golf course: “No, you’ve got so many gremlins running around in your head, I don’t think the extra time would be helpful.”
Some more about Tom. He and I play nine holes every week, weather and travel schedules permitting. He’s serious about his golf and can usually hit a good shot (excuse me, you’re supposed to say “nice ball”) when it’s necessary. He’s as funny as they get and is great company on the course. A bunch of years ago, we decided to formalize our competition during our regular rounds. So, Tom gives me a stroke a hole and we battle it out for a couple of hours a week. Now, Tom wins about eighty percent of the time, which means I probably should be getting more strokes per round, but, for two very good reasons, that’s never going to happen. First, there’s no way I can ask for additional assistance and still maintain any semblance of self-respect. Secondly, even though Tom usually wins, most matches go until at least the eighth hole, so they’re always close. I think it’s safe to say that, given this reality, the problem is, most likely, related to my inability to execute a key shot in a clutch situation.
Each season, one of us contributes a dollar bill that has Tom’s initials on the left and mine on the right. For every victory, a slash mark is added below the winner’s initials. When there’s a tie, the slash goes in the middle. More importantly, whoever won the most recent match has possession of the “buck” until the next time we play.
Pretty small stakes, right? Ah, no.
To give you an understanding of the importance of the “buck,” Tom once pulled my son aside and said something along the lines of, “my job, my marriage, my kids, none of that stuff matters. All that matters is who has the buck.” He may have done this at my daughter’s wedding. To this day, I’m not completely sure he was kidding. Another time, we were playing and Tom wasn’t feeling right. I actually thought he was experiencing either heat stroke or some sort of cardiac event. While I was concerned for his health, I took the time to ask what would happen if he keeled over on the course. Would I win the match that day? He confirmed that, yes, his death would constitute a forfeit and possession of the buck would be mine. Satisfied, I then shifted my focus to finding out was wrong with my good friend (for the record, he was fine.)
We’ve named our rounds the Death Match. It’s even the title shown on our calendar invitations. Tom, having won the buck one season, actually framed it and hung it on the wall in his office. When I return home from the course, the first question my wife asks is, “Did you bring home the buck?” I’m sure she’s disappointed at the number of times I have to say no.
Now, in reality, we’re not THAT serious about the whole thing and, if I’m being honest, our nine-hole excursions are about way more than golf. On the course, we’ve had days where one of was frustrated, grieving, or sick with worry. We’ve discussed our kids, the death of parents, career status, and, at least for me, insecurities. When asked, the other offers advice. More than that, though, we’ve laughed. And, I mean, a lot. My favorite moment came during a Friday round quite a few years ago. I was about to assume a new role at our company and part of that responsibility was leadership of the Human Resources group. Tom, in all his wisdom, pulled me aside and said something along the lines of, “Okay, on Monday, HR is going to be working for you and you can’t say or think anything even remotely inappropriate at work again. So, I want you to get it all out of your system today. All the swears and stories. Purge the system.” I will plead the fifth on whether or not I followed his recommendation.
As you might expect, there’s other people I’m close to that help me through tough spots. There’s my wife, my brothers, and a handful of other really close friends, individuals who mean more to me than I can adequately describe. But the time Tom and I share on the golf course is the most fun I could ever have while, at the same time, working through some of life’s thorny issues. There’s also the added advantage that conversations come up organically. It’s not like I have to call him and say, “hey, somethings going on, I need to talk.” We just hit the ball, walk, talk, and, both literally and figuratively, see where things land. It’s a great escape for a couple of hours each week and he’s a great friend during a crisis.
Of course, I’m divulging all this in the strictest confidence. Don’t tell Tom. He can’t know that our nine-hole tournaments mean anything more than winning the buck. For me, watching him suffer the abject humiliation of defeat is, truly, a moment to cherish. Seriously, if that’s not true friendship, what is?