There’s more to golf than your score

Summer isn’t exactly coming to an end in Canada but I’m sure you would agree it’s in the home stretch. As I write this from the Scottish Highlands with five weeks left in my visit here, and darkness falling more quickly night by night, I’m reminded of something we often forget: that we should enjoy golf no matter what we score.I’m reminded of this because there is so much emphasis in our society on results and golfers seem to define themselves by their scores. That’s not all bad, because we can gauge whether or not we’re improving by how well we score. But the downside is that when the result becomes all-important, we can lose the sense of the process. And process in golf — where a round can take more than four hours — is central. The more we enjoy the process the more we can revel in our golf.

Focus on the positive
This doesn’t mean that I’m saying it’s easy to enjoy golf when we’re not scoring well. But surely it’s a good idea to think about other things beside our swings and our scores as we play a round of golf. Lorie Kane had tears in her eyes recently when she came up the last fairway of the du Maurier Classic at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club, on h way to shooting 76 the last round. Kane was tied for the lead after three rounds, but she figured she failed. In one sense, she did, because she didn’t play to her potential that day.

But how many days do we really play to our potential? More often than not we don’t play our usual game, or what we think of as our usual game. Maybe on those days, and indeed on all the days, we need to focus on other aspects of our games.

Just the other evening, I played a course called Tain here, where the first hole goes away from the charming town and then the last holes move back toward the town. There was a sense of departing and returning — a journey. I played pretty well but along the way I realized that the journey and not the score was what was important. And that helped me enjoy the trip in special ways, even unusual ways because I, like so many, was consumed by score.

That evening I played with one of the course’s greenkeepers, 34-year-old John Urquhart; who goes by the nickname Jockie. Well, Jockie is a man suited for his job. He gets up early in the morning and roams the course where he has worked for 18 years. Sheep graze on a farm alongside the fairways. Jockie said he likes to study the hollows the sheep made, and that this helps him understand how the undulations in Scottish links courses werem developed.

Golf is about space
What an evening of golf we had. We were the only players on the course, and there was a sense of inviting emptiness all along the holes. I use the word “emptiness” because I mean to convey a sense of space. Golf is about using space in an appealing way. And golfers can use the space to amplify themselves.

Years ago a friend named Archie Baird, who golfs at Gullane just east of Edinburgh, visited some U.S. courses. He mentioned that he was surprised how intent golfers were on marking their cards — that is, posting a score on every hole. He was more used to match play golf, head-to-head competition where the number of holes a player wins determines the result — not his score over a round.

The player who makes an eight on a hole, for instance, loses one hole. He doesn’t need to mark an eight on his card because he’s not involved in medal or stroke play. That eight would very likely ruin his scorecard. In match play he can forget it because he’s only lost the one hole.

Smell the flowers
Baird also mentioned his surprise that American golfers didn’t take time to notice their environment, to smell the flowers along the way, so to speak. He’s a bird-watcher and was taken with the variety of birds he saw at some courses. But his fellow golfers didn’t take note. He felt they were missing something.

Were they? I think so. A golf course is a world of its own, a landscape. The other day, while playing Royal Dornoch, I noticed a fellow sitting on the beach beside the 16th fairway, painting a seaside scene. I wasn’t playing particularly well at that point and noticed what I had not noticed — the Dornoch Firth all round, the tide going out, the Struie Hills and the Ord of Caithness behind, kids playing on the beach.

Consumed by the way I was playing, I’d lost touch with my surroundings. Surely there’s a better way. Surely we can combine playing with observing, which leads to a pleasant way of participating in a round of golf. Maybe we can be more engaged even in the game this way, and who knows, our scoring might improve as an unintended consequence. The wider our gaze, that is, the more we are part of that in which we are involved. If that engagement leads to a better score, wonderful.

And if not, well, we have at least enjoyed the day in a new way. As summer wanes, I want to awaken to this possibility, and mean to do just that during my remaining time in Scotland. I hope you’ll do so in Canada, and that together we can awaken in ourselves a more refined sensory appreciation of all that golf has to offer.