How a golf lesson revealed more about my personality than I could ever know

November 2, 2018

As 20th century sports writer Grantland Rice once wrote, “Eighteen holes of match or medal play will teach you more about your foe than will 18 years of dealing with him across a desk.” 

I have never really understood golf. Sure it seems like a nice way to pass an afternoon away if you happen to be near a golf course, have a set of clubs and a pair of brightly colored pants ready to go. But as far as exercise, I didn’t really ever consider it and frankly though I don’t mind watching it I partly do it because of its soporific qualities. But as someone always looking to be networking, let’s face it: Golf is essential.

An estimated 90% of Fortune 500 CEO’s play golf and according to Forbes, CEOs who regularly play are paid 17% more on average than those who do not. Eighty percent of executives say the game allows them to network into new business relationships. After all, you can’t really talk shop when you are trying to steal a basketball but you do have time in between swings or holes. And the career benefits for women are arguably even more significant; Half of female executives say playing golf makes them more successful at their jobs and women with a handicap of under 10 in 1993 made an average of $146,900 annually.

I’d literally been meaning to take up the sport for the last 10 years but I just never seemed to find the time. Finally, I decided just to do a private lesson at the Golf Club in Chelsea Piers in New York, one of the most popular golf destinations in the city if not the most popular with 350,000 customers coming in every year. I figured I’d learn the basics and call it a day. But oh did I learn so much more than just how to hold a golf club and swing. I learned more about my personality than any therapy session could reveal.

As 20th-century sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote, “Eighteen holes of match or medal play will teach you more about your foe than will 18 years of dealing with him across a desk.”  But it turns out my foe was myself. I could not have had a better instructor in Head Pro Marjorie Jones. Marge was named one of Golf Digest’s 50 Best Women Teachers in America and has been recognized as the LPGA T&CP’s Northeast Section Teacher of the Year and Player of the Year. She also won the PGA Women’s Stroke Play Championship and the LPGA T&CP National Team Championship twice. A golf professional for 30 years, she has played in Europe, Asia, Australia and in the United States on the LPGA and Legends Tours. She played in eight British Opens, five United States Opens, and has won numerous events. But I may have been her greatest challenge yet. Not really, but my inability to loosen up when swinging was absolutely incredible.

See in most sports, tensing up and using that adrenaline works to your advantage. But not in golf. Golf, though heavily precise, is better if you are relaxed. Your shoulders, arms, and hands are supposed to be relaxed before and during the swing. That’s all it is. Your arms just swing simply as your body turns. But this was not happening for me. Every time I got the club in my hands I immediately would get nervous and tense up and the ball would go nowhere near my target. Like not even in the same zip code. I couldn’t relax. I immediately wanted to swing hard at the ball and expected perfection and it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t stay loose for the life of me.

And this was at a driving range. Imagine what would happen if I ever played an actual game? My dreams of being Michelle Wie’s (much) shorter sidekick were quickly fading away.

I’ve always been an anxious person, but a tense person? This was quite upsetting. And then, of course, I was getting more upset about being such a tense person even though I don’t think of myself that way and started having anxiety about that. Intense maybe, but are tense people often the first ones to dance at parties? Do tense people participate in pickup games of Wiffle ball? Do tense people drink tea every day as I do?

It seemed better in the last few years, but it was never more apparent in my inability to not loosen up and just relax. Jones was an excellent instructor and talked me through why I was so desperate to control the situation instead of letting my swing just go. As adults, especially driven ones, we expect everything to be a success immediately and it just isn’t possible. This was an entirely new skill set so I had to go back to basics. Jones even threw a heavy ball back and forth with me to help me get the right motion.

By the end of the lesson I was doing a little better (as in the ball was now in the same zip code as my target.) I also just started to stop thinking about how good or bad I was at this brand new thing I was trying and just enjoy the fact that I was swinging at a ball while looking at the Hudson River on an October day.

I am not sure if I will ever be great at golf but I do intend to get better at it and maybe a little less tense in the process. Perhaps one of those hats with the ball on top will help.


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