The Greatest Challenge in Golf is managing the Space Between.
The hush of a crowd as a three pointer arcs through the air like an arrow trained on its target. A soccer ball zipping through the air like a comet toward the top corner. A Hail Mary chucked down the field toward the end zone. A sprinter coiled and ready to spring into action.
Sports anticipation is like nothing else. Those small moments within the game that leave us on the edge of our seat or standing in our living room. The point guard dribbling the ball down the court is just a spring loaded moment ready for that inevitable snap of a jump shot or drive to the hoop. Then the waiting begins: Will it go in? What happens when it doesn’t? Will I be able to sleep? Will my remote be lodged in the wall? Will they grab the rebound?
Golf has those anticipatory moments in spades; the coiled spring winds rather tight between shots. That space between is what makes the game such an incredible challenge. A golfer sets up to the ball and swings, sending it through the air (hopefully) and closer to the hole (we also hope). The helplessness of watching a ball fly through the air nowhere close to the target can eat away at the golfer’s spirit. That spirit is rebuilt with good shots and tricks of the mind between rounds where we picture ourselves as better golfers than we actually are.
That “space between” during a round of golf turns us into basket-cases. And it isn’t just the moments of watching the ball fly through the air or bounce around a green or roll toward the cup, it’s the long walks to the ball that have us talking to ourselves for 200 yards at a time. An errant shot might force us to descend into a deep, dark forest or tip-tow into a dry, snake infested desert, all for the sake of finding a golf ball and returning it to safety like the responsible golfball parent we want to be. Caring for a golfball is the sole responsibility of a golfer, keep it safe, don’t lose it (golf balls can drown in 2-inch deep water…), and send it home, even when it doesn’t want to.
Sometimes, the short walks are worse than the long ones. You chunk a chip or a tree does it’s best Mutombo impersonation, rejecting your efforts to escape the forest; suddenly you’re left with no time to process what the hell happened. You didn’t even have a chance to put your club back in the bag, and the ball is sitting there like a disrespectful teenager.
I think that some people like riding in carts because it shortens the time between shots and minimizes how much thinking is involved. Get to the ball fast and hit it. This is why slow play can be so challenging, too. The coil of anticipation tightens more and more with every passing moment. The doubt can creep in, we start to ask stupid questions of ourselves: Is the wind shifting? Can I fade a 6-iron into this left pin (you can’t…)?
Then there’s the concept of par. A manmade device to help golfers understand what they are supposed to do as they peer down the fairway. It’s hard to think of other sports that force athletes to consider what they are supposed to do over and over again. Basketball players aren’t aware of their shooting percentages from various spots on the floor, maybe on the free throw line? Steph Curry expects to make every shot, just like Tiger Woods expects to make every putt. But Steph can pull up from 30 feet and no one is yelling, “You’re a 38% shooter from this spot on the floor!” Also, if he misses his shot, it’s rebounded and the next play happens immediately. In golf, minutes pass, conversations happen, and doubt creeps in like a San Francisco fog, filling any crack in your mental foundation.
This weekend, the US Open is being played at one of the toughest golf courses in the world. It inspired a book called “The Massacre at Winged Foot” detailing the 1974 US Open. It’s the rare professional golf event where carnage is expected, the best in the world are made to appear human on a golf course that will certainly leave players talking to themselves, their ball, and anyone who will listen. It’s part golf tournament part psychological test. The winner will end up being the one that manages the space between the best. They’ll resist the urge to snap a club after advancing a ball just 10 yards with an 8-iron from deep, dense rough. They’ll find ways to distract themselves on those walks, which will be lonely and quiet with fans urging them on, or in New York fashion, crushing their spirits with some pointed insults.
The best golfers we all know have the capability of hitting great shots, but they also have the mental acuity to just worry about one shot and not the results or their collective score on a hole or for a round. They manage that space between like athletes in other sports who have less time to worry about it and are forced to move on quickly.
Pay attention to the golfers this week whose talents allow them to stress out the least and then look for the ones that do struggle and understand it’s part of their lives for this week. It’s going to be a grind, and I can’t wait to watch.