How wrong I was: golf as a dad

adapted from the “Against the Grain” column in the August 2016 issue of Golf Chicago Magazine

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — from Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today we call this “flip-flopping.” Politicians are skewered for this. It’s how I justify being completely wrong.

Last year, just before the birth of my son, I wrote a letter to my wife pleading that she allow me to maintain my regular golf habit once I became a dad. My friends, family, and the seven people who read this column assured me I was delusional. Exactly one year later, I’m playing much less and much worse. But I wasn’t delusional; I was just naive. Here are six realities I hadn’t anticipated:

I don’t want to play as much as I used to.

It’s not that I don’t still love it; it’s just the cost is so much greater than before. A year ago I might miss Game 4 of the NBA finals to play 18, but then I could always DVR it. You can’t DVR fatherhood. Every moment passes, every milestone is reached, every smile and new discovery happens with or without you. Cliché, also true. How would I feel if I had missed Sam’s first words: “Dada” and “Garbage,” which he uses interchangeably.

I’m getting worse.

The day I published that letter, my handicap was 5.6 and dropping. Now it’s 7.9 and rising. I’ve played 18 holes five times this year, which puts me on a pace to play 10 times total — the lowest since Charles Howell III was relevant . The other day, following a gaggle of blades, shanks, and chunks — the kind that are commonplace when you don’t play — I actually mumbled: “I should quit this stupid game.” It was both a terrifying and seductive thought, to have an out from this expensive, maddening, paradoxical sport.

I struggle to stay in the moment.

The other day my buddy asked me where his ball went and I was too busy checking my nonexistent text messages to watch. I’m compelled to check my phone — a practice I’ve railed against for years — every few holes to make sure Sam hasn’t fallen off a table or swallowed a beetle. I know being present is paramount in golf, but the moment can feel trivial, even distracting, when your progeny is elsewhere.

I’m exhausted.

Another friend warned that parenthood brings a new meaning to the word “tired.”

A child’s brain and body are in perpetual motion, which means that, by default, so are yours. The energy you had to clean the house or meet your buddy for beers is usurped by this little dictator, who is relentless in his thirst for stimulation. Leftover energy is spent trying to translate his whines, grunts, and shrieks. If you’ve ever traveled to a non-English speaking country you understand the fatigue at the end of a full day trying to figure out what the hell is going on. So if this is happening for two thirds of the day, one third of the day loading clubs, unloading clubs, checking in, hitting balls, and walking for 18 holes playing a game at which you are getting worse, sounds exhausting.

I can’t manage my time.

Having children puts a different dimension on time. This year felt like three months, and a full day often feels like three hours and all you’ve done is walked around the block, picked bananas from your hair, and helped your kid open and close a garbage can 30 times. Sam wakes at 6 am and goes to bed at 7 pm. If I golf in the morning, I miss the most fun part of the day — playing with Sam and mom, eating breakfast, putting him down for a nap. Playing in the afternoon means forfeiting Team Nap Time from 2–3:30. And If I play in the evening, I miss the hardest time to be a single parent: dinner, bath, bedtime.

I feel guilty.

My friend says, “Guilt is self-inflicted” every time he drags in a five-footer, and while I don’t agree with its use in that context, he’s right. My wife is actually encouraging me to play, partly because she knows it’s fundamental to my being, but partly because every round, prorated, is costing us $200. But the deeper issue is wired in our nature. Our ancestors left the nest only for a purpose — to, say, hunt a mastodon. Chasing a white orb though a man-made field seems trivial and selfish by comparison. The same buddy whose push-slices I didn’t watch: “Man, I even feel guilty being out here and my daughter is at a friend’s house all day.” A year ago I would have scoffed, convinced his wife had eaten his manhood; this time I nodded and checked my phone again.

If Emerson is right, a year from now I’ll feel different. Maybe I’ll argue abandoning your sacred hobby will cause resentment toward your family. Or that you appreciate golf more when you play less. By then maybe every round will cost me $300 and maybe it will be worth every cent.

Maybe by then Sam will no longer be confusing me with garbage.

This is worth playing worse.

