Managing expectations is a tricky proposition, in golf as in life. Balancing hopeful optimism and evidence from past performances without tilting expectations too far in either direction takes mental toughness and discipline, which probably requires a stronger mind than mine.
The end of last season was a roller coaster ride that saw me playing the best golf of my life, briefly, followed by several crushing returns to the median. In recounting the wild journey, I hope to find a cathartic resolution and perhaps the longer term perspective required to keep my golf sanity.
Last summer, I posted my best ever tournament round score at Cherry Blossom in a Kentucky Amateur Series even. By scoring a 78 in a round that mattered, playing golf by the rules, putting everything out, etc., I’d bested my previous lowest attested round by two shots.
All the other times I shot an 80 or better had been casual rounds with friends with nothing on the line or by myself at one of the two courses I call home. Signing and turning in a scorecard with a number that started with a “7” felt entirely different, especially because until we checked and exchanged scorecards after the round, I had no idea of score.
Truth be told, it was a pleasant, almost easy, round at a course on which I’d never had any notable success. I made a lot of relatively easy par putts, avoided “the big number,” despite making plenty of mistakes, and casually made my way around the course with a couple of birdies and a lot of calm.
What made the entire episode so unexpected was that I hadn’t been playing particularly well before that round. My handicap index had ballooned up north of 11, meaning I posted a 78 on a course and from a tee that I was getting 14 shots from field.
As proud as I was to post a personal best gross score, or raw score, I was a little embarrassed to post a net score of 64, winning the handicapped score competition by a wide margin.
I had been practicing a lot, and slowly but surely, all of the work that my teaching pro had been working with me on for four years was finally starting to take hold. I was making actual golf swings and looked like I knew what I was doing around the greens.
To complicate my mental matters further, my next few league and tournament scores were in the low or mid 80s. Then, at the end of September, I posted another 78 in the second round of the Club Championship tournament of the Kearney Hill Golf Links Men’s Association.
It was a low enough score to win the Net Championship for the entire tournament, which when they told me, I was certainly the most surprised man in the room.
Nonetheless, I highlight this brief period of unprecedented personal success because it brings me squarely to my dilemma. How do I move forward with my golf game without being disappointed when these lifetime-low scores aren’t equaled or surpassed early in the 2019 season?
This was a conscious worry of mine as I headed out for a league tournament at Kearney Hill Golf Links four days later, and helped form my internal expectations for the Kentucky Mid-Amateur Championship, which I played in for the first time in early October.
Would I be able to stay in the moment? Could I stay focused, but relaxed, throughout the round? Or would one bad swing or one atrocious hole derail the entire round because I had checked out mentally due to not living up to this new standard I’d set for myself?
These may be ridiculous questions, but they are not hypothetical. I know my mind, it’s the only one I’ve ever had, and this is exactly the way it works. Add this terrible string of thoughts to the jitters I feel for the first couple of shots in a typical tournament, and it is a recipe for disaster.
The Mid-Amateur ended up humbling me a little because I finished so far behind the leaders and hadn’t exceeded my personal goal beat my course handicap. But I left the tournament encouraged that I’d held it together mentally over the two days and managed to improve by seven strokes from one day to the next on an impressively difficult set up at Traditions Golf Club.
My complete unraveling at Valhalla Golf Club a couple of weeks later humbled me much further. Playing a course that was longer and more difficult than most any place I’d ever played exposed all of the weaknesses in my game, mental and physical. It was a sour note to end the season on, except that I’d had a great time playing so poorly because of the partner I had that day.
That’s basically where my 2018 season ended. Had I regressed to the player that I had been for most of the last five years, capable of flashes of competence among extended periods of disappointments? Or had I really turned a corner on my way to finally being the best golfer I would ever be as I approached my forties?
The winters in Kentucky are a great time for self assessment, reflection, thought, and improvement with respect to golf, as we endure an “inactive” golf season from December through February, so I would have plenty of time to think about what I wanted from and with my golf game moving forward.
A “scratch golfer” is a player who can play to a course handicap of zero on any and all rated golf courses. A male scratch golfer, for rating purposes, can hit tee shots an average of 250 yards and can reach a 470-yard hole in two shots at sea level.
The end of my 2018 golf season coincided with the grand finale of Season 1 of the Chasing Scratch podcast, which was a humorous audio documentary of two guys that tried to become scratch golfers in one season, which I heartily recommend to you all, both to go back and listen to the 2018 journey and subscribe to the 2019 version if the guys try for a second season.
By the end of their seasons, Chasing Scratch’s Eli and Mike lamented that since they had worked hard and become better golfers, they no longer got any joy out of posting scores that didn’t get them closer to their goals. This was true for golf rounds and scores that they would have been thrilled to have just a few months prior.
Golf had become a chore for the guys, and playing anything other than exceptional golf was a serious disappointment. Whatever love they had for the game of golf yielded to their crusade. I’m curious how much of their identity and self-worth, at least during those last few weeks, was dependent on how well they played during their last golf round.
I am decidedly not on my way to becoming a scratch golfer anytime soon, but I can understand and empathize with Eli’s and Mike’s plight. Examining my own game, did I simply have one good month of playing solid golf? Or am I a good enough player to begin setting higher expectations for myself?
The balance between optimism and realism is tenuous at best. As I contemplated these questions, and many others, over the winter, I was able to find some peace in what I deemed the spirit of golf.
However, as the weather warms up, with the competitive golf season only weeks away, managing my expectations may prove the difference between joy and despair. I hope my awareness of all of this is enough to maintain my enthusiasm. I know that it’s just a game, and that knowledge should help me keep my perspective reasonable.
Maybe that’s enough. Well, that and a few thousand range balls.