Here’s what it’s like to take your range game to the course for the first time (hint: it’s humiliating)

October 6, 2019
Golf ball and divots

The first thing I learned, mere seconds after arriving at the Country Club of the South in Johns Creek, Ga., is that this luxe enclave, where I’m playing my first holes of actual golf in more than a decade, is where the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes burned down the house of former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison back in 1994.

My intrepid instructor, Jon Tattersall, who at last got me out on the course to see how much consequence his training had mustered, told me this after my first swing on the practice range. After that, it took me a while to take my second one.

The second thing I learned, a lesson I would continue to learn throughout the day and one I will never forget, is that swings taken on the practice range have little to no effect on swings taken on the course. All the teachings Tattersall had given me — the swing tips, the exercises and stretches, the biometric data he’d downloaded into my brain — fell completely out of my head the minute I teed up my first drive. On the practice range, utilizing everything Tattersall had taught me, I’d nailed about six shots in a row, and I felt confident — no, invincible. This grand experiment of transforming a golf hater into a facsimile of a legit golfer was a smashing success. Perhaps I was a wunderkind all along! Perhaps I was a genius golfer trapped in the body and mind of a golf blasphemer, and today that genius would be unleashed!

Then I took that first swing.

The good news is I hit the ball. The bad news is it didn’t reach the senior’s tee and I’d deposited a rather large chunk of the Country Club of the South’s sod on top of our golf cart. My previous six shots, the practice ones, made me look like I’d been playing the game all my life. My first on the course made me look like I had a bee in my shoe and I was trying to get it out with my club. I looked like a damned idiot.

I looked at Tattersall with shame and embarrassment. All this work he’s done with me … and that’s how we start?

“It’s different on the course, isn’t it?” he said with a grin.

To say the least. Tattersall explained that the most difficult concept for any beginner golfer to master is that no matter how much you work on your game, stepping out on the course, where you hit shots that actually count, in front of actual people, is as different from practice as swinging with your left hand rather than your right. It’s almost an opposite sport.

“Just me sitting here watching you changed everything you were doing,” he said. “This is a sport about doing the same thing over and over, about not worrying about the results, about training yourself to just make your swing the same way, all the time. But the minute you came out here, you were a different golfer.” He smiles. “A considerably worse one.”

It’s not like I was playing a round with stakes; Tattersall is too kind to take money from me on a hole, and we weren’t in any sort of competition. But it didn’t matter. Performance anxiety took over immediately and all-encompassingly. Just knowing I was on a course, with golfers ahead of me and behind me, turned me and my swing into a parody of themselves.

“I’m sorry,” I said, after losing the second of my allotted three balls on my third shot on my first hole. “I promise to tell GOLF’s readers that you trained me better than this.”

“This is exactly what I expected to happen,” Tattersall said. “You had to get out here and see for yourself. You could absorb every piece of information, but it does you no good until you get out and swing on the course. Remember, though: It’s not about your last shot. It’s always about your next one.”

I’m not sure he fully believed that, though. We had initially planned to play nine holes on an extremely hot Atlanta summer afternoon. But after four holes, and three more lost balls, Tattersall turned to me.

“I think that’s probably enough for the day, no?”

Saying yes was the kindest thing I’ve ever done for him, and maybe the kindest thing I’ve ever done to anyone.

Will Leitch is a columnist for GOLF, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, and the founder of Deadspin.