Golf: Stop worrying, just enjoy it

In autumn, a golfer’s thoughts turn to what he’s accomplished during the season. At least this golfer’s thoughts turn that way. Has he or she managed to improve, to make swing changes for the better?

We live in a society that offers endless opportunities for self-improvement, don’t we? So shouldn’t we be thinking of whether we’ve improved our golf?

Well, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should be happy to have stayed at the same level. Maybe improving one’s swing shouldn’t be a goal. Maybe just enjoying the game should be satisfying in itself. Maybe self-acceptance is the best ‘improvement’ we can make.

Self acceptance is goal
For exhibit A, I offer one Bruce Lietzke, new Senior PGA Tour player. Lietzke, the 1978 and 1982 Canadian Open champion, turned 50 in July, then won two of his first eight tournaments on the Senior PGA Tour.

He did so by doing exactly what he’d been doing for 25 years or so with his swing.
Nothing, that is.

Lietzke doesn’t work on his swing. He goes home to Dallas, puts his swing away, and doesn’t touch it for weeks until he returns to competition. He hits the ball the same way every time, high, with five or 10-yard fade.

Lietzke hasn’t tried to be a better ball-striker, a guy who can draw the ball, somebody who can hit more shots than he already can hit.

Self-acceptance? Lietzke’s the prime example in this regard. And how does he regard himself?

No interest in changing
“I’m a freak,” Lietzke said after he won the 3M Championship in Minneapolis, his first win on the Senior PGA Tour, in only his third time out. He said he’s a freak because he doesn’t practice, doesn’t think golf when he’s away from the course, and has no interest in making any changes.

“I’m a freak,” Lietzke elaborated, “because it’s human nature to want to get better, and I just want to stay the same. Most people, when they play golf, want to be able to hit the ball 15 yards farther than they did before. Or if they can fade the ball, then they want to be able to hook the ball. Or if they hit the ball low, then they want to be able to hit the ball high.”

But maybe Lietzke isn’t such a freak. Maybe he’s just smart, very smart. Most golfers spend small fortunes trying to improve, but how many really do?

Average handicap unchanged
The average handicap in Canada and the U.S. hasn’t gone down in years, notwithstanding the improvements in equipment and the sophisticated new teaching methods that use video and computers.

I’m thinking that it might be a wise course to stop worrying about getting better and start just accepting who we are, at whatever level we play.

Now, this doesn’t mean we ought not to practice, or refine our games. There’s still pleasure to be had in productive practice. But too many golfers have obsessed about improving.

If you’re one of these golfers, and if you’re not enjoying golf as much as before, then you’re in the group I’m thinking about.

What about pros?
Pros, of course, are also in this group. Then again, they have to keep improving. Or do they? Again, look at Lietzke. He won 13 PGA Tour events and already has those two Senior PGA Tour events. And all without being able to hit any shot but a high fade. All without improving.

He didn’t get worse by trying to get better, which can happen. Lietzke himself has often said that we hear about the one player who has dramatically improved and gone on to win big, but we don’t hear about the many other golfers who get worse.

Culture focuses on winners
Could this be because the winners take center stage in our culture? The others? Let’s avoid them. But maybe we should listen to the lesson.

The lesson, I’d say, is that it’s often not better to try to get better. Here’s Lietzke again.

“I want to have a swing that works for me. Every time. I don’t want things to change. I don’t want to get better. I want to stay the same.”

Lietzke has always been this way. He spoke 20 years ago exactly as he does now.

Golf all consuming
“Nobody enjoys his time off more than I do,” he said then. “There are guys out here who don’t have hobbies. They don’t know how to get away from the golf course even when they take a week or two off. They tell me they sit around on the couch for a day and get bored and then go out and hit balls for six straight days. I really feel sorry for them. They are missing out on something. Golf can be too consuming for a lot of players.”

That goes for amateurs as well as tour pros. As autumn deepens, I like to think about these matters. Coming from a golf writer, maybe they sound strange. But there really is more to the game than getting better.

The urge to improve can blind us to the pleasures of the game. This golfer wonders whether that has happened to him-and to you.