GOLF LESSONS

by Dr. Roberta A. Isleib

When I met my husband, I was a tennis player. Golf made my short list of dull sports, lagging just behind drag racing and professional bowling. Despite my disdain, my husband-to-be proposed taking me out as a guest on his golf course to "play a few holes". Dogged by nature, I quickly became obsessed by the apparent ease, but practical impossibility, of hitting the golf ball in the air. I hacked my way along the ground of the first five fairways, until my host implemented a ten stroke per hole limit.

Today, I am a changed woman. I write about golf. I dream about golf. I tape obscure golf tournaments on TV (if I'm out playing golf and unable to watch). At cocktail parties, while normal women chat about their kids or their jobs, you'll find me in the cluster of men in the corner describing their golfing exploits in tedious detail. I subject my husband to eye-glazing replays of recent rounds. Our family room decor is early modern golf swing: a full length mirror (to observe my swing), an automatic putting strip, a chipping net over the couch, an array of practice clubs and balls underfoot. My teenage stepchildren make scathing remarks about the importance that golf has assumed in my life, and by forced proximity, theirs. Let's face it: I love golf.

Fortunately, a golf addict can partially rescue herself from a life of shallowness and tedium by drawing metaphors from golf to life. An experience I had several years ago at the Connecticut Women's Golf Association Championship qualifying event illustrates just this.

The venue for the tournament that season, the Yale University golf course, begins with a 150-yard carry over water and U.S. Open-style rough to a steep, uphill fairway. I watched a progression of the best amateur women golfers in the state as they were intimidated, and then humbled, by this tee. From my perspective in the final threesome, that first shot loomed larger and larger.

Though barely breathing when my turn came, I hit a passable drive, advanced the ball with a series of unattractive grounders, and chipped in for double bogey. Cruising through the eighth (famous for sand traps so deep there's a staircase to help you climb out) and the ninth holes (one hundred and forty yards of pure carry over water), I began to imagine I might actually qualify. Which is when I should have remembered Sam Cheever's warning words: "Left to my own devices, my self-importance grows like pond scum."

On the twelfth tee, I yanked my drive into the woods: irretrievable. A second shot squirted into waist-high grass. Flustered, I chopped at the barely visible ball, moving it just five feet.

"Take an unplayable lie," whispered my caddie. I dropped back twenty feet and banged the ball into another patch of impassable rough. The other players and caddies averted their eyes as my round collapsed. I carded a twelve and reeled to the next tee.

I needed emergency aid. As both a psychologist and golf fanatic, I had made a study of the mental side of golf. This was the time to call on every tip I could remember. I attended to my tempo. I played one shot at a time. I leaned on my preshot routine. I scrambled to entertain only positive thoughts. I saw the target. I was the target. And I scored no better than triple bogey for the remainder of the round.

Even worse than facing the immediate reality of my poor performance, I was aware that my whopping score and embarrassing status in last place would appear the next morning in the local newspaper.

I was right. And my name, which is ordinarily butchered into hundreds of unrecognizable permutations-Alberto Isbeil, Rupert Sleiba, and so on, was spelled with inhuman precision. ROBERTA ISLEIB-120.

With passing time, those memories have faded into a painful blur. (In other words, the entire humiliating back nine no longer flashes through my mind when I approach the first tee-any first tee.) And I've extracted these palliative observations:

1. Golf, like life, is cruel and mercurial. Because your fortune can change direction at any moment, both demand patience, humor, and humility.

2. Golf, like life, requires resilience. If you play a shot, a hole, or a round badly, learn from it and put it behind you. Be your own best friend on the course. Or as my golf psychologist friend Joseph Parent would say, fire your inner evil caddie.

3. Golf, like life, is addictive-a few great moments can erase a long, nightmarish stretch. That's why you'll find golfers who, ready to tag sale their clubs at the end of the round, are arranging games for the next morning by the time they arrive at the 19th hole.

Sports psychologists have named this phenomenon intermittent reinforcement. Non-golfers have a name for it too-foolishness. Marriage counselors would describe it as the triumph of hope over experience. It's all that, and more. It's golf.
I hate it. I love it. When's my tee time?

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