Golf, And The Battle For Perfection

Even on a driving range, golf is a struggle. Not against an opponent, or even a course, but against the cruelties and insidious doubt that are unique to the sport. That's, uh, the fun of it.
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Hitting a golf ball very straight is a very hard thing to do, especially if, like me, you aren’t all that able to hit the ball at all with any consistency. This seems very obvious, and yet the inability to consistently hit the ball—where the face of the club makes solid contact with the ball, instead of thudding into the ground behind it, or whooshing through the air directly over it, or fffffft-ing through the grass around it—does not stop me from feeling dejected and frustrated when I finally do hear that delicious metallic thwack and look up to see the ball slicing way the fuck off to the right like an errant Aerobie, making a little puddle-drop ripple in the side net that is the only thing keeping it from menacing rush-hour traffic.

OK. That one was bad. Tee up a new ball. Get your feet comfy under you, balance your weight between your heels and toes. Now, place the club head just a couple inches behind the ball. Now align the left hand, strong but gentle. Now lay the right hand, careful to rotate the thumb into a powerful grip. Good. Let the reach of your right hand pull you into your stance. No, you are hunched over. Stick your butt out and straighten your back. Good.

At this point I am still as much as a minute away from actually hitting the ball. It’s not exactly concentration, as much as it is fear of failure: the inability to proceed until reasonably certain a thing can be executed as close to perfectly as possible.

How does the grip feel? Not too tight? Your heels feel heavy. Shuffle your feet back a little until the weight is even. OK. Now what. Right, keep the left arm straight and the left wrist strong. Keep your head still. Bring your left shoulder to your chin. Be smooth and steady. “Release the club,” whatever that means. OK. Ready? Here we go. Almost. OK. Any time now. OK. Feels good. Go. Really. Go. You should go. Go.

In just the second-and-a-half it takes me to execute a backswing and swing, I observe and check maybe as many as a dozen things. Is my wrist strong? Check. Is my head still? Check. Am I using my core? Check. Am I shifting weight to my back foot? Check. Every little thing is felt, the whole body sending instant feedback to my brain, an endless noisy dot-matrix scroll of real-time data buzzing around. Now shift the weight forward to the front foot. “Release the club.” Follow through forward, stand up tall, let the club’s momentum carry it up and around until it is pointed perpendicular to the direction of the traveling ball. As many of these criteria as possible are checked in the tiny space of time between the revving up of potential energy that is the backswing, and the explosion of kinetic energy that is the swing itself. Everything mostly good, everything mostly in the right place. This time I am sure that when I hear that wonderful, elusive thwack I will look up and see the ball exploding forward and straight, maybe even with a slight hook, cruising low and fast out beyond the last marker, where only the back net will keep it from breaking some sort of distance record.

Only there’s no thwack at all. The club head thuds into the ground immediately behind the ball, then skips up into the ball itself, and CLUNK blasts a hard three-hop grounder toward where there really ought to be a shortstop. Gah. Fuck this.

The obsession with doing things exactly right permits only one kind of success, in endeavors ranging far, in every possible sense, from the hitting of the golf ball. In life, there can be no incremental progress—in golf, specifically, a fluid and compact swing that checks every box except the one in which the ball is struck cleanly and flies straight is every bit as much a failure as the Happy Gilmore hockey swing; they produce the same result. The feedback comes from everywhere in every moment, but success means only one thing among all the things. Every action is a page in a book, and the book, increasingly, is a story of failure.

Still, as the afternoon wears on, there are more thwacks than duds, and eventually a pattern emerges: a thwack means the ball will soar very high and fairly far in a direction that is at least 45 degrees to the right of the intended one, and will be slicing further that way the whole time, such that, were it not for the range’s netting, it would eventually be flying away from me at something like a right angle. Or perhaps it would continue circling until it landed, again, on the little patch of artificial turf that is my launchpad, like an expertly thrown boomerang, to the astonishment and horror of the many amateur golfers around me, who—wherever they fall on the golf swing spectrum, from Rory McIlroy-light to almost literally dancing the Tarantella with a golf club where a human partner should be—are all somehow noticeably better at hitting the ball more-or-less straight than I am.

But that’s not the most frustrating part. No, the most frustrating part is every 19th swing, when there’s no thwack at all, but an unpleasant, unsatisfying HOCK, followed by me making an angry GAH sound, followed by the ball arcing low and fast and straight and far, past the last marker and one-hopping to the back net. This sequence—the obsessively over-considered swing followed by an ugly, hollow sound, like a coconut being crushed with a rubber mallet—means that I have already decided the swing was a failure by the time I notice that the ball is doing just what it is supposed to do. But already I have mentally moved on from whatever I did to make this happen, marked the whole thing a bust and deleted it from the archive.

