The dew was still thick on the lush, green bent grass, testifying to the early morning tee times. At the first tee, four golfers stretched their muscles as they swung perfect practice swings.
Others waited patiently by their carts, readjusting the Velcro on their gloves and wiping their clubs clean. A light rain fell softly as the golfers prepared for a most important round of eighteen holes.
No, it wasn’t the Masters at Augusta; it wasn’t even a city tournament at McCabe. It was the Fenoglio Family Golf Outing held during our Fourth of July reunion. There’s a fondness for golf that runs through my family.
Some family members have monthly, even weekly love affairs with the sport. They’ll meet regularly at their neighborhood course or fly to distant cities for nearly five hours of passionate play. Afterwards, no matter the outcome, they’ll always look forward to their next rendezvous.
On the other hand, golf and I are sporadic daters, getting together only a couple times a year. We’ll see each other for nine holes one afternoon, share a few laughs, part amicably without regret, and then forget about each other for many months.
So, when I read the reunion schedule included a golf outing, I accepted with a little trepidation.
Will it be fun? Will my uncles give me helpful tips, even though I play left handed? Will I just completely embarrass myself?
Suffice it to say, the highlight of the round was the final hole. Not because the round was over, but because it was the only hole that I shot par. As the final putt dropped into the hole, I ignored the game’s etiquette and shouted “Par!”
Up on the hill, already finished with his round, Uncle Mike shouted in praise and raised his arms in salute. “You still hit from the wrong side of the ball!” he added.
On the whole, the day was quite enjoyable, with fine weather and long walks to find my ball on adjacent fairways. It was humbling to watch my cousin’s teenage sons play so much better than me. Yet it was a day with unexpected joys – the par on 18, a straight drive down a narrow fairway, a well-placed pitch in front of a meandering creek.
Within this game are spiritual elements that also serve as lessons for life.
I found some of these lessons in the book Golf and the Spiritual Life by Father Mike Linder, a priest in the Knoxville diocese. I lived next to Mike in a dorm room years ago at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL and we enjoyed a few rounds on the school’s golf course.
As I look back over my weekend of family golf, a few of the life lessons from his book come to mind:
Play it as it lies. It’s very tempting, especially when no one is looking, to nudge the ball up onto a tuft of grass from a poor lie in the rough, making it easier to hit. Not only is “improving one’s lie” against the rules, it also shows that we are not taking responsibility for the swing that drove the ball to the poor lie in the first place.
In golf and life, bad breaks sometimes happen, even when we’re doing the best we can. For that matter, good breaks sometimes happen when we don’t do anything at all. By “playing it as it lies,” we live honestly with truth behind all our actions.
Focus on the task in front of you. Yes, it can be difficult to focus on one task during golf, as so many things have to happen at the same time: keep your arm straight, bend your knees slightly, etc. etc. But none of these tasks matter if you are not keeping your eye on the ball and hitting it squarely.
“Be the ball,” says Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) to Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) in the hilarious golf film Caddyshack. Too often I want to see where the ball is going, so I lift my head before the shot is completed, thus changing the position of my hands and the path of the ball. If I had a little more patience, I’d complete one task before looking ahead to another.
Let go of the past and continue to practice. Jack Nicholas writes in his book Golf and Life that the most important practice is the time immediately after a round, when that day’s swing is still fresh. It’s important to forget those bad shots, as they are gone. Instead, work hard now to improve your swing in the future.
On the Web you can find photos of Tiger Woods, age 3, following through his golf swing in perfect form. Most of us would love to have the swing Tiger had at 3. Yet he has reshaped his swing twice through endless hours of practice just to improve and be the best.
If Tiger thinks he can get better, then I’ve got tons of potential. I think I’ll head to the driving range so I can get ready for the next family golf outing.
First published in the July 11, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio