An Ode to Golf
He stalked the green above the hole to check the line of his putt. My heart was palpitating. A bead of sweat trailed down my forehead. There was pin drop silence. The air was so thick with tension that one could slice it with a butter knife. Convinced about his line, he settled the head of his putter behind his ball and looked over at me. I gave him a smile but my innards were churning and I felt a strange sense of unease. He stood over his putt and gave it a short rap. The ball trailed down the hump on the green making a beeline for the hole. The Nike swoosh on the ball appeared and disappeared in an agonizingly rhythmic fashion as the ball rolled oh so slowly towards the hole. It seemed like he had struck gold with this putt! My heart skipped a beat. Just when it seemed like it was going to drop in the hole, it broke left and settled a few inches away from the hole. My heart sank and I cursed the gods. Why oh why is life so cruel?
This was not Tiger Woods missing a putt at the Masters. This was my son Shreyas missing a putt on a playoff hole in one of his tournaments in the US Kids Golf Tour Series. And as his caddy, I was playing the part of the hypertensive parent experiencing the highs and lows of competitive golf and vicariously living my golf fantasies through my son. Through a game that is so elegant and addictive, and yet so frustrating and humbling, my son and I have struck a chord that has helped us bond as parent and child in many ways. Both of us started playing the game about four years ago – Shreyas when he was five and I when I was in my late 30′s. And through these years, we have experienced a gamut of emotions and experiences that have made a lasting impact on us. Although both of us continue to strive to improve our games, he clearly has shown more talent, dedication and persistence in improving his golf skills. Shreyas started playing golf tournaments a couple of years ago and that marked a turning point in his overall attitude to the game. The adrenaline rush of competitive golf sparked a fire within him that made him want to elevate his game to new levels.
Early on, there was this impetuous and streaky nature to the way Shreyas played the game. Patience was a virtue he did not fully comprehend. He would tend to be impatient when addressing his ball and just strike it with a pre-conceived notion that it would end up where he expected it to be. He had this sense that he could do no wrong. The golf gods however showed him the futility in such thinking. I look back nostalgically at those early days when he would burst into tears on seeing his ball sail into the water, or smash his club against the ground in disgust on shanking his approach. In one of his first tournaments at the Santa Teresa Golf Club in San Jose, he took ten shots to get out of a bunker. It scarred him so badly that for a year or so he avoided stepping onto a beach anywhere. One of the paramount requirements of golf is to adhere to a stringent and at times quirky set of rules that governs the way one plays the game. Here again Shreyas learnt through experiences that he would rather forget, the value of understanding and complying with this set of rules. In one of his tournaments, he inadvertently picked up and marked his ball thinking it was on the green when in actuality it was on the fringe of the green. The one shot penalty he incurred will stay nestled in his memory for a long time and ensure he never makes the same mistake again. Golf has a subtle yet powerful way to clinically drill its rules in us through this once-bitten, twice-shy paradigm.
However time, practice and maturity tend to heal such golf wounds. What I find quite inspiring is the way Shreyas has shown great resilience in rebounding from such setbacks. On the path of his golf development, he has come to terms with the fickleness of this game and developed more emotional maturity to conduct himself with grace even on days he would like to erase from his memory. But more importantly he has realized the tremendous value of patience and practice in attaining mastery over this game. He is more organized in ensuring all his academic and other extra-curricular commitments are completed promptly to ensure he has enough time to practice golf on a regular basis. And the positive reinforcement he feels in seeing how his practice translates to more consistent play in golf tournaments has bolstered his overall confidence. As a welcome side-effect, he has also come to realize the virtues of practice in enhancing his abilities and confidence in other academic and non-academic endeavors, outside of golf.
On the flip side it is exhilarating and so emotionally draining to be a parent of a son who plays golf. It’s a roller-coaster ride that mimics the undulations of the greens in some of the more treacherous golf courses. I often am in shock and awe at how emotionally involved I get with each stroke that Shreyas makes on the golf course. The intensity of the feelings I experience seem to rival and at times even exceed those one would experience in actually playing the game in a tournament. On the one hand, there are those moments of pure joy when he hits a lovely drive that nestles a few feet from the hole. Or that sensation of my heart jumping out of my chest as I witness a putt that snakes its way 25 feet from the hole and miraculously ends up in the cup. I still vividly recall each of his shots that evoked goose pimples on my skin or made my heart rate dramatically increase. On each occasion, it made me feel as if we were auditioning for a MasterCard advertisement – a truly priceless moment that gets indelibly etched in both our minds.
But more often than not the game of golf tends to rear its ugly head especially on a father vicariously experiencing his golf ambitions through his son. That nauseating sensation of seeing a good round slip away with one bad chip or one sloppy putt. Or witnessing a shot so terrible that it makes you lose your composure and curse your decision to get your son involved in this game. It is strange and at times perplexing to me how this game can evoke such extreme and virulent emotions within me. It is often said that for every moment of losing one’s composure, one gives up a second of one’s life. I have in a short span of less than two years experienced a plethora of such moments on a golf course that in aggregate have reduced my life span by more than a few hours.
At times, I do drift into a self analysis mode putting myself on a virtual couch in a Freudian sense. Here I am supposedly the mature parent trying to coax my son to maintain his calm and patience after a bad shot, and yet I am the one who ends up losing his temper and equanimity. Is it a reflection on my desire for perfection, or my competitive nature manifesting itself through the actions of my son, or just a pent-up desire to succeed in a game I am unable to master myself? Or am I just being a Tiger Dad – and if one reflects on that a bit, the good and bad connotations of that moniker only tend to further cloud the overall picture. The one consolation I can take away from all of this is the behavior of other parents I have witnessed on the golf course. I have seen fathers fling their son’s golf clubs in disgust at a terrible shot, or start to spew four-letter words at seeing their progeny execute a terrible shot, or even worse get fired as a caddy mid-round for their obnoxious behavior.
But the center stage of this article is golf – Shreyas and I pay homage to this glorious game that has given us so many moments of happiness, and give salutation to its wondrous ability to evoke feelings and emotions that will forever live with us. In one of his thought-provoking books “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell espouses his 10,000 hour theory, which states the need for someone to spend at least that much time to attain mastery over any sport or art. Although that would imply Shreyas might attain some level of mastery over this game by the time he is 15 or 16, who knows what lies ahead with regard to his continued involvement in the game? He might just decide that mathematics, history or music are more meaningful and evoke more passion in him than getting a small white ball in a hole. And his dad might also realize that the giddy sensation a la Tiger Woods donning his green jacket or Rafael Nadal biting into his Wimbledon trophy should only be felt first-hand and not through the fruit of one’s loins.
It is however with a sense of pride and inner joy that we look back at the past few years and cherish what golf has given us. Walking together on dewy grass on many a golf course as the sun peeks through the early morning clouds, reading putts in tandem on tough two and three tiered greens, enjoying a round of father-and-son golf where son inevitably triumphs, eagerly anticipating and watching Sunday showdowns in the golf majors on TV, and even stalking Tiger Woods for sixteen holes as he played the Fry’s Open this year. Golf has even served as the inspiration for two truly creative Halloween costumes for Shreyas – one as Mr. Tee with a ball perched on a flat disc on his head and makeshift grass tied to his feet, and the second as a driver club squished inside a cylinder serving as Tiger Woods’ golf bag. A lifetime of memories that we will cherish and I am sure will recall fondly years from now.