The Evolution of a Middle-Aged Golfer

In 2005, after playing competitive golf at the junior and NCAA level, I stopped playing the game entirely for around eight years. Like many young people building a career, I moved to a city where I found golf inconvenient and, quite frankly, unaffordable. When I returned to the game, I felt like a character in a movie that has been suddenly transported to the future—everything seemed at once familiar and utterly foreign. Elite golfers were armed with new equipment and new strategies; even a new understanding of the physics underpinning the flight of the ball.

Golf had changed—and of course, I had changed, too. I’m 40 now—with a much different body and brain than when I was 20. I recently discovered a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which is apt: “No man fishes the same river twice, for it is not the same river, nor is he the same man.”

Here are the main differences that I now navigate as a middle-aged golfer.

Golf is Hard

My absence from the game coincided with the rise of big data and analytics—first in finance and then eventually in everything else. For golf, the data revolution involved tracking and analyzing millions of shots hit on the PGA tour via a system called ShotLink. As far as I can tell, the main insight from all this data wrangling is that golf is really, exceptionally, excruciatingly hard, even for the best players in the world.

When I was in college, I expected to hit every iron on the green, every wedge shot to within a 10-foot radius, and hole every putt inside six feet. The stats from the ShotLink show how foolhardy these expectations were, particularly for me, a bench-warmer on an Ivy League golf team. From 150 yards in the fairway, PGA tour players miss the green on one out of four attempts. From 110 yards in the fairway, they hit it outside ten feet the vast majority of the time (74.6 percent of the time, to be precise). Even the best putters in the world can expect to miss a six-footer a third of the time.

I find stats like these both dispiriting and liberating. It’s depressing to think that even highly talented athletes who dedicate their entire professional life to the game still basically suck a significant portion of the time—what hope is there for a weekend warrior such as I? The great American psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered long ago that the most addicting thing you can offer lab rats or humans is unpredictable rewards. That’s exactly what you’re guaranteed in golf. No matter how hard you practice—no matter how good you get—you will sometimes get positive reinforcement and sometimes get punched in the face. There is no way to predict when it’s going to happen. It can be incredibly infuriating—and addicting.

But now that I have internalized this —now that I’ve seen the stats and faced the cold-hard truth—I feel unshackled from unrealistic expectations and the self-punishment that follows when such expectations are violated by reality.

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By: Jon
Title: The Evolution of a Middle-Aged Golfer
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Published Date: Mon, 05 Oct 2020 15:07:33 +0000


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