When I was a young lad growing up I mostly played what is known as “team sports”. Football, basketball, baseball and hockey were mainstays and I shifted my interests to coincide with the changing of the seasons. I always got a thrill about putting on a uniform and bonding with my fellow teammates in a quest for a common cause. We’d practice to the state of exhaustion and then practice some more in order to be prepared to face our competition.

Some people view that word as a bad thing, especially early on in life. They claim that it leads to aggressive and unhealthy behavior in our children both in their youth and in turn, carries over to adulthood. Many people out there stress that instead of competition, we should teach our kids more about the value of cooperation in order to succeed. In some instances, they may even be right. Personally, on a larger scale, I tend to disagree but that’s another story for another time.

As I got older and my body couldn’t handle the physical hardships of those sports I mentioned earlier I went looking for something to satisfy my competitive nature. I was just rebounding from a divorce and had plenty of time on my hands when one of my buddies suggested we take up golf. At first I thought to myself, “no way”, golf was for “pussies” and I sure didn’t fit that mold. I was the type of guy who was always at the bottom of the pile and if I wasn’t muddied and bloodied at the end of the game then I wasn’t giving it my all. The thought of parading up and down a golf course in a pair of khaki’s, a polo shirt and those funky looking shoes was enough to make me puke.

And then I started playing.

Or what I thought was “playing” because no matter what physical skills I attained while practicing and playing those sports in my youth were quickly thrown out the window and I wound up butchering many a local course until after a few years I finally started to get the hang of it.

I’ve now been playing for over fifteen years and here’s just a couple of things that I’ve learned along the way.

There’s a part in the movie Tin Cup with Kevin Costner where he plays a washed up pro who has resorted to giving golf lessons to wannabe players. I think one of the first pearls of wisdom he imparts is that “Perfection is unattainable”. He’s speaking about the golf course and God knows even the most seasoned professional knows that but in a larger sense I’ve taken that lesson from the course to real life. I took a hard look in the mirror and after years of blaming other people and pointing fingers at them for my shortcomings realized that I was looking in the wrong direction.

Lesson number two that golf taught me is that you have to keep score both on the course and in your life. One of my regular members of my foursome is a near and dear friend of mine but when it comes to golf, he sucks. After finishing eighteen holes I’ll ask him what he shot and he’ll say he didn’t keep score and that he’s “just playing against the course”. Sorry, but I gotta call bullshit on that. I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that one time if he went out and shot lights out at the course he’d come up with a number. Golf, much like life, can be either be very humbling or very rewarding depending on how you play both of them.

Lesson umber three is that in golf and in life, you are the one that is the referee. Unlike other sports, in golf you call fouls and penalties on yourself. Let’s say that you hit a drive off the tee and it lands in a shitty lie or is a foot or so behind a tree. All it would take is what’s known as a “foot wedge” to move the ball a few feet or so to make your next shot more playable. After all, nobody is looking and they would be none the wiser if you chose to go that route. Ultimately, the only person you’d be lying to is yourself.

Here’s a case in point to illustrate that.

The best golfer of all time, one Bobby Jones, never played for money. He retained his amateur status his entire career and when he retired at a relatively early age he had won more titles than anybody else up to that time. During one tournament he addressed his ball and in his eyes it moved a fraction or two of an inch before he started his swing. He called over the officials to explain the situation and assessed himself a one stroke penalty. None of the officials or his playing partners had seen the ball move and tried to talk him out of it. Mr. Jones was adamant and one of the officials commended him on his display of sportsmanship.

Mr. Jones replied “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank as to praise him for playing by the rules.”

Now there’s a lesson that should be drilled into the head of every kid in every school so that it can be carried on through life.

Oh yeah, he lost the tournament by one stroke.

Those are just three of the main things golf has taught me over the years. I’m sure there’s many more things that the course I curse on a regular basis, the one that has treated me unfairly with bad bounces, lost opportunities and disappointment beyond belief lies there waiting for another season to begin.

And yet, just like in life I keep coming back because sometimes, when the sun is shining brightly and your playing well, there isn’t a better feeling in the world.

Yup, it’s mid March and the ground is starting to dry out and the weather is starting to get warm. I can just about hear my clubs whispering to me from the basement , ”it’s time to go play.”

And then I come to the realization, I still have so much more to learn.

First, I should say I am not, nor have I ever been a golfer. However, my father was for most of his life, so I grew up knowing all of the terms for the game, as well as the big name players. (Though I thought for years Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller were golfing buddies with Arnold Palmer.) I was not allowed to speak when we watched a televised tournament, but my father could, after the play, as the crowd murmured. He would try to explain what had happened, what could have happened, and if he would have done it differently. There was always some math involved, or geometry. Me being all of about seven years old, somehow saw this as a combination of my father's job as a teacher and how he expected us to act in church. The exception being we could call grownups by their first names.

When we moved from New York to New Jersey, our new house had no grass yet on the front lawn. As kids, we thought this was fine, an endless supply of mud pies and mud grenades material right outside our front door. My poor mother still talks about it to this day. My father, originally from Brooklyn, decided to build a putting green on the front yard. He convinced my mother it would be for the children, but we all knew he was building it for himself.

Despite his Depression era mentality that lasted almost his entire life, he purchased and planted Zoysia grass. My mother was furious but said nothing, something I did not inherit from her. Now, fifty years later, that grass covers almost the entire front yard. Although my Dad died ten years ago on this day, we still find an old golf ball or wooden tee now and then. When he no longer could play, he gave his entire set to a young Irish priest, who had always been quite kind to our family.

It's almost impossible to separate what I learned from golf from what I learned from my father. Be silent at the right times. Always play fair. Be courteous to others, even if you're having a bad day. Don't boast about your achievements. Be encouraging. Spend money on things of good quality and lasting value. Don't let a little rain or clouds stop you from playing. Don't linger on mistakes or losses, but look forward to the next time you play. Don't stop playing.

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