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How to keep your cool during a round? Remember you’ll only be as good as you are

September 1, 2019

Precisely two weeks from the second I’m typing this, I will, for the first time in my life, step onto an actual golf course to play 18 holes of actual golf. I’ve played nine before, at a bachelor party, and by the end of it all I’d learned was that I need to be better about sunscreen and that several of my college friends appeared to have developed serious drinking problems. This time I’ll be heading out with Jon Tattersall, my instructor these past many months, to see if any of his lessons have stuck, if any of his endlessly patient words have had any effect on me whatsoever.

I call Tattersall to make sure we’re still on. He answers the phone with his signature, sardonically cheerful “Hello, Will!” — a distinctly British tone — and then asks me to hold. About 10 seconds later, I hear the unmistakable swoosh of a perfect golf swing. (Mine sounds more like a bicycle tumbling down a flight of stairs.) Returning to the phone, Tattersall says, “Sorry, I had to take that shot.” It dawns on me that maybe the only times this guy hasn’t been on a golf course in the past few months has been when he’s messing around with me.

“How’d ya hit it?” I ask.

“I didn’t miss it,” he says.

“Go on ahead,” I hear Tattersall tell whoever he’s playing with. The last thing I want to do is make my coach miss a round, so I promise to be brief. Basically, I’m a little nervous about our upcoming loop.

“What are you worried about?” he asks.

“I’m worried that I’m going to be terrible,” I say.

He pauses. I’m glad he doesn’t say the first thing that pops into his head, because I bet I wouldn’t like it. Instead
he says, “You will be as good as you are,” which sounds to me like some sort of Zen koan.

The more golf you play, the more comfortable you are with your level of skill, he explains. When someone gets angry on the golf course, it’s not when they hit a shot exactly the way they want to; it’s when they disappoint themselves. If I slice a drive or fly a green with my approach, Tattersall says my frustration won’t be that I’m not hitting the ball
like Dustin Johnson; my frustration will be that I’m not hitting the ball like Will Leitch.

Good shots happen and bad shots happen, and true pros have (mostly) learned to accept the mystery, to recognize that, in the end, you’ll find your natural level of talent. When you’re “under the gun,” as Tattersall likes to put it, it’s the inexperienced player who’ll obsess about hitting the perfect shot — and who’ll be furious when they don’t. The better you are, the better you handle yourself. True talent is just being the best version of yourself.

I tell Tattersall I’m not too worried about this. I know I’m not a good golfer. I have few expectations. I’m generally an affable person. I’ll keep my cool on the course.

He laughs. “Everybody says that until they play,” he says. “But look — passion is good. If you hit bad shots and
don’t care, then I’ll be worried about you.” He pauses. “Like me, you live in Georgia. So you’ve dealt with the terrible drivers here, right?”

“I have,” I say. “They are the worst.”

“Are you relaxed in traffic?”

“No. I scream at them all.”

“Well then you’re not going to be calm on the golf course,” he says. “We’re always harder on ourselves than we are on others.”

After Tattersall and I nail down the date and time for our Big Day Out, I tell him I’m even more nervous now about our round than I was before I called. I’m afraid I’m going to be a maniac. I’m afraid I’m going to tear up the course
and send my clubs sailing into the woods.

“Don’t sweat it,” Tattersall says. “Honestly, let yourself be loose out there. And remember one of the most important maxims of golf: Sometimes some golf clubs just deserve to die.”

Will Leitch is a columnist for GOLF, a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the founder of Deadspin