10 Things I Hate About You

By Rory Hughes

Adapted from “Against the Grain” column (March 2016 issue of Golf Chicago Magazine)

The minutiae of the Rules of Golf, as well as the unwritten rules of golf etiquette, are enough to drive Joe Public away from the game. However, this has led the rest of us to a sense of entitlement; as if because we know how to play and how to not be a jerk, we need not adhere to any other norms. In 2016, let’s all to stop doing the following on the golf course, not because there is an official rule that dictates them, but because they’re bothering me.

Stop saying “I never play like this” when you’re having a bad round.

This is a logical fallacy. That you’re doing it now is evidence that you do it. By insisting that your poor play is an anomaly, you’re actually accomplishing the opposite of your intent. Remember that every player has a bad day. How many times has a tour player followed up a 65 with a 75? That’s golf. Accept that how you’re playing at a given moment is not a reflection of who you are. Billy Shakespeare said it best: “Me thinks thou doest protest too much.”

Stop using your phone.

The only exception is if you have kids, in which case you may do so sparingly and inconspicuously. You’re on the course to escape life’s obligations. If you can’t do that and enjoy your round, then get off the course. I don’t care about your important client or your nagging boss. I don’t want to play golf with someone who can’t be fully present. By definition, if you’re checking your phone, you have something else more important to do. Go do it.

Stop playing out the hole when you’ve reached your handicap limit.

We have handicaps for a lot of reasons, one of which is to speed up play. You pull-hooked your drive into the creek, sprayed your third into the woods, bladed your fifth into a pot bunker, chunked your sixth thirty yards short of the green. Now, calmly reach down, grab your ball, place it in your pocket, mark an “X” on your card, and watch the rest of us finish; this will also give you time to reflect on what you’ve done.

Stop getting mad at yourself.

Another logical fallacy. Only one “you,” exists, so to get mad at yourself is actually an admission of insanity. Plus, I don’t want your bad vibes.

Stop narrating your round.

“Should’ve hit a 6 there…man, that putt broke more than I thought…I think I tweaked my elbow…wow, that turned out better than I thought…I’d forgotten this was Bermuda…I actually birdied this hole yesterday…jeez, I can’t believe I’m already 10 over. I don’t think I’m gonna break 90 today…” I understand that some of us think, then speak; some of us speak, then think. But this is not your skull session at work or the dinner table or any other place where it’s acceptable to “think aloud.” To be sure, I’m no mute on the course. I’m happy to discuss just about anything in the world — except your round.

Stop not reacting when you hit a good shot.

If you’re taking cues from Lucas Glover, Danny Lee, Gary Woodland, or any other expressionless doorknob on tour, then you’re already in trouble. I’m not expecting a Cam Newton celebration, but if you jar one from 70 yards, give me more than a half-hearted shrug. It’s downright disrespectful. When blessed with such a stroke of luck, you owe your playing partners and the game at the very least a hearty fist-pump or a Mickelson phone booth leap.

Stop not reacting when I say “Nice shot.”

Plain dickish.

Stop saying, “But I was hitting it so well on the range.

Really? So was every other human who ever hit balls before a round. “It giveth and it taketh away” is one of golf ’s core tenets. You’re not entitled to a good round because you hit it well on the range. You’re not even entitled to hitting it well on the range. You, my friend, are entitled to nothing. Besides, if you had so much fun on the range, go back there and let me finish my round in peace.

Stop not having cash to pay up on bets and/or tip the cart girl.

You’re either unprepared or you’re cheap. Either is intolerable for a golfer, let alone a human. Please leave home a few minutes early and stop at the ATM. The golf course is not a place for credit cards, or PayPal, or IOUs; it’s one of the last bastions of Grown Man-itude, where we smoke cigars and swear at each other and pay with crisp bills.

Stop forgetting your score.

If you’re one of those “I don’t even keep score, I’m just out to have fun” types, you need to either tell me on the first box or stop lying. We’re not kicking around a soccer ball or shooting hoops. You just paid $50 in the pro shop, grabbed a scorecard, and proceeded to commence a game which is based entirely on posting a score. If you don’t keep score, then you don’t play golf. And certainly don’t announce that you got a birdie after you supposedly are “just messing around.” You may not have it both ways. Besides, the golf gods only smile on those who keep score.

These guys know my rules. From left: pops, me, uncle, biggest bro, big bro

The Case of Mistaken Hosel Hockey

The Case of Mistaken Hosel Hockey

adapted from Golf Chicago Magazine, September 2015 issue

The setting for the horror show.

