For a while now, I’ve been thinking about starting a little feature called “Life Lesson.” I haven’t done it at least in part because I cannot stand the name “Life Lesson.” The idea would be to write about a single lesson we can learn from an athlete — not some hazy and nebulous thing like “Be a good sport,” or “Give 110%” but something a bit more real. I just spent some time with Tom Watson and thought: “I ought to try that Life Lesson” thing again. So, what the heck, I’m trying it here. We’ll see where it goes.
Spent Wednesday evening having a public discussion with Tom Watson about his new book The Timeless Swing. I’ve done public events through the years with Tom … I’m beginning to think we should take our act on the road, go from town to town, spread the gospel of strong grips and good posture in golf.
The fun thing about our discussions, I think, is that (as Tom plainly understands) I know absolutely nothing about strong grips or good posture or downward planes or any of the stuff that Tom Watson knows as well as anybody in the world. I don’t play golf. I have not played a full round of golf since 1992. I didn’t actually play a full round of golf in 1992 either, but I almost did. I’ve told that story before.
What the heck? I’ll tell it again. I used to be sports columnist at The Augusta Chronicle, which was one of the stranger jobs in sportswriting. For fifty or fifty-one weeks a year, it was like any other job at a small-to-midsized newspaper. I would write a lot about high school sports, minor league baseball and local celebrities. During the fall, I wrote quite a lot about University of Georgia football, with a little Clemson and South Carolina football thrown in for good measure. Three or four times a year, I would go to Atlanta to write about the Braves or Falcons. It was a great job for a kid trying to figure out how to become a writer. I could make mistake after mistake and people in Augusta were generally forgiving and offered helpful advice.
But one week a year, I was center stage for one of the biggest sporting events in the world. This was before the Internet got hopping, so basically we were it. Golf fans who came to town, golf journalists from around the world — DAN JENKINS and HERBERT WARREN WIND, for crying out loud — the CBS TV people, the golfers (Jack Nicklaus called me by name!) all of them read our paper. Which meant they were forced to read me. Which meant for one week I was absurdly, comically overmatched.
Well, one of the other features of working at the Chronicle was that one day a year they let us who covered the Masters play Augusta National. They did not let us play until the end of May, when the course was just about used up (you may not have known this but they actually close down Augusta National during the summer when the heat rolls in). But it’s still an amazing perk, obviously. And it was completely wasted on me. I don’t play golf. I wandered out there with my starter set of golf clubs — a driver, a 3-wood, the odd irons, a wedge of some sort, two putters (one a putter that helped me finish second at a local putt-putt tournament) — and with a swing I had tried to fashion out of Ben Hogan’s Five Principles and two buckets of balls at a local driving range. It was every bit as disastrous as you might imagine. As I tell people — and this is absolute truth — on the first hole I somehow managed to get the ball to the fringe without breaking anything. From the fringe I five-putted. FIVE putted. This means that if they had put the tee on the fringe for me, I would have bogeyed the hole.
In addition to my general golfing incompetence, there was something else. One of my best friends, Greg Barrett, was getting married the next day in Hilton Head. Greg was a terrific feature writer at the Chronicle then — he has since written this amazing book about Father Joe Maier and his work in Bangkok — and he was marrying the awesome Margaret, and they were such a beautiful couple that, honest truth, the photo on Greg’s desk looked exactly like the photo that comes with the picture frame. Everybody said that. Well, Greg wanted to play Augusta National too so the plan was for us to play the round and then get to Hilton Head by that night.
The one hitch to the plan was that we needed to catch a ferry to go where we needed to go — it was apparently my job to make sure to get Greg to the church on time — and the last ferry of the day was at something like 7 p.m. So even under the best of circumstances we were cutting it pretty tight. And, of course, with me playing golf there was no way we were dealing with the best of circumstances. As I shot eight after eight, it became clear that we were not going to make the ferry if we played the full 18 holes.
And so that’s how I got to play 16 holes at Augusta National. Yep. Friends start crying when I tell them this. But when I got the chance to play Augusta National, I left after 16 holes to get a friend to a wedding. I have a feeling Rory McIllroy would have liked to do the same.
Of course, I wrote about my round in the paper because, for someone like me, what would be the point of playing Augusta National if I couldn’t write about it? Various members, seeing my honest recap, made the entirely sensible suggestion that I not play Augusta National ever again. I think the original suggestion was that I not be allowed back in the state of Georgia. But we cut a deal, and so I have not played a round of golf since my 16 holes at Augusta National.*
*People ask me if I will play golf again, and I say: “Yes, when I find a better golf course.”
It’s possible that I might start playing a bit of golf for reasons that I will explain soon. But the whole point of this is that I don’t know the game at all, certainly not from a playing perspective. And yet, I find listening to Tom Watson talk about golf utterly fascinating. I think it’s because I do believe that there are life lessons in sports … not vague, ethereal life lessons that barely mean anything at all but direct, practical life lessons.
For instance, my favorite bit from Wednesday’s conversation with Tom was when he talked about how every shot counts in golf. I was asking him about Rory McIlroy’s self-destruction at Augusta, and he said that he wished Rory had fought harder. “I never once saw Jack Nicklaus give away a stroke,” he said. The key to golf is that if you are on pace to shoot 80, you have to try to shoot 79. If you are on pace to shoot 90, you have to try to shoot 89.
And, Tom makes clear, this is not just about making the best of the situation. No, this is about defining who you are as a person. “When you’re hitting the ball well,” he says, “it’s EASY. … And golf is not supposed to be easy.” The most successful people, Tom believes, are the ones who can stay fully committed to the moment, who will be dedicated to do their best even after it’s clear that things are not going to work out as well as they had hoped or planned.
Tom told the story of Byron Nelson, after shooting a 72, griping about what a terrible round he’d played at the Masters. He’d only hit six greens in regulation. He was hacking the ball all over the place. He was grumbling afterward that it was as bad as he could remember playing. And his friend Eddie Lowery, who was Francis Ouimet’s 10-year-old caddy when he won Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open, said: “On the contrary, this was the FINEST round you have ever played. Because you played that badly and you STILL shot a 72.”
That, to Tom Watson, is the gold standard. Most days in life, you are not going to shoot 63. You just aren’t. The wind will be blowing. The ball will bounce funny. The putt will hit a spike mark. Life is simply not set up for five-for-five days at the plate, for 19-of-21 shooting days, for hat tricks and four-sack days and rounds with 10 birdies. If you’re lucky, you will have a few of those days in your life, days when everything seems to click, Ferris Bueller’s day off. And those days are to be enjoyed, cherished, but that’s not real life.
Real life is shooting 72 when you hit only six greens. Every shot counts.