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I learned the most important lesson about golf can’t be taught at the range

December 1, 2019

You, dear reader, are really, really good at golf. And I mean it.

I know it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Certainly not when you slice your drive into the trees, or when it takes you three tries to get out of a bunker, or when you finish your round with six fewer balls than you started with. If I’ve learned anything from writing this column, and from my year spent under the impossibly patient tutelage of coach Jon Tattersall, it’s that this game is cruel and punishing and downright sadistic at times. It can feel like it was invented specifically to bring you pain.

But after all my time with Tattersall, after all the theory and technique I mainlined while learning the game, after the opportunity to talk to pros about how they hone and perfect their talent — I finally got off the couch and did what I should’ve done in the first place. I went out with some buddies and a case of beer and played a round of golf.

What did I learn? Even the most casual golfer is amazing.

I say this not because the guys in my foursome — fellow parents of elementary schoolkids in Athens, Ga. — are club pros or anything. They’ve played their entire lives and they love the game, but you know how it is: Life and family and work, it all gets in the way. You don’t play as much as you used to. You just fit it in when you can. They’d call their games rusty at best. But I didn’t see it that way. Playing alongside them at Athens Country Club for an afternoon, hoping I didn’t embarrass myself, disproportionately proud that I didn’t whiff even once, they did not look like average golfers to me. They looked like magicians.

If you play golf often or even just occasionally, you are used to the game’s tortures. But when you’re like me, where every elemental golf move is essentially impossible, you see everything the recreational golfer does as an astonishment. Your ball, for the most part, goes straight. And high. And sort of far! Readers, you have pretty much grooved this ability — which 99 percent of humanity does not possess. Do not take it for granted. After a boiling afternoon on the course with my new buds, they stopped looking merely like other dads to me. I saw them as heroes.

I improved as our day went along. Once I got over the frayed nerves of playing with other people (Tattersall had warned me about the perils of leaving behind the comfort of Fusion ATL’s hitting bays), I settled down and began trusting the things he’d taught me. The brews probably helped, too. By any stretch of the imagination, this didn’t make me a good golfer, but I stopped needing four swipes at the ball to cover the distance of my playing partner’s drive. I even had a putt for par, something I crowed about as I approached the green, and immediately regretted when I three-putted. But when you’re as new to this as I am, even a triple bogey can feel like a win. Or at least like progress.

But the best part — the reason, I now realize, that most people play this game — was hanging out with the guys. This is what it’s about, right? You play golf to get away, sure. But you really play golf to spend time with other people. I knew all the fellas I was playing with, but I now know them differently, and better. On the course, we talked about our kids, we talked about our jobs, we praised our kids’ awesome school — but mostly we were bros yakking about whatever came to mind. We became… friends. We had our own inside jokes, we complimented each other’s best shots, we mocked (gently!) some of the worst ones. For four hours, we were the only four people in the world.

In the days since, I’ve seen each of them at school during afternoon pickup, and we stop what we’re doing to talk for a few minutes. We didn’t do that before. They’re great dudes. That one day of golf has actively improved my life, even if my score resembled the average summertime temps in the Sahara. I’m glad I did it. Looking back on the past year, I’m glad I did all of it. So thank you for reading “From Scratch.” My ball may have barely left the tee box, but I’ve had a blast writing it.