“I have no idea how to play this!” said my playing partner as I walked over to my ball on the green. His ball was in a bunker behind the green, with a tree blocking his shot. He had to hit a 20m shot under a tree while getting the ball to stop on the green — from sand. An impossible golf shot.
I couldn’t help him. I started looking at my putt to figure out how to play it. He set up. I stood waiting for him to play while thinking about my putt. He played the shot. “He could not have played that any better,” I thought. A couple of bounces, then the ball hit the flagstick and dropped in the hole. We had the only appropriate response. Cries of laughter.
The best shot I had ever seen in person. Not to be outdone I lined-up my putt. While doing so, I thought I have to follow that act up with a birdie of my own. I stood over the putt and thought, “I am going to make this.” I hit the putt. It dropped.
Ten years prior, I stood on the tee of an uphill 120m par 3. I had a 9-iron in my hand. It was a different brand to the rest of my iron set. In terms of quality, a worse iron. A piece of equipment that you would expect would provide you the ability to get the ball in the air and nothing else. So, I tried to get the ball in the air. It went straight at the pin.
The green was above us. It was impossible to tell if the ball went in the hole or not but everyone had a feeling. We walked slowly towards the green, quietly hopeful. After completing half the walk, we gave up the facade and started sprinting. The ball was not on the green. There was only one place it could be. Low and behold the ball had gone in the hole. After only two years of playing golf, I had my first hole in one. We ran and laughed in jubilation at one of the rarest shots in golf.
Is this why we play golf? The way it feels when you make a long birdie putt or the feeling of holing out from 120m’s away? Could all the hours and money spent on the sport be worth it for that one moment of dopamine?
I don’t think so. I think there is a deeper meaning to playing the game.
One afternoon I lay on the couch at home watching something. I don’t remember what, but it was probably a cartoon that as a teenager I would have claimed to find lame. My mom barged through the front door in a huff. She had just found a way to get home after our car was stolen. Any key could open the car, meaning we weren’t surprised by it being gone. Fortunately, my mom was in the shops during the theft. A frustrating but reasonably minor crime.
A few hours later, I remembered, my golf clubs were in the car. Golf clubs that I had collected over two years by selling a surfboard, cricket kit, and whatever I could find to afford a usable set. As a teenager, they were my pride and joy. They were older and arguably worse than any of my high school friends clubs, but they were mine. I loved them to a point that may have been idolatry. I was heartbroken.
A year before that I had lost one of my clubs to an all boys school class scuffle. The closest I got to being in a fight in high school was by breaking up a fight with screams of, “You broke my putter! That’s R200!” Why my brain chose that specifically low number, I don’t know. What I do know is that in the moment I felt like I would not be able to get another putter. I felt the same way when my golf clubs were stolen with the car.
I lost my clubs in a painful but unlikely way. despite that, I also gained clubs in many unlikely ways. My first set of clubs were a set of Little Tigers bought for me by my parents. Nothing unusual about that. However, a few years later after losing my first set to Cash Crusaders, a teacher asked me to join a round of golf for my school. I told him that I did not have any clubs.
Somehow, he had a set of ladies clubs in his classroom that he said I could use. I don’t remember if I played well or not but a few days after the round, he gave me the set. It was with that set that I truly started to get into golf. After a few months, I traded those in with a surfboard and whatever else I could find to a secondhand sport store for the set of clubs that were destined to be stolen.
After losing my clubs, my golf playing friends showed me incredible generosity. They knew how passionate I was about the game, but that luck had not been on my side. One of my friends gave me a golf bag, another gave me a set of irons and a putter, while insurance money paid for a driver (if memory serves). I was the charity golfer of my grade. I didn’t feel it at school but on the golf course I certainly did.
I have never been poor, but golf is not a cheap hobby. Something I was unkindly reminded of in my first year of university.
I got committed to golf later than many of my high school friends, but from the moment I started I wanted to take the game as far as I could. I wanted to play professionally. As you may know, that did not happen.
As I started university though, I realised that I was getting good enough to play competitively. Something that had evaded me during school. To do so, I signed up for university golf, with the intention to play as much golf as possible. I wanted to become one of the universities top players. I knew I was worse than many of the university golfers, but I also knew that I wanted it more than them.
I had an agreement with my parents at the time that I would cover any university costs outside of my actual fees. I planned to pay for my golf through waitering. I checked out the golf pamphlet. It was clear as day; R4000 to be a full member of university golf and get full membership at Stellenbosch Golf Club. I was setup for success. I could waiter, study and have time to become a highly competitive golfer.
When I signed up for university golf, there were two forms to sign. Both saying essentially the same thing, both to the value of R4000. I asked the head of golf what that meant. He said, “don’t worry, just sign both.” That was something that happened a lot in first year. I was confused. He assured me it was the same as the pamphlet and I signed.
A few months later, my dad asked me about an R8000 cost on my university finances statement. I had no idea. After a while we figured out what took place. University golf cost me R4000x2. It turns out the forms were different forms, despite their similarities.
I had to make a plan to pay off R8000 rather than R4000. It meant that I needed to find a waitering job that would pay me more than the restaurant I was at. I moved to one of the most iconic restaurants in Stellenbosch. I would get paid more but it required more work. There were four weeks of study and training before I could start serving tables. After that, I was required to work four shifts a week, some of which were doubles, with waiter training every couple of weeks. It was a demanding job that I had to do while studying. The consequence of that… I was now unable to practice golf during term time because I could not manage that with my studies. That was one blow to many.
At the same time, I was growing impatient with Golf’s failure to reckon with the more historically harmful elements of the game. A converstion that is now happening in-depth on IOL thanks to Jehad Kasu’s Far From Par Series.
I decided to use my membership until the end of the year, and then stop trying to play a lot of golf until I could afford it. I played every now and again, but life gets in the way. It was seven years later that I picked up my clubs and fully committed to the sport once more.
As you can tell golf has caused me and others a lot of pain, so why would I still play it?
When I sit down to think about it, that is a tough question to answer. It makes me think about a frequent conversation I have with one of my students. She is a gifted writer, who is convinced that she can change my mind about getting a 100% for an essay. As a writer myself, I strongly advise her not to aim for 100%. I want her to know that good writing is not perfect. Good writing is painful. Good writing is joyful. Good writing is true. You cannot have those with perfection.
So, it is with the game of golf. To quote the godfather of Golf Psychology; “Golf is not a game of perfect”.
Golf has taught me many life lessons. It taught me an immense work ethic in high school and university. It taught me to control my anger. It taught me to pay attention to every factor. It taught me what it feels like to be an outsider. It taught me to push on when you’re having a bad day. It taught me to stick to a target.
Now, I play golf because it is fun. I play to medidate. I play to process. I play to see friends. I play to get better. I play because I have found ways to afford it. I play to laugh. I play to grow.
All in all, I play golf because, like life, it is hard but it is meant to be enjoyed.
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