Sunday, January 08, 2006

Golfing Zen #9 — Why Bother?

In the last essay/podcast pairing, I identified a faith or trust in our own ability to continue our development and growth as one of my prime golf fundamentals. I took that position because the only alternative is to accept that we are ultimately only what we are now. “I’m a 15-handicap… that’s what I’ve been, and that’s what I’m going to continue to be.”

How sad, if that is your choice! That means your real choice is to compete by means of your handicap while your day-to-day scores oscillate back and forth around your nominal average ability. My contention is, if that is your choice, then you might just as well flip a coin within the comfort of your home and mail in your result. My question: What’s the point? Why bother?

But that raises a better question. If we do hold to our faith and trust, if we don’t accept our current level as our final level, if we continue to believe… the question is equally valid: Why do we bother?

The answer lies on the other side of my beliefs about competition, and about handicaps.


I think we can agree that handicaps are nothing more than an artificial crutch that allows us to participate in pseudo-competition. “You’re better than me, so let’s compare handicaps and figure out the holes where you’re going to give me extra strokes.”

That may be semi-logical in the short term, but becomes ludicrous when we take pleasure in our handicap or when we do things to artificially inflate our handicap. (Of course, it’s equally absurd to lie our way into a lower handicap, to which we can not play!) Why would we be happy that we’ve gone through a bad patch, have seen our handicap go up, and are now mopping up on our friends? In either case, handicap true or artificial, what possible real pleasure can we take in defeating someone, only because they were forced to give us extra strokes? Why do we delude ourselves when we're really only submitting to the random variations in your game and mine? What is the point?

Let me tell you how the Japanese handle the question. There, when you join a new club, you play in your first tournament without a handicap and with a member of the handicap committee. That member observes your play, consults with other committee members, and arbitrarily assigns you a handicap. “Smith-san, you will be a 12.” No questions, no debate, no complicated mathematics: you are now a 12… case closed!

Further, from that point forward, your handicap can never go up. But, at any time, the committee can observe your current level of play and lower your handicap to a new maximum. Again, no calculations and no appeal. (There is the special case of someone who has become old and has developed a physical infirmity. An appeal is technically allowed, but no one ever loses face by applying.) When I tell my Japanese friends about our complicated formulas they don’t understand the concept, and they are mystified as to why we would enjoy — or even accept — a higher handicap.


If we reject the idea of an artificial handicap, then the next question is about competition itself. Unless you and I happen to be equally matched, what is the point? Why bother?

And there lies my exact point: when we move past the handicap crutch and shift into belief and trust in our growth, we see, with clarity, a new and better view…

Golf is not about competition: There is no aspect of competition in my round with you. I don’t attack, you don’t defend, we don’t obstruct each other in any way. In fact, the reverse is true; if I don’t allow myself to be foolishly intimidated, then the better and smoother you play, the better I’ll play.

So… Why Bother?

A good source for the answer is Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugene Herigel. It’s a little book, has been around for decades, and describes Herigel’s five-year stay in Japan where he studied archery with a Zen Master.

Within Zen study, many use common art or sport activities (flower arranging, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, archery) as a platform for break-through. Through concentrated practice they see that quieting their active and judging conscious mind then allows the great “IT” to perform the activity through them in a way that they can not do on their own. Their practice shifts from trying hard to get better (to “win”), but to instead get out of the way and allow IT to enter.

So there’s my “why bother” answer: to use my time on the course to learn, to shut up, to get out of my own way, to trust, to ask the great IT, to connect, to feel IT within me.

Read Herigel’s book. You’ll understand.

(But what am I saying? Am I suggesting you forget handicaps, not play in the club championship? You'll want to check my next podcast for much more on this important subject)


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