The Impossible Game

While my mom and dad were dating, my mom’s father jokingly told my dad that he had to golf to join the family. My grandfather could not hit the ball long or straight, but he loved the game of golf nevertheless. My father, taking my grandfather’s joke a little seriously, decided to buy his own set of golf clubs and join a golf league. He practiced every week and immediately realized that golf is much, much harder than it looks.

As an engineering graduate from Carnegie Mellon University and a computer programmer, my dad took the challenge of golf head on. He researched the technique of the golf swing, read books about golf, and practiced consistently for at least five years, until he began scoring in the 80’s. However, my dad’s obsession and enjoyment of the game did not stop there. In his research, he learned about the number of girls golf scholarships left unclaimed every year and decided to teach the game to my sister and I.

As soon as we could stand on two feet, my dad practiced hitting foam golf balls with us in our backyard. Soon we began participating in junior golf leagues, private lessons, and summer golf tournaments to improve our golf swing and learn the rules of the game. In high school, I played on the varsity boys team all four years, ranking as the first or second best player my junior and senior years. I was invited to the Tri-State Section PGA golf championship twice and the PIAA individual state championship once, placing sixteen in the state of Pennsylvania.

However, when I entered Calvin College as a freshman, I did not try out for the division three girls golf team. When packing my belongings in the car, my parents left behind my golf clubs at home in the basement. The only souvenirs I brought of my golfing experience were two worn and dearly loved golf hats, which I tucked neatly away on a closet shelf. Clearly, either someone had stolen my identity or my parents had just forgotten to bring my golf clubs. In actuality, I was burned out from playing the game and wanted nothing to do with it.

In the game of golf, the objective is to get the lowest score possible. A traditional golf course contains 18 holes of par 3’s, 4’s, or 5’s, which add up to a par score of 72. The term “par” refers to the amount of shots required to hit the ball into hole. In a par 5, for instance, players have three shots to get on the green and two shots to get the ball in the hole. The length of the hole, which is measured in yards, determines the par number.

Watching the game on television, golf appears leisurely and pleasant in the grassy, open outdoors. You watch a few old men in fancy collared shirts and slick pants converse with other players and then swing gracefully at the ball, which soars high in the air and lands softly on the green. This is just a lofty idea of the real game (pun intended). Real golf is trudging across the fairway to retrieve your ball from the impenetrable out-of-bounds forest, after practicing your drives for never-ending hours at the ever-pricey driving range.

Golf is so incomprehensibly challenging because of the level of coordination, technicality, and accuracy it requires. A slight jerk of the head or twist of the wrist can make the ball explode in all directions. Golfers must learn both the technique of the golf swing and the muscle control to perform the technique correctly. Moreover, golfers must master the usage of fourteen different clubs and the technique of many different shots, such as drives, fairway shots, approaching shots, bunker shots, pitches, chips, and putts.

Even more challenging than the physical game is the mental game. Golf contains 34 rules and countless sub-rules, which most people remember only by carrying a rule-book in their bags. Golfers also measure distances, wind speed, slopes, and ground speeds in their heads. After taking all this information into account, golfers determine the best course of action and focus their attention on their shot, suppressing any nervousness or anger that could mess them up. As an individual sport, they must handle the pressure to score well and the blame of scoring poorly. It is a game played against oneself, requiring what my dad calls mental toughness.

Golf is not only the hardest sport but also the weirdest one. In terms of field sizes, a basketball court is about 30 yards. A soccer field ranges from 100 to 130 yards long, and a footfall field stretches 120 yards. An average 18-hole golf course is an insurmountable 6,000 yards long, with thick rough, rolling hills, massive maple trees, hidden ditches, rocky paths, threatening ponds, and bee-infested sand pits, right in the heart of it. My dad once explained that the real defense is the course itself. He also jokes that course architects probably ask themselves, “how can we make this course as difficult as humanly possible but still playable?”

There are neither sidelines nor substitutes for the players. Golfers must carry their own giant golf bag—full of golf balls, towels, wooden tees, tiny pencils, scorecards, snacks, water bottles, and heavy clubs—across the entire 6,000 yards. In contrast to the size of the course, the hole on the green is approximately 4.25 inches wide, which is significantly smaller than any soccer goal, basketball hoop, or hockey goal. The hole is so minuscule that golfers need flagpoles to see it, and sometimes golfers cannot even see the flagpoles because of various obstacles.

After an hour of driving, an hour of warming-up, a 5 hour golf tournament, and an hour drive home, I would often wander through the front door, let my golf bag bang on the ground, and sit down dead. A peculiar flood of relief would wash over me, as well as an awareness that I would pick up my clubs again tomorrow. Then at the end of the day, I would wonder, “why was this sport even invented in the first place?”

Most modern sports have matured into their current versions today over the past 200 years. The modern game of golf, on the other hand, appeared as early as the 1400’s. Scottish Kings James II and James IV actually outlawed the game (which is fine by me) because it distracted men from military training, but James IV eventually gave in. Considering the popularity of the game then and today, I knew I was missing some enjoyable aspect of it.

I came to the conclusion that golf is addicting. Every so often, professionals will fist-pump the air after chipping in the hole or cry tears of joy after winning a tournament. Even a beginner will get the occasional adrenaline rush from hitting a long strait drive or sinking a 30-foot putt. Golfers long to have that feeling again, that pleasant feeling in your hands of hitting the sweet spot of the club-face and that exuberant feeling of victory when you finally get it right.

Playing golf is a lot like creating a computer program. Programming requires an extreme attention to detail, as one tiny little error could mess up the entire process. More importantly, the process of finding these errors through problem solving is incredibly frustrating. No matter how good you get at programming, this sense of frustration will never go away, as the programming problems will continue to get harder and more complicated. However, there is always a solution out there, and finding that solution is incredibly satisfying.

My dad loves both, computer programming and golf, for sake of challenge. To have fun, he would often joke that we were “building sandcastles” if our balls landed in sandpits. I still enjoy playing golf to spent time with my family outside, but I no longer play golf competitively. Playing golf competitively was one of the craziest challenges of my life, and it taught me, above everything else, to understand my dad deeply and to love him a whole lot more.

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