How you play starts with who you think you are.
Three years ago, my mother and I were sitting on the porch of her home in Albany, New York, drinking gin and tonics, eating cashews and olives, and gabbing about family, the traffic on her little suburban street and the health of her dachshund, Henry. She is my friend and I trust her. We relax in moments like these, miss my father a little and give each other license to speak a bit too loosely. This time, when talk turned to a round of golf I’d played with a close friend at Sleepy Hollow that very weekend, Mom asked if I’d played to my handicap. I told her emphatically no. I’d played poorly, collapsing in my match after I landed the ball three feet below the cup on a par three, only to watch the next guy up—one of my opponents—carve a five-iron off a swale in the green and roll it twenty feet into the jar for an ace. I went to pieces and let the match slide away.
But my mother doesn’t understand golf; she only knows what she hears. She let it slip that my brother Peter and my cousin Marty had been snickering about my ten handicap for a year now. Somehow for her, their innuendo hooked up to the unlikely hole in one and my tank job after that.
Golf does not come easily to me. I’m a big, arm-swinging guy, fairly inaccurate with my irons and prone to lengthy putting slumps. But I had worked myself into a good spot that summer and watched my handicap improve without any real calculation. So after my mother’s comment on the porch, I sat there and steamed. I was a ten, sometimes an eleven, depending on the week. But how could I prove it?What could I do except confront Pete and Marty verbally or challenge them to a match?These two ideas soon faded: I had things to prove, yes, but only to myself.
I have always believed the best thing about golf is that you play alone. You may be in a foursome, and that foursome may be part of a tournament, and you may have a caddie pouring cider in your ear with his steady chatter up and down every fairway, but you are alone, so alone, when you swing. When you make contact, it’s you and the ball. The resulting shot is yours alone. The format and the setting may be social, but the game is solitary.
So instead of challenging my doubters, I did what I always do. I returned to the course by myself to inventory my game. Not my skills. My game. How did I play?What did I expect out there?Did I actually have standards?I set out to play a round alone and really keep an eye on things. The time had come to step back and listen to instinct, to the drowned-out voices inside.
In golf, behavior leads to performance. I’ve learned that much over the years. The calmest, most collected players, the ones for whom deportment and demeanor come second nature, generally prevail. I used to observe them and puzzle over their approach. It seemed to be a matter of the game emanating from confidence, and confidence flowing from a set of personal standards that were grasped without complaint and embraced without fanaticism. In these players, the rules of the game and the substance of its style stayed close at hand. Following their example was how I had come to be a ten. Looking back, I was embedding the physical game in an internal set of codes that I figured made me a better golfer, and a better man.
Once, for instance, I was a slob. My pants sagged, my bag was a mess. Again and again, I found myself on the outs. Lousy scores, competitive collapses and an unsatisfying game. But today I don’t play in shorts. I wear slacks. (I don’t want to look like a boy.) I iron my golf shirts. (I don’t roll out of bed to play. I choose to play, consciously.) I always tighten my belt an extra notch. (It reminds me to stand up straighter.) I never smoke. I keep my pockets empty of everyday items.
These weren’t sudden changes; in golf, revelation is rare. It does not reliably occur as the putt falls or after the vaulting crescent of a well-hit nine iron. Rather, it’s the result of an accretion of details that comes from watching others, and yourself. As you see someone nudge a ball out of a divot. As your partner throws a club in frustration. As you observe three college kids in running shoes, hooting on a distant green. In moments like these, you separate yourself from what you might be, and find ways to determine what you will be.
Golf is about making choices. Sure, you can cheat. But golf is an endeavor of steadiness, and steadiness starts in the heart, reflects in the body and reveals itself in the outcome. A sure golfer is not always a great golfer, but he approaches every lie—center cut, in a divot, buried in sand—with one certainty, one sensibility. Performance follows sensibility, and sensibility begins in habit.
Ultimately, golf is larger than the game itself; done right, it ought to send tendrils out into the way you live life and the things you choose to value. I love a game of pick-up basketball, but it’s never taught me a damn thing about decorum or maleness or standards, just how to throw an elbow. Golf taught me lessons about what I expect from myself. Golf gave me a code. But not the one posted on the club rule board. It’s one I developed over many years, by myself.
So I walked alone onto the first tee of my local club and went through my routine of expectation. It wasn’t a litany of rules that rolled out, but a series of behaviors. I tucked in my shirt. I turned off my cellphone. I checked the crease on my pants. I Sharpied three balls with my own mark and made sure I had nothing in my pockets but three tees, a pencil and a scorecard. I pulled my hat down tight and put on my sunglasses. Only then did I take a deep breath and pluck my driver from my bag. I didn’t go over the rules in my head—I know the rules—and I didn’t remind myself to play honestly. I am honest. Everything I’d just done—every step in the routine—reminded me of that. If I straightened up, I knew that the game would straighten out in front of me because of it.
Satisfied, I gazed out into the heat of an Indiana afternoon. There was a foursome in front of me. They waved me along, but I held up my hand. I was good. I didn’t need to play through. By my standards, a single has no inherent rights. I took a long look at the fairway. I brushed the front of my pants. Retied my shoes. No one was watching. But I knew where I wanted to go and how I wanted to get there. A golfer always does.
Tom Chiarella is a writer-at-large at Esquire.