This is a golf story that’s also not a golf story.
I was lucky enough to be able to play golf very frequently this summer. Like at least three days a week on the practice range, and about once a week on a county course with my father. It was the best form of work detox I could find: outside (usually in the rain or the wind or the brutal sun, but still, outside), thinking about nothing more than hitting a small white ball through three miles, two hundred feet at a stroke. I enjoyed a lot of humor, a few moments of triumph, and a lot of self-reflection. The best non-job advice I got came from the same guy who gave me outstanding technology job advice – Scott McNealy. When I first bemoaned hitting my weight for a full 18 holes, Scott simply said “Golf is a hard game.” That’s from a guy who could get his tour card tomorrow.
Sometime around August, though, I had a revelation. It was simple yet completely changed my approach to the game. The fact: I cannot hit a driver. Can’t do it. It’s a combination of having poor shoulder and wrist mechanics, a death grip on the club, and muscle memory that is more like a 70s rocker’s memory. Once I decided to stop using that long club to put balls into the water, the woods, the parking lot, and the ladies’ tees (indeed), I used a hybrid club off of the tee. Practiced with it every day. Got to the point where I could hit it off of the fairway, off a tee, even out of the shorter rough. Rather than driving the ball 250 yards, I can pick up just shy of 200 yards with a hybrid off the tee and about 180 from the turf. On a long par 5, I’m on the green in three long shots rather than a long drive, a fairway wood and a short iron. On a par 4, I struggle a bit more, often using a third shot from the fairway to get close to the pin. Shorter par 3 holes are a moot point; everyone is using an iron from the tee anyway.
Giving up that kind of distance on the approach meant I needed to improve my short game. I practiced putting the ball where I wanted to, within a few feet, from five to fifty yards out. The guys at the practice range dreaded the days I was there because they had to do an extra sweep in front of the booths, picking up an entire bucket I’d aim at various mud holes and small hills. I practiced putting on various breaks and speeds of greens. If I was going to drop a few strokes on the long side, they needed to come off of the short side. Practice paid off as twice I holed out using a pitching wedge (once celebrating so much that I left said wedge on the course, where the very forgiving grounds crew picked it up for me).
Why is this so relevant on a cold winter February morning, when the snow is deeper than a driver shaft?
Because I miss playing golf. Once I decided to use the proper tools, and play the clubs that matched my style, I began to enjoy the game. It’s a hard game, but that’s because physics plays as much on the course as it does on the ice. The little competitions on each stroke, around each hole, over the course of a morning spent dodging traffic on a one-lane Atlantic County road (not our fault it bordered two holes), made each long walk fun, not spoiled, with apologies to John Feinstein.
I am, in the depths of roundball season, reminded of the powerful words of former Princeton coach and court namesake Pete Carril: Practice what you do well, and pass the ball to someone who does the other thing better.
You better believe this has changed the way I think about software engineering, building technical teams, and contributing to various open source projects. Too many people want to hit the long clubs; the beauty of the game is controlled by the short irons. Harvey Pennick wrote that you should learn the game from the cup out; I’m picking targets and working backwards to build technical bridges and paths to them. And I’ll gladly take an occasional member’s bounce off the cart path.