In golf, perspective is more important than perfection
By Dennis de Jesus Jr.
I’m a mid-handicap golfer who would love to be a single-digit or even a scratch. It’s not so I can join the tour and compete for the big (but often times small) purses of a tournament, it’s more of a badge of honor and to brag to friends that you can hit a dimpled ball pretty consistently and manage a decent round every once in a while. Anyone who is a casual golfer knows of someone who is a pretty solid golfer. He or she is that person who you want to be paired with for a scramble tournament and would only play for skins if they gave you a handful of generous strokes. I wanted to be that person – a guy that can run with the low handicappers and be somewhat envied by the mid-to-high handicappers.
But the reality is that I don’t practice or play enough to warrant such unreasonable expectations and I don’t have the natural talent to hide the imperfections (and there are many) in my game. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying. A year ago, I decided to take lessons for the first time in my eleven year golf “career” because I really wanted it to be my goal to be that low digit handicapper that I’ve always dreamed about. So I packed my bags and went down to Palm Springs for a week of one-on-one sessions with a PGA Master Professional – a wizard who would presumably magically transform my swing from a weekend hacker into the rhythmic balance of Adam Scott. Turns out that to be Adam Scott you have to be born with some sort of physical gift that allows you the flexibility and length that he possesses. So a week of drills and many practice rounds later, I still had not perfected the golf swing, but I managed to take home with me a better tool set than I came with and improvements that actually helped lower my handicap a few strokes.
But with that kind of investment in time and money comes expectations and for whatever reason, I thought I could translate all that knowledge and good habits immediately and better my game by at least 10 or 11 strokes in the next season. Realistically, I probably improved about four-to-five strokes, but it didn’t feel like that was enough. I began to over think my swing and brought too much of the mental aspect into it, which as many of you know, is the harbinger of disaster when it comes to your golf game. With too much of my brain affecting my swing, I experienced a case of the dreaded —- (four letter y-word) and really tanked my game to a point where it wasn’t as fun anymore. I resigned to playing Tiger Woods on my PS3 to bring my confidence back, which would be similar to wearing a bandana tightly around your head to cure a migraine.
So there I was, less than a year removed from the excellent instruction I received from a PGA Master Professional, yet frustrated at the realization of sitting in the valley part of a roller coaster ride that is my golf game. I had already seen the improvements and I revelled in the little things that helped me go from being happy to have a 60-foot putt for birdie to actually seeing an approach shot as flag hunting. I knew it was a cyclical thing and often times getting out of the rut is a mind over matter, but I didn’t know what kind of trigger would help me this time around.
Almost by chance, I came across an advertisement from the local chapter of the Special Olympics looking for volunteers. I had been looking for a new volunteering opportunity around the same time, so the opportunity to work with such a respected organization already had my interest, but when they highlighted their need for coaches specifically in their golf program, I knew this would be a perfect fit for me.
My first day on the job wasn’t easy. We were asked to evaluate the athletes in a way that would allow the organizers to divide the group up into the various skill levels. This was the first time I was around golfers who had disabilities that limited their physical movement while others faced mental challenges which affected their motor skills. Up to that point, I was so critical of my own swing and those of my regular playing partners that I couldn’t quite grasp the concept of how imperfect the swings of these special athletes were. That first day was designed to just observe and judge and it was a struggle to do so objectively considering all the things I have been taught and conditioned to look for while watching golf telecasts and reading golf instruction books. Breaking plane, arms misaligned, bad grip, poor foot position, little shoulder turn — all the things that an instructor would cringe at were right in front of me. But in this environment, we celebrate the occasional good golf shot and encourage them to stay positive no matter what. To be honest, I think I was tough in my assessments of each athlete but at least I was consistent. As expected, each athlete had their own flawed swing all to their own and there wasn’t going to be a cure all drill or adjustment that would fix all of them at the same time.
Based on the assessments from the first day, each coach was assigned a handful of athletes that they would work with over the next two months on a weekly basis to develop a proper golf swing based on traditional instruction methods. Being a lefty, I was assigned the lefty athletes that were a mix of beginner (never swung a club) to intermediate (has played on a course a few times). Each week we worked on one component of the swing and then built upon that the following week, the intent being that by the end, the athletes are given the right tools and associated drills that would help them hit the ball more consistently and with more confidence. In essence, I would be teaching the golf swing from the ground up, starting from the basics all over again. In addition to teaching the sport to these eager athletes, this would be a nice refresher for myself because after a few years of being active in the sport, the basics can be quickly ignored in favor of bad habits and perhaps a reset was what I needed to get out of my rut.
It turns out the refresh of the golf swing mechanics was not what helped me. I thought that reviewing the basics of the “perfect” golf swing and teaching/learning it with these athletes would help me get over my own mental hurdle of the golf swing, as though repetition and teaching good habits out loud would trigger the proper swing thoughts even for myself. Nope — in fact it was witnessing the simple joy in the athletes when they occasionally hit the ball clean off the face and it would fly and go straight in the intended direction. Sure it might not have traveled an adequate distance for the club they had in their hand, but it was recognizing that it was a good golf shot versus a shank or a mishit. And a good golf shot was worth a high five.
My students also showed composure when they did mishit or miss the ball entirely. There was no swearing, no slamming the club to the ground, no club toss. They just reset, went through the prescribed pre shot routine and tried again. Not once did I hear any complaining from the athletes when I suggested an adjustment, even if the adjustment was physically impossible to achieve based on their disability. They still tried and allowed me to see how my suggestions would take or not, often times forcing me to make the adjustment.
Through it all, one thing remained constant – a good golf shot was welcomed and celebrated and a not so good one was quickly erased from memory until a solid shot was made again. This was all under the guise of athletes with less than perfect golf swings. Again, we can teach what an ideal setup is or what it means to be “on plane,” but the execution of it is usually less than ideal, even for an able bodied athlete.
Observing their composure and noting how to enjoy the simple success of a well hit golf shot helped me to appreciate the game as a whole again. I managed to take the intangible things I learned from working with these athletes onto the course and wouldn’t you know it, my game improved again. I began to see the game differently and instead of worrying about what I was doing wrong, I tuned my brain to believe in the shot I wanted to make and appreciating it more when it was well executed. I also learned to have a short memory with my bad shots and not dwell on them so much. I managed to stay relaxed throughout my round and just enjoy being out on the course regardless of how many circles/squares were on my card. And as an added benefit, my scores started to come down and I started to hover in the low-to-mid 80s, which is not bad for a hack like me. Obviously, there is still a lot of room for improvement and I’d like to be able to approach a round with breaking 80 in mind, but I think I’ve learned enough about perspective in the last few months that I won’t stress myself to get there.
Sometimes, it’s embracing imperfection that truly helps with one’s perspective. I didn’t need a sports psychologist or hours upon hours on the range to fix the mental block I created in my own mind. It was a simple matter of surrounding myself with the right mix of people with good attitudes and learning from them. I already received excellent professional instructions to fix the mechanics of my swing, but I overlooked the importance of the mental component of my game. It may seem strange that in addition to lessons, I learned how to play better golf by helping out disabled athletes who cannot physically or mentally build a perfect Ben Hogan-esque golf swing, but I can honestly say that what those athletes taught me about golf was more helpful than what Peter Kostis and the Swing Vision camera could ever do for me. I know I’m never going to be a pro golfer and I might even be hard pressed to be a scratch golfer, but I’m not going to resent the game because I’m unable to achieve those lofty goals. Instead, I’ll just enjoy my time on the course and high five my buddies every so often, even for a well-played double bogey.