My first hit was unforgettable.
I wrapped my fingers around the shaft of the 8-iron and swiped the artificial turf of the hitting mat before sending the ball through the humid North Carolina air. The ball landed at the 75-yard mark and within six inches from the pin.
Not bad, I thought as I placed another ball onto the turf. This time, the ball sailed to 100 yards. Another ball landed eight inches away from the pin in the middle of the range. My fourth attempt sailed 80 yards to the right. For someone that’s never picked up a golf club or even thought about it before this random weekend in July, I couldn’t believe that I was smashing these balls like I’ve been playing for years.
The cynic in me believed that these shots were a fluke, and there was no way that I could replicate this streak. The competitor in me wanted to turn beginner’s luck into a full round and into a valuable hobby. But it was the journalist in me who started it all.
Some people turn to golf as a substitute for another sport they couldn’t play anymore but needed that shot of competition. That wasn’t my case. I played basketball and I’m still a bucket. I can still get out there and compete. I don’t need golf to fill that void. I never thought I’d be interested in playing golf at all. I respected it, but I didn’t really have a strong interest in it.
It was a story that I wrote for Andscape that made me take a closer look.
In July, I interviewed Floyd Glenn, a 90-year-old man with an amazing story about playing golf during the Jim Crow era of segregation, becoming a craftsman and opening a golf shop in San Francisco that’s holding its own against advanced technology.
Glenn’s story was a remarkable testament of courage and perseverance. It was the ease with which he described the game, however, that stood out to me. I asked him about being a scratch golfer, who shoots part or better regularly, and he talked about it as if it wasn’t much of an accomplishment. I remember him talking about how much he practiced to get to that level, and how anyone could get to that level by doing just that. He made achieving scratch status sound so simple. Just practice and playing. Nothing about the trials and errors that golfers generally face.
Practice, y’all. He talked about practice as if that’s all you needed. That’s how simple he made the game sound, and it made me want to see how “easy” the game was for myself.
Fighting through the rough
From the beginning, my goal was to consistently hit the ball straight and far enough before attempting a round. During my first time at a driving range, I didn’t pay attention to my stance or my grip. All I knew is that I made contact and that was something that I didn’t expect to do right away.
Three weeks later, I found myself wishing I remembered what I had done to strike those balls so well. I had no reference point. My mechanics were unknown, and my results were subpar. Instead of hitting the stationary driver balls at Marion Lake Club, I was tearing up chunks of the course’s grass with my 7-iron. Or I was either hitting on top of the ball or missing the ball altogether.
I’d get a few good hits from my iron and driver, but it was mostly a steady string of hacks and whiffs. My aggravation was mounting and my patience was getting thinner. I had moments when I thought about giving up. It was cool to venture out of my comfort zone, but I wasn’t improving fast enough. It was the competitor in me, however, and a parallel I made between golf and my sports media career that kept me motivated to learn.
If I had given up when I heard the no’s of managing editors, I wouldn’t be where I am and you wouldn’t be reading this piece now. If I’m still hustling and fighting for a career breakthrough, I should be able to keep that same energy in learning something new. It’s on now. I’m getting something out of this game.
With a new perspective, I dug my heels in. I started to experiment with my stance, my grip, and adjusting my swing to various points. I began to seek out clips on YouTube to improve my swing. I even tried to emulate something called a butterfly grip because it was mentioned on the first episode of Niiice Shot, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry’s show on Golf Channel. I continued to come to the range frequently, with only an old driver and a 7-iron, going through buckets of balls at a time.
Now, it didn’t matter how many whiffs I had. I was determined to get out there and hit.
Learning among friendly strangers
It takes some vulnerability to expose yourself to failure in this way. You’re sharing your stumbles and falls with those around you and opening yourself up to ridicule. Granted, golf is a game that no one can truly master, but it’s still intimidating trying to learn around those who are more experienced.
The people I’ve encountered on the course have been welcoming and very helpful. It’s also a positive that I frequent a course that’s open to all experience levels. Men who have been playing golf for years volunteer their help. I was told to strengthen my grip. Another told me to flex my wrists and to shorten my swing because it was too wide.
While those tips were beneficial, what helped me the most was relaxing and trying not to overthink. It’s easy to get in my own head about things that might not be going right. When I observed the golfers around me, I realized that their swings failed to line up correctly and tended go to the left or right at times or didn’t have the lift they wanted. Knowing that they are working through issues made it that much more comfortable for me to work through my own.
Putting it together
Using a stronger interlocking grip and a more compact swing, I am now striking the ball straighter and farther than when I started. Whenever I made contact with the ball in the beginning, the ball would shank wide right. Now whenever it veers to the right, it’s only a few inches from the fairway.
I still feel like I’m a few months away from playing a full 18 holes, but it’s fine. I’m in the moment, I’m learning, and even celebrating the small victories. Whenever I get a good hit, I’d dance a little and pump my fist. I might look goofy, but I don’t care. I deserve it because I’ve worked so hard to get to this point. While I’m not close to competing yet, I can work on the fundamentals of chipping and putting.
I’m now hitting the ball with confidence. I’ve established a swing and a grip. I’ve also been blessed with nearly a full set of clubs that I didn’t have to buy. While I didn’t need golf to fill a void of competition, I realized I needed it for more. I needed the game to extend my network and to expose myself to a variety of people. I needed the game to also strengthen my patience and renew my sense of determination and hustle.