Luck and The Golfer

On a recent round at a not-too-distant muni, I was randomly paired with a gentleman who was a decent player plagued by what seemed to be an extraordinary run of bad luck.

A carelessly place rake caused an otherwise fine shot to kick into a bunker. Balls lipped out. A perfect drive hit a sprinkler head and took a right-angle bounce into the woods (that was actually pretty spectacular).

With each unlucky break he got angrier and angrier. By the halfway point, his shoulders were slumped and he declined to finish the round.

Misfortune had defeated him.

Or rather, his attitude toward misfortune had defeated him.

The traditional golfer’s rejoinder to such carnage is to remember the line “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” The quote has been attributed to Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and even Thomas Jefferson.

Variations are: Diligence is the mother of good luck; The harder I work the luckier I get; and You make your own luck.

It is clear to me, though, that in golf, as in life, bad breaks often are not the result of a lack of practice, or concentration or any sort of moral failing.

Sometimes, misfortune just happens. And sometimes the bad breaks come in bunches.

Ultimately, what matters is not the rub of the green, but how we react to it. No amount of anger or despair will change the fact that my ball sits in a bad lie. Indeed, dwelling on misfortune will only result in unforced errors and misfortune that I indeed will bring upon myself.

I am reminded of a passage from Seneca, the great Stoic:

Fortune does not have the long reach we suppose. She can only lay siege to those who hold her tight. So let us step back from here as much as possible.

Seneca, Moral Letters

For me, the challenge is not to dwell on fortune – good or bad. Both are traps.

When I get a bad rub of the green, I try not to dwell on how I got into the predicament, but concentrate on how to move forward. The reward of a problem is opportunity: an opportunity to practice a difficult shot; to imagine a new way to play a shot; to display resilience.

Walter Hagen had the right attitude: Three bad shots and one good one equals par.

Similarly, when I get a good break, I also try not to be fooled by that imposter. I consider a belief in good fortune to be every bit as false as belief in bad fortune.

I have a hole in one in which my ball went into trees the right of the green on the ninth at Washtenaw Golf Club (the trees have long since been removed). The ball hit a branch, bounced left and went into the hole.

It was the ultimate in good fortune, but had no bearing on any of my qualities as a golfer. The ball could just as easily have ended up going right onto the deck among the diners.

And that random rub of the green certainly had no effect on any of my golf which has since transpired.

I’ll finish with an appropriate line from Rudyard Kipling’s If, a poem which I had to memorize in elementary school. In that poem, Kipling lays out a stoical prescription for living a life with courage, integrity, humility and resilience. The two appropriate lines to this are:

... If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

The complete If follows, for those who do not know it.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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