Everywhere that I look in golf, there appears universal, unified messaging on only a single point: I need to hit the ball further. It’s a golf-centric spin on a tale as old as time, increasingly woven into the fabric of the consciousness of any middle-aged man quickly moving closer to his athletic mortality, with his glory days shrinking smaller in the rear-view mirror with each passing day.
This promise now extends well beyond traditional purveyors of more power, like golf ball and club manufacturers, and includes previously unlikely sources of additional distance for my drives. Golf club grips, custom golf club fittings, and new golf cleat designs now assist the chorus touting the ubiquitous claim of “10-more yards.” I’ve never been much of an equipment junkie, so I’m generally impervious to this kind of puffery and balderdash, but the marketers know that we creatures of ego can only hold out against their siren song for so long.
New collateral attacks on the limits of my personal athleticism have begun to wear on my golfing mental health. It’s a three-pronged attack, which, when coordinated, tells me everything I never wanted to know about my golf swing and the limits of what I can make a golf ball do: golf fitness, personal launch monitors, and golf data.
Solicitations for muscle-saving hormone therapy, hair-growth pharmaceuticals, and shiny new Corvettes promise the instant invigoration of a man’s spirits and self-worth are nothing new, the modern snake-oil tonics to beat back Father Time. In its niche subspace, the golf industrial complex promises to allow me to hit the ball further, straighter, and higher than I ever dreamed I might, for the right price, of course.
The Gospel of Gains spawned an entire sub-genre of the fitness industry devoted to golfers and golf swings. No longer the exclusive province of touring golf professionals and scions of privilege, there’s a certified fitness professional of one stripe or another around every Internet corner, ready to show me all of the work that I should have been doing already to mash the golf ball as far as I dream I can.
As someone perpetually concerned about my weight, shape, and strength, I’m exactly the type of golfer susceptible to these programs, which simultaneously appeal to my unrealistic optimism and my self-loathing of not reaching my fullest potential. Never once has my PGA professional told me that I need to get stronger or hit the ball further, but, yet, here I am with a set of SuperSpeed training sticks and a subscription to the Fit for Golf app.
It’s a weird thing, trying to make my body do things it doesn’t particularly want to do, so that I can keep up with the Joneses when hitting a driver from the tee box 14 times per golf round, but striving towards constant improvement are some of the reasons golf is so addictive. The grind seeking better physical health and strength isn’t all that different at all.
Unfortunately for my perfectionism, now I don’t have to actually be playing golf with another person to get caught up in the measuring myself against my peers. The two-pronged attack on our self-worth of personal launch monitors and strokes-gained tracking technology walk the knife’s edge that cuts between useful instructional aides and soul-crushing spoonfuls of reality.
We live in the age of data, where every movement and decision I make is observed, measured, catalogued, packaged and sold to whomever buys such things for “targeted marketing purposes.” So, it’s no surprise that Big Data now dominates high-level golf instruction and play.
The PGA Tour uses ShotLink, a sophisticated data-collection system (which I was a volunteer team member of at the initial Barbasol Championship in Kentucky) to catalogue every shot at every professional tournament. Every shot, even the putts. Anyone with Internet access can discover how far any pro player actually hits the ball, which can be a harmless, entertaining distraction for golf fans.
Unfortunately, there are a host of phone apps and personal shot-tracking systems that now will do roughly the same thing for amateur players, telling me how far I really hit the ball, ego be damned. Every club, every course, every shot can be filed and measured if I so choose (I don’t).
There are also derivative programs, like the Decade systems or the Golf Metrics app, that have compiled and collated the data of millions of golf shots, and will analyze the quality of my shots compared to other golfers of all ages and abilities. How incredible! I don’t even have to play against an actual long hitter of the golf ball to feel lousy about how far I do or don’t hit the ball!
Sure, a savvy golfer should be able to decipher the information as useful feedback, leading to positive changes in strategy and practice habits. The danger, which is very real, is that this granular-level information also feeds the data-addiction, hastening the descent from the warm joy of playing golf to the cold, soul-stealing work of playing golf swing, instead.
All of which leads me to my current consternation with my relationship with my PRGR personal launch monitor, this little black device that uses radar technology to measure how fast I am swinging my club and calculate how far I hit each shot.
When radar shot-tracking data entered the golf space, with the introduction of the Track Man system, it was revolutionary because it gave the user instant, hyper-accurate feedback of real golf shots. Speed, launch angle, face path, apex, carry distance, angle of attack, and on and on. The data that these magic boxes can instantly produce gets overwhelming in a hurry. Fortunately, the latest versions of these top-of-the-market, sophisticated devices still cost upwards of $20,000, putting them out of reach of most all golfers, save for teaching professionals, club fitters, and top touring professionals.
However, the basic radar technology, mirroring computing power writ large, continues to get smaller, faster, and cheaper. My couple of hundred dollar device tells me all I really need to know, which I can decipher with my own eyes, with relative precision and accuracy: how fast did I swing and how far did the ball travel in the air. In cold, digital black-and-white, this little magic box lays bare the truth of my golf swing, in all of its unremarkable plainness. The result of an equation containing decades of banging away at range balls, years of periodic golf lessons, and months of intermittent commitment to various and competing fitness routines presented with emotionless clarity.
I do not like most of the numbers that my launch monitor gives me, especially for my driver swings. My natural reaction, sadly, is to start manipulating my swing, so that the little numbers on the little device are less little. I start playing golf swing, I start playing to the device, instead of focusing my practice on fundamental concepts that will actually help me play better golf. My inevitable frustration builds and eventually leads to disgust at my own limitations. It also inevitably results in a swing that isn’t my swing. I do maximum effort poorly, tensing up and gritting my teeth when I should be focusing on smooth tempo and hitting the ball in the middle of the club face. It’s discouraging. It makes me like the idea of golf less.
Please don’t misunderstand, I am fully aware of how important distance and speed are to the modern golf game. I just wish I had more of both, because I’m finding out the hard way that it’s a lot of difficult work to acquire more of either in my mid-forties. Every time I conclude a session at the range with my launch monitor staring back at me, I’m grateful to have the information, though I’m distraught with the results. It raises all sorts of questions in my mind, from the practical to the philosophical regarding my relationship with this immersive game.
Fortunately, I have found a remedy for these kinds of blues in my Sunday Golf Bag. Walking a few holes at dusk with a half-set of clubs, shaping golf shots instead of playing golf swing, feels magical and mystical compared to the thankless task of perpetual self-improvement. Shepherding my sons around a par three course with a few wedges in hand lets me forget that I’m not an elite golfer, and that I’m supposed to have play golf for fun.
There is a tricky balance between wanting to compete at the local and club level, and accepting the realities of my age and current abilities. I find myself wanting to take the launch monitor to the range less and less, using it only for periodic check-ups during the season, because I tend to get more valuable feedback from my hands and my eyes. Remembering that the object of the game is to get the ball in the hole, and that my golf game is not the sum of the cold, hard numerical data of my golf swings, helps me gain back that joy that I allow my launch monitor to steal.