They’re merciless. They are golf’s unspoken disgraces. They seize your throat like Cujo and choke out your soul. They call into question your golf swing. Your sanity. Your humanity.

They induce panic like black ice on a highway, like locking eyes with the weird cousin in public, like a toilet-paperless Porta-John.

Think running out of gas in strange, scary city. A dead furnace at 2:00 am on a Sunday in February. Malfunctioning sedatives before a colonoscopy.

But they’re not just panic. They’re confused panic, like someone strangling you from behind, in the dark, while they ask you an impossible Trivial Pursuit question. They’re not like a slump in baseball or basketball because those don’t sneak up on you.

The Shanks attack you like a figment of Robert Allenby’s imagination outside a Honolulu strip club. And they arrive at the worst times, like when you’re hosting your father-inlaw and his buddies at your home club.

I’m one over through two, lining up my second shot on a long par 4. I had settled into a rhythm with Bill and his buddies. We’re even for the moment — not that I’m counting. Luckily, we get along and we share a fondness for his daughter and for golf. I tell myself he’s better because he’s retired and plays more, but in truth he’s just better. That stings.

A little background on Bill: 1) I can’t tell you what he did for a living. 2) When suitors came to the house when my wife was in high school, he would position himself prominently at the kitchen table, cleaning his gun. Think De Niro in Meet the Parents meets De Niro in Goodfellas. Just a little more intimidating.

I finish my pre-shot routine, begin my remarkably mediocre backswing — later Bill likened it to that of Jim Furyk (my least favorite tour player) — with my 4 iron, start down, release, and … there goes a flaming squirrel headed on a line toward the wrong hole.

And so begins the most befuddling, horrifying six holes of my life.

Anyone who’s suffered the shanks knows their paradoxical nature: on the one hand, you know they can’t possibly last; on the other hand, you know they’re not called “the shank.” The plurality of the affliction makes it that much more sinister. Those unspeakable putting woes are not called “the yip.” If so, Ian Baker-Finch might be on the course instead of welling up in the booth every time an Aussie drains a three footer.

Back to my round with Bill. To compound the crisis, he tries to help, “Relax, Rory. You’re trying too hard because my friends are here.” To which I politely respond, “No offense Bill, but I don’t give a f — about your friends.” Now consider in what context speaking to your father-in-law like this would be acceptable. Had I taken that tone anywhere but on the golf course in the midst of a tussle with the shanks, I’d be limbless at the bottom of the Chicago River.

Truth is, I’m not nervous — at least I don’t feel nervous. And yet his “help” actually pisses me off even more. Here I am, a 36-year-old man being spoken to like a three-year-old trying to catch a Nerf football. It’s beyond embarrassing. It’s emasculating. For the first time ever, I’m relishing longer holes because that means I can hit a shank-immune club. Alas, I stripe a driver, then a hybrid on #6, walk confidently to the green, putt out, then half-strut to the #7 tee with cautious optimism. #7 calls for a 5-iron — when you’re fighting the shanks, just the word “iron” causes dread. As I stand over the ball, I’m reminded of my high school Humanities teacher, who taught us that organized religion arose to answer three simple questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? After scuttling a scalded dog 30 yards off line, through the pine trees, and onto the fifth tee, I was asking the same three questions about the shanks. I’m not one to argue about religion, but I can say, definitively — thanks to the shanks — that there is a hell.

People often describe golf as “humbling.” I’ll spot you a few more letters: at its worst, golf is humiliating. There is nowhere to hide, no clock to save you, no teammate to pass the ball to, no injury to feign, no coach to ask for a breather. A shooting slump in basketball means you might be missing the hoop by a few centimeters; in golf — while in truth the difference is even smaller — what’s visible is a miss that is not only off line, but potentially dangerous. Baseball is different because the odds are you won’t hit the ball. Three out of ten is actually pretty good.

What’s most amazing about that day is not that I managed to break 90, but that upon closer examination, I only shanked the ball four times. Four times? Really? It felt like 50. It felt infinite. But like other forms of abuse, we learn to repress the shanks; in fact I’ve already forgotten. To even speak those words, “the shanks”, is sacrilege to most golfers. I expect Bill to remind me though.

