On life’s strange encounters with chance…and golf.
Indulge me. Follow along for just a minute. Think about all of the things that have happened in your life that have just fallen into place–life’s quiet serendipity–the universe’s tilts that steer you one way or another. It can be the sort of thing that brings a chuckle in a quiet moment. Or a weepy joy. Or a dazed feeling.
I think about the luck I had when I needed to change jobs and leave teaching. That one’s simple–I wanted a different job and they needed to fill a position and it worked out so well it turned into a new career. We can go deeper–a long-ago college friend whose young boy’s brain grew a tumor, the sort that is decidedly stubborn to remove without complications. I think of all the cellular decisions and revisions that multiplied into mass.
Hard to stare something like that down–a boy in a children’s hospital in dire straits–and then take these cosmic coincidences kindly. Easy to call the benevolent strokes of luck divine intervention. Not the darker ones.
I am standing on a tee box at the Statesville Country Club. The eleventh hole winds just slightly to the right, uphill. There’s an oversized driver in my hands and a little white ball that I’ve perched on a tee in front of me. The less I think about what I’m about to do, the better things will turn out.
This year I resolved to get better at the game. Like many things in my life, I have a natural knack for parts of it. I’ve never been good, though, because I often go months–or even years–between rounds. Hard to build consistency when you undertake an activity semi-annually.
The obvious solution: play more golf. I don’t need to play, though. I need to practice.
Practice typically happens on a driving range–a long, open area where men (and let’s be honest, it’s almost always men) line up neatly to demonstrate their prowess, dispatching little, round missiles with swings that purr dangerously through the air, the contact between ball and club face a satisfying thwack.
There’s an apocryphal quote often attributed to Arnold Palmer that golf is mostly played in the six inches between your ears. It’s hard to be the out-of-practice putz out there on the line without wondering who is stepping back to watch or quietly chuckle. Few things challenge your masculinity so much as standing up in front of a group of men and hitting a skunk of a golf shot while they look on.
So I have resolved to practice golf in off-times, by myself, on the course. Later, I’ll work on getting other people out of my head when I swing the club. Out there on the eleventh, I’ve teed up a practice ball that I’ve pocketed from the range. Stamped across one side is the word PRACTICE. I calmly focus on a glint of light under the letter “a.”
I know if I stand there too long, I’ll begin to think, and if I start thinking, I’ll drown out the muscle memory that I need to make this work, so I draw the club back–head down, right angle at the wrists, and visualize swinging straight through, opening my hips in the follow-through. I hear an ethereal plink, and in the corner of my eye I see the tee spinning end over end into the air.
I did not feel the impact, and like any major league slugger will tell you, this is good. After a beat, I glance up, the ball whistling straight as an arrow, plunging effortlessly through the air and setting down dead center in the fairway, 220 yards away. An amazing golf shot.
What is frustrating is that I am not good enough to tell you why that particular shot was so very successful. I will walk to the twelfth tee and try to keep the same considerations in mind as I swing the club, but I will end up in a sand trap. Maybe I teed the ball up a centimeter too low. Or my backswing wobbled. I tried to hit the same shot as I did on the eleventh, and I decidedly did not. The golf course feels lousy with serendipity.
Luck happens in all levels of golf–shots go one way or another, or the ball bounces left instead of right, or you hit the cart path and get an extra twenty yard kick. Sometimes the ball makes it through the trees. Sometimes it doesn’t.
I struggle to focus on getting better when my game seems so prone to chance. Perhaps what better golfers have figured out is how to bend luck their way. Or narrow the odds.
The idea that we can bend luck is intoxicating–and dangerous. Maria Konnikova writes about this in her book, The Biggest Bluff. Konnikova took leave from her career as a writer to learn the game of poker and compete professionally. She had very little knowledge of the game at the outset but figured her PhD in psychology would be useful in untangling the game’s strategy.
What Konnikova learned, among many things, is that you compete against the other players, but you cannot compete against the cards. The cards are the cards. If you lose because the fellow across the table bluffed you, shame on you. But there’s no shame when you play a solid hand but the cards don’t go your way. That’s just life.
Still, many amateur poker players think they can beat chance. It’s the thinking behind the gambler’s fallacy, or the hot hand theory in basketball. Konnikova references a study in which participants were asked to call a coin flip. For some participants, the first five flips were rigged so they would think they guessed all five correctly. The next five were truly random, and the results demonstrated that. Other participants had the first five flips rigged against them. But the participants who thought they’d correctly called five coin flips in a row were convinced they were good at predicting whether the coin would land on heads or tails–and that they could get better at it.
Hopefully it seems laughable that someone might be gifted at a coin toss or that as a skill it could be improved. But when life hands us a series of correct calls, we begin to think we can corner the market on chance. It turns out to be a very human response. It’s a similar authority that underwrites the anti-privilege narrative, the one where we tell ourselves our success was earned.
I think back to the boy in the hospital.
I like the idea of playing golf with a range ball stamped PRACTICE. It seems more logical to know that every swing, every shot I play that day is just practice, just a simple effort to learn about the game. It’s easier to untie my brain from my hands with that visual reminder. Practice, practice, practice.
I play eight more holes with the range ball, patting myself on the back for keeping up with it the entire round, and then on the eighteenth, the last hole, I forget myself and my attention slips and I drive the ball straight into a pond.
Later, I go home and see my own eight year-old boy in the yard and feel my eyes moisten when I think about the cells in his brain and what they might be up to. I cannot bend luck.
It’s one thing to play the game of life and lose to a fool who bluffed me. It’s another matter entirely when you play a good hand but the cards just don’t go your way.
I give Thomas a hug and think about how the cards keep falling my way. I remember the glory of the tee shot on the eleventh and the failure on the eighteenth. We go inside for supper, and I whisper a quiet prayer of gratitude, and go downstairs to look at my notes from my round, and search for an update on Facebook about the boy in the hospital.