It was loathe at first sight. Ken Zeiger, a lanky, 6'3" single-digit handicap, was playing Griffth Park Golf Course in Los Angeles a few years back when he saw Chubby Cigar Man in a nearby fairway. "I hated him instantly," Zeiger, 47, said of the fellow with the neon-yellow cap. "He did this little dance after every swing a Rich Beem shimmy. He must have shot 140, but he was having a blast. I was miserable, putting pressure on every swing. I went home, looked in the mirror, and said, 'Why don't you just flush 90 bucks down the toilet, call yourself a f---ing idiot 35 times and save five hours.' Something had to change."
It did. Zeiger met a mental-game teacher who specializes in making golfers happier. "I learned not to be so hard on myself," the California consultant said. "I always thought shooting par was the Holy Grail, but not for me. I enjoy golf now."
Zeiger, it turns out, is an exception. 69 percent of those polled on Golf.com said they were unsatisfied with the state of their golf game, and a mere 20 percent said their overall game was close to their ideal. Clearly, American golfers need cheering up.
But it's only a game, right? True happiness comes from family and good health. Why bother sweating small stuff in a world ravaged by famine, terror, and Nancy Grace?
Because happiness is the small stuff. According to Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of Stumbling On Happiness, we all have "a psychological immune system" that regulates our emotions in the wake of Big Life Events (your child's wedding, your spouse's death). But unless you're Tiger Woods or Lorena Ochoa, golf does not qualify as a Big Life Event so that immune system is switched off when you're on the course. Which means golf has the potential to make you happy. Very happy.
Of course, the flip side is that the game can also crush your spirit. So I set off to meet the man who'd coached Zeiger not to mention Vijay Singh, David Toms, Cristie Kerr, and a host of other players. I was not a happy golfer, and Dr. Joe Parent said he had a pocketful of Prozac.
'Doc, it hurts when I do this.'
'Then don't do it.' Old Vaudeville joke
Unlike Zeiger, I wasn't a low-handicapper in need of perspective. I was a 12-handicapper in need of a straitjacket. On the range, I'm relaxed and loose, hitting balls like a 5 handicap. When it counts, though, I steer my shots, fighting tension with a whip and a chair. One day last summer, fellow range rats watched in envy as I hit every practice swing perfectly, even drivers off the deck. I then went to the first tee, topped two straight, and shot 99. "Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad," said a Greek philosopher. (Or was it Greg Norman?)
Parent has written two books, Zen Golf and Zen Putting, and offers mental-game lessons at the Ojai Inn & Spa, 70 miles north of L.A. I half expected to meet a new-age West Coast hippie sitting cross-legged on the green. "I left my beaded necklace home," said Parent, 58, a spitting image of Wendy's founder Dave Thomas.
All golfers define happiness differently, he said. Some are score-obsessed. Others can shoot 114, but if they make good contact, they're peachy. "What makes you happy?" he asked.
"Hitting balls on the range," I said. "I feel loose."
"How do you feel on the course?"
"Tense, like a belt is slowly tightening around me. I steer my shots, and I hear all these voices in my head. It sounds like The View up there."
A smile of recognition crossed Parent's face. He's heard this tale many times in his 18 years of teaching the mental game. "During the swing is never the time to give yourself a lesson," he said. He handed me a piece of paper for an exercise that you can do right now. Grab a pen and scribble your name on the sheet, as you would if you were signing a check. OK, that's your First Signature. Now, for your Second Signature, trace precisely over your first one, and be very careful not to go outside the line. If you do, it will be bad. Go ahead. Make a carbon copy of your first John Hancock. Don't make a mistake. Steady...
You get the point. You held the pen differently on your second effort. Your grip pressure increased. You micromanaged. The muscles in your arm and shoulder stiffened. Sound familiar?
"We swing a golf club the same way, using a tense Second Signature swing, not a free, fearless First Signature," Parent explained. "We micromanage. When you hit great shots on the range, that's your true swing. But on the course your fear of consequence takes over."
Breaking 15 years of bad habits seemed like a tall order, I told him. Could I do it?
"You already do," Parent said. "We all do. Have you ever noticed that our best shots happen on 16 or 17? We try all day and finally surrender, and there it is our First Signature."
He then returned to the subject of happiness. "That tense golfer you described? He doesn't sound like a happy guy. Golfers think that if they shoot lower scores, they'll be happy. But if they learn how to be happy relaxed, accepting that the ball's gonna come down somewhere they'd shoot lower scores."
"Uh-huh..." New-age psychobabble, I thought. I'd soon learn how wrong I was.