Unless I can’t hear him from the bottom of the Chicago River.

The Internet is Killing Golf

Golf’s future is uncertain. Courses are closing and membership numbers are shrinking faster than D.J.’s bladder before a clutch putt. Jordan, Rory, and Rickie have injected some much-needed sizzle, but not enough to reverse the downward trajectory of the game at large. Old codgers, teaching pros, course owners, fellow coaches, and media blame the same triple-headed monster: “It’s too hard, too expensive, and takes too long.” The industry has responded with gimmicks like foot golf, enlarged cups, 13-hole courses, and golf “experiences” like Top Golf where you can “play” while slurping margaritas and jamming chili cheese fries. Private clubs are slashing rates, partnering with fitness centers (no thanks), and letting Joe Public play at select times. The First Tee’s impact appears to be negligible, and a broken, balding Tiger Woods did not bring about a generation of minority players; at the high school regional tournament where I coach in metro Detroit, there was exactly one African American player.

Yes, the game is difficult, pricey, and time-consuming, but I think the real culprit is more insidious; it’s one that has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, often without our permission.

I’ll wait for you to stop looking at your phone.

It’s the Internet.

This might be a curmudgeonly “kids these days” argument, but consider the extent to which the interwebs have spun their way into every crevice of our lives. What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Before you go to bed? Stopped in traffic? Watching the baseball game? At the game? While you’re at the game and the winning home run is being hit? If you didn’t answer “check my phone,” then you’re probably lying. Mobile web access has rendered useless three traits vital to golf: patience, concentration, and the ability to interact with strangers.

In 10 years teaching high school English and five years of coaching golf, I’ve witnessed a precipitous decline. And it would be lazy to suggest that only teenagers are in this electronic thrall. We’re all more impatient, more distracted, and more self-absorbed. I have to tell my 66-year-old dad to put down his iPhone during conversations. “No dad, I didn’t see Bernie Sanders’ tweet.”

So it’s no wonder that when you ask a kid if he wants to play golf, he’s not interested. I hear, “Want to escape for four hours and play a game in nature with some good people? You might even get close to God.” He hears, “Want to put on a collared shirt, turn off your phone, abandon your X Box, walk through the woods, and get really frustrated?”

Golf requires the very qualities that digital technology doesn’t:

Patience. On the golf course, if the foursome ahead is holding up play, you wait, take some practice swings, and visualize the rest of the round. In our digital world, if you’re stuck in traffic, you can read a Times article, check email, text three friends, deposit a check, and update your Fantasy roster. Consider that for 3 hours and 58 minutes of a 4-hour round, you’re not even swinging a club. Why would anyone “waste” that much time when he can get so much done?

Concentration. On the golf course, in order to properly execute a difficult shot, your body, mind, and soul converge in a Zen-like focus on a single task. In the modern world, you can simultaneously run a spreadsheet, listen to a Podcast, IM a co-worker, and order lunch. And despite the prevailing research that less that 2% of the population can effectively multitask, we insist on — even take pride in — doing multiple things at once.

Ability to interact with strangers. Without a clean foursome, you experience that awkward first tee moment when the starter introduces you to your playing partners. As an introvert, this has always induced anxiety for me. But isn’t it healthy to be uncomfortable? I look Bob or Bill or Mike (90% of the time they have one of these names) in his eyes, smile, and firmly shake hands. And we’re off. When was the last time you shook hands with someone in his twenties? Exactly. There’s a decent chance he spends 80% of his life on the Internet, where — with sound tech skills, serviceable writing, and cleverly placed emoticons — he can earn a paycheck, “run” errands, and find a wife. Try using an emoticon when you’ve got a 220 carry into a postage stamp with the club championship on the line.

In Nicholas Carr’s chilling book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, he argues that the Internet is rewiring our neural pathways such that we are experiencing the world much differently from our predecessors. Specifically, we’re conditioned to crave instant gratification, distraction, and artificial light. I submit that these pathways are leading us away from golf and into a scary place where silence isn’t golden and nothing is worth waiting for. Yes, golf is hard, it takes time, and it’s costly. But so is a bottle of Scotch. So is a great marriage. So is being a parent. Remember that progress is not always good. So call me old-fashioned…Please.