And so, in this way, I am cataloguing and reproducing only the swings that sound good, and those are the swings that slice the ball into where there really ought to be a stretch of gnarly forest in which scattershot golfers go to spend some dark minutes wallowing in self-loathing and hunting for thoroughly lost Titleists. I am very literally teaching myself to slice the ball.

The good hits are elusive. The straight ones, I mean. But, like blue crabs and strawberries, it’s the possibility that the next one might be THE ONE that keeps me coming back. I think I can say that some of the thrill would die if I could march up there every time and hit it long and straight. In this way I’m like a dog: dogs learn commands better not when they’re given a treat every time, but when they’re given a treat some of the time. Give a dog a treat every time and following the command becomes a decision—do I want a treat more than I want to continue sniffing this pile of deer poop—while giving a dog a treat some of the time makes the possibility of a treat too enticing to ignore. Maybe, if I ever reach the point where I am able to hit the ball long and straight every time, there will no longer be the desperate, urgent hope that this next one will go long and straight, and the completely out-of-proportion euphoria that would follow. Or, anyway, probably I wouldn’t need 247 balls to get my fix.

Or maybe this psychology scales all the way up—once you are able to hit the ball long and straight every time, you yearn for those moments when you are able to hit the ball within, say, ten degrees of a chosen marker. Then five degrees. Then with this other club (don’t even get me started on the other clubs). Then the putter. Putting seems like it will be the least satisfying sonic experience on the golf journey, although the rattle of the ball in the cup could be something.

These concerns are academic, and theoretical—for now I’m stuck trying to hit the ball straight most of the time, or at least in those times when I am able to hit the ball. The internet has thus far been more confusing than useful: one guy says to rotate my grip to my right, which will correct for something bad happening in my wrist during my backswing. Another guy says I should practice swinging the club in a big circle, with the bottommost point being where it would impact the ball. Another guy even says the club head needs to be traveling in a straight line, pointed in the direction I want the ball to go, at the moment of impact, which is like saying in order to find happiness I need to be more happy. Anyway, I’m not sure how I can be swinging the club in a circle and also in a straight line, although I’m willing to accept that this failure in understanding comes down to my being singularly awful at golf.

The most worrying internet tidbit comes from another guy, who says you can hook the ball and be good at golf but that slicing is almost the definition of being bad. All of that swirls around in my head before, during, and immediately after each swing, but this last bit is the loudest. However elegant and ergonomic my swing may appear, right now, as I stand here, I am being bad at golf. Everyone around here, even the guy gripping the club like an oar, is closer to being good at golf than I am, because my slice is sharpest, my slice is supreme. The psychic consequences of this notion are near-catastrophic, almost literally paralyzing.

Psychology differentiates between “normal” and “neurotic” perfectionism. Normal perfectionism is, in essence, the fall-back “greatest weakness” of interviewees everywhere: a fixation on achieving perfection that compromises a person’s function or self-esteem only minimally, or not at all. What you are saying, when you tell the HR person that you are a perfectionist, is “I am fixated on perfection, but not to such a degree that I will be a shitty employee.” Not much of a weakness, in the end. Really more of a dodge, I would say.

But “neurotic” perfectionism—real perfectionism, perfectionism before it was cool to be a perfectionist—is this: standing over a golf ball in a state of terror, consumed by every tiny detail, down to the specific depth of each breath, and therefore unable to motivate your extremities into locomotion. Real perfectionism is the bone-deep certainty that everyone in this place is both better at this thing than you, and is acutely aware of how bad you are, on your own and out of context. When I tell the HR person I’m a perfectionist, I am telling them “you should kick me out of your office right this instant, because I will never let myself start or rest, ever.”

And we haven’t even talked about my wife. My wife, who is active and athletic but has almost zero interest in all sports, and who has played only about as much golf as I have—which is to say, enough to have established that only one of us can hit it straight—is an absolute savant at hitting the ball cleanly and right onto the fairway. Her swing is smooth and effortless from start to finish, and she hits the ball clean nearly every time, and even when she doesn’t hit the ball clean, the ball flies straight as an arrow and somehow lands on the damn fairway, as if doing otherwise would require some very specific effort.

