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In 2005, after playing junior and NCAA competitive golf, I stopped playing the game for about eight years. Like many young people building careers, I moved to a city where I found golf uncomfortable and frankly unaffordable. When I returned to the game, I felt like a character in a movie suddenly transported into the future – everything seemed familiar and completely strange at the same time. Elite golfers were armed with new equipment and new strategies – even a new understanding of the physics that underlies the flight of the ball.
Golf had changed – and of course I had changed too. I'm 40 now – with a very different body and brain than when I was 20. Recently I discovered a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which is appropriate: “No one fishes twice in the same river, because it is not the same. river, nor is he the same man. "
Here are the main differences that I now navigate as a middle-aged golfer.
Golf is hard
My absence from the game coincided with the rise of big data and analytics – first in the financial world and eventually in everything else. For golf, the data revolution involved tracking and analyzing millions of beats on the PGA tour through a system called ShotLink. As far as I can tell, the main insight from all this data wrangling is that golf is really, extremely, excruciatingly difficult, even for the best players in the world.
When I was in college, I expected to hit every iron on the green, shoot every wedge to within 10 feet, and go every putt within three feet. ShotLink's stats show just how reckless these expectations were, especially for me, a bench warmer on an Ivy League golf team. From 150 yards down the fairway, PGA tour players miss the green on one of four attempts. From 110 yards into the fairway, they hit him outside three yards most of the time (74.6 percent of the time to be exact). Even the best putters in the world can expect to miss six meters a third of the time.
I find these kinds of statistics both discouraging and liberating. It's depressing to think that even highly talented athletes who dedicate their entire professional lives to the game still suck up a significant amount of the time – what hope is there for a weekend warrior like me? The great American psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered long ago that the most addicting you can offer lab rats or humans are unpredictable rewards. That is exactly what you are guaranteed in golf. No matter how hard you practice – no matter how good you get – you will sometimes get positive reinforcement and sometimes get slapped in the face. There is no way to predict when it will happen. It can be incredibly annoying – and addictive.
But now that I've internalized this – now that I've seen the statistics and faced the brutal truth – I feel free from unrealistic expectations and the self-punishment that follows when such expectations are violated by reality. Of course it still hurts my ego if I dump a 150 yards approach into a front bunker, or three putts from 12 yards, or miss the green from 90 yards. But it calms my ego to know that even PGA professionals do all of these things – and often not. My self talk shifts from "you suck!" to "golf is difficult." I enjoy the game more than ever because I can shake off bad shots as part of the golf experience. And when I hit a really great shot – say, if I hit the green from outside 230 yards – I celebrate the outcome more because I know how rare it is. Golf is essentially invincible. I love the game even more now that I've accepted this.
Ball Flight Laws
During my junior career, I was told that the path of the golf club on impact determines which direction the ball starts, and the face determines where it ends. To hit a fade, the right-handed golfer must face the target and swing to the left. That is completely intuitive – and completely incorrect. In fact, launch monitors have shown that the alignment of the face on impact largely determines the direction the ball starts, and the relationship between the target of the face and the path of the club determines how much the face bends and where it ends. What this means in practice is that to hit a fade, your face must be closed to the target on impact (how much is determined by the path).
This may sound technical and shaky, but it is hugely important to golfers struggling to fix a recurring miss. In the past, if I overdid a fade, I would try to move my path more to the left, because I (wrongly) thought that this would make the ball start further to the left. All of this, of course, only made my problem worse – it made the ball start on the same line and just cut more. Does this understand mean that I make fewer bad shots? I doubt it. But now at least I can figure out the cause of those bad shots – and adapt faster.
I am amazed how the golf community got the ball flight laws so wrong for so long. This is not quantum physics. They are things Newton could have thought of centuries ago. But as is so often the case, common sense has given science priority until it could no longer resist.
Growing up playing golf, elite golfers fetishized a & # 39; good & # 39; golf swing. It was the Leadbetter / Faldo era when instructors felt they were doing the & # 39; right way & # 39; came closer to swing. Today I feel that elite golfers are less concerned about how their swing looks and more concerned about impact conditions – the "moment of truth" when ball and club come together. I know a competitive golfer who doesn't even send a video to his swing coach, just numbers from his launch monitor (eg "Hey coach: 1.9 degrees up, 2.8 degrees to the left, face to path 1.5R, 2145 rpm. ? "). I remember being obsessed with my takeaway and backswing in college. For many instructors, the club's position in the backswing is really an afterthought. Who cares? Just make a turn and rip it.
Elite golfers today have a similar disdain for the & # 39; swing easy & # 39; ethos of my day. This is evident from the tee, when golfers are taught to feel like they are explosively jumping off the ground with their front foot on impact, leading to increased clubhead speed. Even "controlling" players like Francesco Molinari have learned that they will get better results by swinging their driver – a strategy he used to tame Carnoustie at the Open Championship two years ago.
In my youth, long-hitters were derided as meatheads – "the forest is full of long-hitters" was a common way of sending golfers away at speed. The "smart" golfers were the "tacticians" who avoided the dangers and made their way on the golf course. So it's ironic – but perhaps inevitable – that it was mathematicians who nullified this misconception by using ShotLink's data on & # 39; strokes gained & # 39; to process. And what they found was that the meat heads were the ones who played smart: with a few exceptions, the best way to improve your score is to just send it in.
No Land for Old Men
It is difficult to describe how nerve-racking it is to apply this new approach to the game. I still feel uncomfortable hitting drivers on hard holes in competition – not to mention swinging at full power. That goes against everything that instructors I have taught me with respect and admiration – including my father. I feel like an old communist apparatus that defected to the West during the Cold War. I see a better way of life all around me, I can even adopt the local customs, but I know I'll always feel a little uncomfortable – and I'll never lose a conflicting affection for the life I've left behind.
But isn't that generally true of getting older – that we feel more and more like we are strangers in a foreign country? Or that we no longer belong when a new generation comes through? It is a misplaced loyalty to the past to combat the inevitable change. You may know these types on the golf course – they are the ones who lecture the 17 year old high school hotshot on the & # 39; right way & # 39; to play on the golf course even while the 17 year old sets new course records
One of the great gifts I've received for golf over the years is that it has shown me a more graceful and enjoyable way to age. "Old men should be explorers," says the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, and what I think he meant is that we should never stop learning and growing and have fun taking every new step forward, even if it takes us further from what we find familiar and comfortable. Now when I get on the tee – even on a tough par 4 – I reach back and hit it as hard as I can. With my stooped shoulders, graying hair, and flabby stomach, I'm sure I look a little rude to the 17-year-olds I often competed with. But I don't care. Because as I watch the ball fly into the blue abyss, in that split second of uncertainty all golfers share as they look up to see which direction their ball is heading, I feel that old feeling in the veins again, that lightning strike from discovery and fear that is the hallmark of youth.
About the author
Eben Harrell is an editor, writer and competitive amateur golfer who divides his time between Colorado and Scotland.