We headed to the driving range, where I worked on playing imaginary three-hole mini rounds, in order to make the range feel like the course, and vice-versa. "You don't hit a dozen straight 7-irons in a round," Parent said. "Practice like you play." Made sense.
Of course, if I really wanted to lose strokes fast, I might follow this simple plan:
1. Take my handicap card
2. Feed it into a paper shredder
According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), five million golfers keep a handicap. The good news: The handicap system lets players of disparate abilities play one another on a level field. The bad news: "Playing to your handicap" can wear your golf ego down to a tee-sized nub.
We think our handicap reflects the state of our game when, in fact, it reflects the state of our game on our best days. The formula uses the best 10 of a golfer's last 20 rounds. A USGA spokesperson said that, after running the numbers through the complex handicap matrix, "Statistically, you only have a one-in-four chance of playing to your handicap in a given round." Most players don't understand this, Parent said, and they suffer for it.
Take John Q. Publinks. If John's home course has a 125 slope rating, and (keeping it simple) if his last 20 scores consist of 10 rounds of 90 and 10 rounds of 80, the handicap system tosses out the 90s, leaving him with an index of 7.6. That number is meant to help him compete against others from Tiger Woods to Chubby Cigar Man not against Old Man Par.
More important, John's scoring average is 85, yet, bless his single-digit heart, he lusts to shoot in the 70s and thinks he should. There's a gulf between expectation and ability. Call it the Unhappy Gap.
Parent's solution is to alter your reality and play to your personal par. He estimates that less than one percent of all golfers have ever shot par or better. Yet we play to par on every hole. Bogey is the bogeyman.
Parent suggests we remove the numbered white stones on the tee. (Not literally that's theft.) If you're a 16 handicap, add one stroke to each of your course's 16 hardest holes. Assuming a par-72, that makes your "par" 88. You posted an 83? Hey, 5-under!
Changing your par is more than balm for the wounded psyche, Parent insists. "It can change your mindset and free your swing, and that's the ultimate goal here getting that freewheeling swing," he said. "[With personal par] you no longer need a heroic shot to reach that long par-4 in two, because it's now a par-5."
Dispersion pattern vector. Sounds like something you'd find on an Audi Quattro. Parent explained the concept as we stood in the fairway on the par-4 13th, 150 yards from a flag guarded by a front-right bunker. To pin-hunt or not to pin-hunt that was the question. I grabbed an 8-iron which, perfectly struck, would fly the needed 150 yards.
"Let me ask you a question," Parent said. "Is it easier to putt from the bunker or the back of the green?" We all have a dispersion pattern the area where our approach shots scatter around the green. Golfers love to go for the flag, expecting perfect contact. "But that brings front hazards into play. It's smarter to take dead aim at the back of the green, which shifts your dispersion pattern to a safer place and brings more green into play."
Instead of taking a 150-yard swing, I grab a 7-iron and aim for an imaginary back flag 165 yards away. I hit it a bit fat and watch my mis-hit land 15 feet from the cup. A bonus: Choosing a longer club promoted a smooth swing; I didn't feel the need to swing out of my Eccos.
Not that Parent has a problem with pin-hunting. "If you're a Mickelson type, be true to yourself," he said. "Just pre-accept that you bring more danger into play, and get better at getting up-and-down."
It took some time for my game to get happy. A low point was a 90-plus round on a links course in Ireland. After a final woeful drive, I removed the hat Parent had given me and angrily helicoptered it over a fence toward the Atlantic.
But on a Friday not long after, on my home course, I had a very different round. Following strict happy orders, I'd played practice holes on the range, used my personal par (81), and gunned only at imaginary back flags. Also, I'd used one and only one swing thought standing over the ball: "Hulk smash!" (Seriously.) The upshot: I was one par away from a 76, my best-ever score at a course without windmills.
I was stunned. The round had been easy and stress-free. Like shooting fish, without fins, in a barrel. I still faced a narrow par 4, though. Feeling that belt tighten on that final tee, I banished my old swing thought ("Don't screw up!") and gently told myself, "The ball doesn't know the score." Hulk smashed. Twice. I two-putted for a 76.
After texting Parent a mash note that could be construed as stalking in some states, I realized something. Sure, I was over the moon about the score. But there were happiness dividends I never saw coming. I'd fully enjoyed my playing partner's jokes and the course's design subtleties. I had no idea I was missing those mundane pleasures.
As I walked to my car, I signed my scorecard using my first signature and looked up. The sky seemed much bluer than it was supposed to be....
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