I've been thinking about one of my favorite books, the columnist Neil Steinberg's classic, "Complete and Utter Failure: A celebration of also-rans, runners-up, never-weres, and total flops."
The book asserts that failures often are more interesting than successes, and "6 to Scratch," the GOLF.com series in which I am trying to erase my handicap, has so far largely failed.
My handicap has in fact gone from 6 to 6.1, a reversal that elicited laughs when I told coworkers at GOLF Magazine recently. This untidy fact makes the hopeful title of "6 to Scratch" no more accurate than the title of the Silicon Valley book of the moment, "The 4-Hour Workweek."
While I have hardly Ian Baker-Finched (my scores aren't much higher than before) the numbers say I've not improved. This despite new clubs, lessons from GOLF Top-100 teachers, the ear of a renowned sports psychologist (Dr. Dick Coop), a personal trainer and every other advantage save for more free time.
And so I've been taking criticism. A blog post from John Davis:
"Just a quick comment on your series, which is very good. It seems from your columns that you've been able to get nice clubs, a good coach, in shape, and a new commitment. But the one thing that makes this series absolutely untrue to its purpose (to see if a dedicated 6 handicap can make it to scratch) is that you aren't spending enough time actually playing golf or practicing. So it's totally bunk — unfortunately these factors put you into the same place that probably 10% of other well-to-do golfers find themselves: with great equipment, a good coach, decent athleticism, but not enough time. I was expecting a true column about someone who is given the time to really go for it — but without playing at least 2-3 hours 5-6 days a week, I just don't see it happening."
Talk about a backhanded compliment. But the truth hurts.
As much as I wanted it to be so, game-improvement was never going to be my new full-time job. I have a job writing about people who actually can play golf. The weather at home in Boise, Idaho, is in the 40s and getting worse. I have a wife and a 4-year-old. Without asking if it would be convenient for my golf game, my mother-in-law is battling cancer for the third time.
Excuses, all, but there you go. I realize that touring pros have many of the same obstacles, which makes me appreciate their skills all the more.
Among the other lessons of "Six to 6.1" so far:
• Golf has no bathing-suit competition, unless you're Natalie Gulbis
I'd never had a trainer before and I wasn't about to let the opportunity pass. I should have. I'm not saying I shouldn't have done anything, but sweating and stretching isn't as important as putting and chipping.
My Idaho friend Scott Masingill, who just got through the Champions tour Q school, says he doesn't do much working out in golf season. If it's good enough for him ...
• Take your strengths for granted and they'll break your heart
I got so focused on the full swing I didn't work on my short game. That's what happened to Phil Mickelson when, still in the honeymoon phase with Butch Harmon, his putting stroke temporarily went AWOL.
Working out also can hinder touch around the greens. Whatever the case, I used to be deadly around the greens with a sand wedge. Not anymore.
• Lose the joy of playing and watch your score go up, up, up
Golf became a numbers game and only a numbers game, and that's no way to play. I learned that my angry guy can't play golf, and still I got angry.
I lost track of the number of times I blew it after keeping it together for most of the round. I'd scratch and claw and hang around at 3- or 4-over by the middle of the back nine. From there you can make a birdie or two coming in and card a nice score, or lose focus and shoot 80 or worse.
I specialized in the latter.
• Never underestimate the primacy effect
Localized swing changes can be so profound as to affect everything else. A grip change impacts alignment, swing path, position at impact, the way your hips fire, the way your hands feel through the ball. The whole deal.
It was nuts for me to expect to radically strengthen my left hand grip and immediately go low. I've had to break too many bad habits. Psychologists call it the primacy effect: The tendency under pressure to revert to what you first learned, even if it's dead wrong.
• Even the experts have limitations
At a certain point you've got to stop asking how your swing looks and just go figure it out for yourself. I never did that, partly because I didn't make the time for it, partly because I didn't have the time for it.
I'll squeeze in a round or two on upcoming business trips to Southern California and maybe Florida, but I'm not going to make it from 6 to Scratch by New Year's Eve. Sorry. To borrow a line from blogger Davis, the idea that I would make that leap so quickly was, "totally bunk."