The Evolution of a Middle-Aged Golfer

In 2005, after playing competitive golf at the junior and NCAA level, I stopped playing the game entirely for around eight years. Like many young people building a career, I moved to a city where I found golf inconvenient and, quite frankly, unaffordable. When I returned to the game, I felt like a character in a movie that has been suddenly transported to the future—everything seemed at once familiar and utterly foreign. Elite golfers were armed with new equipment and new strategies - even a new understanding of the physics underpinning the flight of the ball.

Golf had changed—and of course, I had changed, too. I’m 40 now—with a much different body and brain than when I was 20. I recently discovered a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which is apt: “No man fishes the same river twice, for it is not the same river, nor is he the same man.”

Here are the main differences that I now navigate as a middle-aged golfer.

Golf is Hard

My absence from the game coincided with the rise of big data and analytics—first in finance and then eventually in everything else. For golf, the data revolution involved tracking and analyzing millions of shots hit on the PGA tour via a system called ShotLink. As far as I can tell, the main insight from all this data wrangling is that golf is really, exceptionally, excruciatingly hard, even for the best players in the world.

When I was in college, I expected to hit every iron on the green, every wedge shot to within a 10-foot radius, and hole every putt inside six feet. The stats from ShotLink show how foolhardy these expectations were, particularly for me, a bench-warmer on an Ivy League golf team. From 150 yards in the fairway, PGA tour players miss the green on one out of four attempts. From 110 yards in the fairway, they hit it outside ten feet the vast majority of the time (74.6 percent of the time, to be precise). Even the best putters in the world can expect to miss a six-footer a third of the time.

I find stats like these both dispiriting and liberating. It’s depressing to think that even highly talented athletes who dedicate their entire professional life to the game still basically suck a significant portion of the time—what hope is there for a weekend warrior such as I? The great American psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered long ago that the most addicting thing you can offer lab rats or humans is unpredictable rewards. That’s exactly what you’re guaranteed in golf. No matter how hard you practice—no matter how good you get—you will sometimes get positive reinforcement and sometimes get punched in the face. There is no way to predict when it’s going to happen. It can be incredibly infuriating—and addicting.

But now that I have internalized this —now that I’ve seen the stats and faced the cold-hard truth—I feel unshackled from unrealistic expectations and the self-punishment that follows when such expectations are violated by reality. Sure, it still hurts my ego when I dump a 150-yard approach into a front bunker, or three-putt from 40 feet, or miss the green from 90 yards. But it soothes my ego to know that even PGA pros do all of these things—and not infrequently, either. My self-talk shifts from “you suck!” to “ golf is hard.” I enjoy the game more than I ever have because I can shrug off bad shots as just part of the experience of playing golf. And when I hit a truly great shot—say, when I hit the green from outside of 230 yards—I celebrate the outcome more because I know how rare it is. Golf is essentially unconquerable. I love the game even more now that I have accepted this.

Ball Flight Laws

Throughout my junior career, I had been told that the path of the golf club at impact determines what direction the ball starts, and the face determines where it finishes. To hit a fade, the right-handed golfer should aim his clubface at the target, and then swing left. That’s totally intuitive—and totally incorrect. In fact, launch monitors have shown that the alignment of the clubface at impact mostly determines the direction that the ball starts, and the relationship between the face’s aim and the club’s path is what determines how much it curves and where it finishes. What this means in practice is that to hit a fade, your clubface needs to be closed to the target at impact (how much is determined by the path).

This may sound technical and wonky, but it is hugely important for golfers struggling to fix a recurring miss. In the past, if I was over-doing a fade, I would try to move my path more to the left, because I (incorrectly) believed that this would start the ball further left. Of course, all this was doing was making my problem worse—it caused the ball to start on the same line and just slice more. Does understanding this mean I hit fewer bad shots? I doubt it. But at least now I can figure out the root cause of those bad shots—and adjust more quickly.

I have to marvel at how the golf community got the ball flight laws so wrong for so long. This isn’t quantum physics. It’s stuff Newton could have figured out centuries ago. Yet, as is so often the case, common sense overrode science until it could no longer resist.

Just Send It

When I grew up playing golf, elite golfers fetishized a “good” golf swing. It was the Leadbetter/Faldo era when instructors felt they were closing in on the “right way” to swing. Today, I sense that elite golfers are less concerned about how their swing looks and more concerned about impact conditions—the “moment of truth” when ball and club connect. I know one competitive golfer who doesn’t even send video to his swing coach, only numbers from his launch monitor (e.g., “hey coach: 1.9 degrees up, 2.8 degrees left, face to path 1.5R, 2145 rpm. What do you think?”). I remember obsessing over my takeaway and backswing in college. For many instructors today, the club’s position in the backswing really is an afterthought. Who cares? Just make a turn and rip it.

Elite golfers today have a similar disregard for the “swing easy” ethos of my era. This is obvious off the tee, when golfers are being taught to feel as if they are explosively jumping off the ground with their front foot through impact, which leads to more clubhead speed. Even “control” players like Francesco Molinari have learned that they will get better results by swinging full bore with their driver—a strategy he used to tame Carnoustie at the Open Championship two years ago.

In my youth, long-hitters were treated derisively as meatheads—“the woods are full of long hitters,” was a common way of dismissing golfers with speed. The “smart” golfers were the “tacticians” who laid short of hazards and picked their way around the golf course. So it’s ironic—but perhaps inevitable—that it was math nerds who overturned this misconception by crunching “strokes-gained” data provided by ShotLink. And what they found was that the meatheads were the ones playing smart: with only a few exceptions, the best way to improve your score is to just send it.

No Country For Old Men

It’s difficult to describe how unnerving it is to adopt this new approach to the game. I still feel uncomfortable hitting drivers on hard holes in competition—not to mention swinging at full bore. To do so goes against everything instructors I grew up respecting and admiring taught me—including my father. I feel like an old Communist apparatchik during the Cold War who has defected to the West. I can see a better way of living all around me, I can even adopt the local customs, but I know I will always feel slightly uncomfortable—and I will never lose a conflicted fondness for the life that I have left behind.

But isn’t that true of aging, generally—that we begin to feel more and more as if we are strangers in a foreign land? Or that we no longer belong as a new generation comes through? It is misguided loyalty to the past to fight inevitable change. You may know these types at the golf course—they are the ones giving the 17-year-old high school hotshot a lecture about the “right way” to play the golf course even as the 17-year-old is setting new course records.

One of golf’s great gifts to me in recent years is that it has shown me a more graceful and enjoyable way to age. “Old men ought to be explorers,” the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, and what I think he meant is that we should never stop learning and growing and taking delight in each new step forward, even if it takes us further from what we find familiar and comfortable. Now when I step on to the tee—even on a tough par 4—I reach back and hit it as hard as I can. With my hunching shoulders, graying hair, and sagging belly, I’m sure I look a bit ungainly to the 17-year-olds I often compete against. But I don’t care. For as I watch the ball fly out into the blue abyss, in that split second of uncertainty all golfers share as they look up to see what direction their ball is headed, I feel that old sensation in the veins once more, that lightning rush of discovery and fear which is the defining feature of youth.

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