Watching her, I am sometimes fooled into thinking this is an easy thing. Why am I worrying so much about the feet and the knees and the hips and the waist and the elbows and the shoulders and the hands and the back and the eyes and the follow-through and the internet men who say I am a monument to bad golfing? I should just go up there and hit the ball straight. Just hit it straight! Just walk up there, put the ball on the tubular rubber nurple thing, and hit it straight. Later you can hit it far. Later still you can actually aim for things. But, for now, just go up there and hit the ball straight.

But almost the moment the club is in my hands again, the complexity of this thing begins to swirl in my brain. It’s everything I can do to block out the noise and just set the ball on the tubular rubber nurple thing. Go. Go fast. Don’t worry about anything. Just stand over the ball and hit it straight. If I proceed quickly enough I am sometimes able to pull this off, to get over the ball and get my body moving without thinking about my hands or my elbows or my feet. I am able to center my focus on hitting the ball straight. And sometimes this seems to work! Thwack! The ball soars out in a mostly straight line, with just a little tailing action on it, and lands cleanly on or near the fairway. Success!

Immediately, my brain scrambles to define what just happened as a rule to follow. And so I’m over the ball again, and my mind is cycling through recent events trying to recall what just happened. Okay, did I simply sag into my stance? How long was I over the ball? Was I thinking about hitting it straight, or was I visualizing how it would fly and where it would land? Did I look out and pick a target? A line? Shit, have I already overthought this? I shove all this noise out and launch into my backswing. CHUH, the club thuds into the ground, and CLECK, the head glances the ball, and PAP! The ball shoots directly into the ball-feeder machine, a low barrier that happens to prevent my errant shot from killing the man hitting balls on the next launchpad over. And I’m left standing there, sweaty and red-faced, with the whole puzzle newly scattered in pieces, and confronting the possibility that even before it’d been dashed I’d been putting it together all wrong to begin with.

Is this fun, precisely? It’s diverting, that’s for sure. For all but a vanishingly tiny group among us, golf is a leisure activity where the superego rubber happens to hit the road, and it’s possible the health benefits of such a thing extend beyond the cardiovascular. After all, here I am, still standing over the ball, talking myself into action, confronting failure again and again. And sweating, as one does during exercise!

Or perhaps it is completely ruinous. Either way, this is probably why us regular golfers, out there on the links, get to drive small cars to traverse the distance between each swing. Each swing is devastating, or ecstatic.

No small cars here, though. Like future stages and iterations of obsession, traversing the distance between swings is, for the real perfectionist, an academic concern. A recent study says there are some 15,000 golf courses in the United States. There are differences—some are wooded, some are in the desert; some are short and fast, others are huge; some urban courses are surrounded by netting, some destination courses are surrounded by water; more than half are public, the rest are not. They all have this one thing in common: they are made for people who can hit the ball more-or-less straight, and all reward that behavior. More to the point, the standard golf course compounds the endlessly stacking insults of failure with the injury of by-God consequences. Until they devise a golf course with fairways that veer off from the tee to the extreme right (or are possibly circular) actual golf on an actual course will be for people who are not me.

The cycle of the unconquerable slice shares its shape with an unknowable number of human endeavors—low hurdles infused with the promise of perfection and the possibility of failure, over which the madman can obsess himself into a state of frozen terror. Golf is a comparatively low-stakes encounter, even accounting for the mortal danger faced by anyone at the driving range unlucky enough to be on my right. Golf presents the insane pressure cycle of perfectionism in miniature—the driving range’s utility as a practice ground is therefore more grand and more profound than its function merely within its sport. What we need is practice—next it will be the free throw line, or the curve ball. And it will not be mastered to perfection. And maybe this futility, finally, is the why—what better way to confront the impossibility of perfection?

If nothing else, this ongoing crisis-cycle—paralysis, tortured breakthrough, and failure after failure—is at least vaguely cathartic, as sports ought to be: each swing re-fights the familiar grinding battle of neurotic perfectionism, the whole thing a white-knuckle effort to force the body to overcome all the noise and fear and do the thing. Zoom out enough and you can spot something familiar, perhaps still tortured and obsessive, but normal—a person working methodically and determinedly to achieve something like perfection. This is normal perfectionism, achieved via neurotic perfectionism. Or, anyway, this is what I tell myself, on swing number 248. Fore! cries the madman, violently slicing another 3-wood, obliquely, into the void. For the real perfectionist, even if every hit is a failure, every swing is a significant victory.

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