If we can agree, at this point, that Phil Mickelson has completely lost his ability to play respectable golf, that he will never challenge Tiger Woods for the preeminent position in world golf, and that he may never contend again for a major, we can also agree that we don't expect Mr. Mickelson to hang up his spikes (yes, he still wears metal, to "feel connected to the ground," no doubt) anytime soon.
None of this may be true, this could be Phil's best year ever, but even if the man who was once the leading hope for American golf (pre-Woods, 40 pounds lighter) were unable to break 76 regularly and Callaway laughed him out of his sponsorship deal, he would likely still continue playing golf… why is this?
There may be a variety of reasons why Mickelson would keep teeing it up in this situation. Ultimately, however, he would continue because playing golf is his job, that is, he's getting paid. We, or I would assume, the vast majority of the "we" reading this column, don't have that luxury. What keeps us coming back then, after a shot, hole, round, or season doesn't unfold as planned or even after a lifetime of failing to play golf at any self-appointed level of respectability?
What does a bad round look like for you? Is it shooting 74 with 31 putts? Perhaps, it's not whiffing on an approach shot, not putting it off the green, avoiding ridicule and breaking 100? Regardless, we all have our personal conceptions of an acceptable round. Additionally, we all perversely, grossly and absurdly deviate from this conception from time to time. I don't know why this is, to my knowledge, no one really does, or else they would likely surpass Butch Harmon on the list of America's 100 Greatest Teachers.
Earlier this year, when it wasn't 34 degrees and I wasn't being pelted with semi-frozen rain drops blown into my face by 40 miles-an-hour gusts of wind, I was playing golf with a friend of mine who's a club pro. He cards a three on the first hole, a par five, birdies the second, then the third, steps up to the tee at the fourth, a straightforward 170-yard par 3… shank. Ends up making six on the hole, effectively, or at least psychologically, ending his good round. I think he wound up shooting 78 or 79 when it easily could have been 10 strokes lower.
As I said, I don't have anything more than the slightest clue why this happens. Is the solution trying harder, not trying so hard? Thinking about the swing, not thinking about the swing? Adhering to a routine, scrapping a routine? Taking lessons, not taking lessons? Buying new equipment, not worrying about the equipment? Planning a round, not planning a round? Playing with friends, playing alone? Being relaxed, being energized? Settling on a shot shape, playing it by ear… etc.
Regardless, as golfers, even after we toss the clubs in the water hazard and stomp off the course (metaphorically, or actually) we almost always end up coming back for more abuse. As the most negative golfer of all time and the most permanently disgusted with my game ever, I consider myself uniquely qualified to offer a few suggestions as to why I think this may be.
The Allure of Playing Better
Perhaps, it is a simple matter of selective attention/perception — we remember the good shots more than the bad. We may be programmed to "weigh" the good shots differently than the bad, the average and the mediocre.
Consider this simplified scenario: bad shot (I hate golf!), bad shot ($%&;#* golf!), great shot (I love golf!), bad shot (I remember the good shot, and I know more are on the way…). Thus, we wait… and wait, for another great shot. It may come later in the round, or it may not, but when we're sitting in the clubhouse or driving home after the round and being to reminisce, what's the most prominent feature in our minds, I'd wager it's the one great shot.
The Love of the Game
There is, of course, also the sheer joy of being out there — with friends or alone, playing well or playing poorly — the experience of golf is something we seek over and over (perhaps against our better judgment). Say you've just shot your worst round ever and you've sworn off the game completely. You've gone home, spent a few days sulking and are now considering what to do with your bounty of free time, then your phone rings.
You answer. It's a friend of yours, he's looking for a fourth for a Saturday morning round at his club, he's paying… are you going to say no? Probably not. I could talk about the beauty of the game, or the experience of nature or the communion with tradition, but you'll get all of that from Golf in The Kingdom. Certainly, though, there is an element of affection for golf, both the concept and experience, which grips us and won't let go.
When my mind wanders, in a dull meeting or a lazy afternoon, more often than not I'm thinking about my swing, or about how to play a particular shot, or what shaft I want in my new driver, or the paintfill in my irons or how to get less spin off the tee or Ben Hogan's secret (I can't tell you what I'm thinking about the rest of the time, at least not if The Sand Trap wants to maintain its "G" rating). The point is golf is a passionate lifestyle. It's not so easy, then, to "give up the game."
I'm mostly joking by including this element, but I've seen things that go beyond love, obsession, or reasonable behavior.
At the club where I worked, we had a variety of elderly gentlemen who would play golf every day. They're retired, it's what they do; nothing surprising there. However, there was one particular individual who not only played daily (very badly, of course) but would enter the pro shop immediately after his round to discuss the nuances of his swing with anyone who would listen. Being the kind soul that I am, I would usually head for the hills when I saw this particular individual coming off the 18th green… walking, always walking. He never rode in a cart as some form of punishment, I think he once said.
His swing wasn't really a fluid "swing" at all, but rather a series of interconnected spasms which occasionally resulted in slicing the ball about 60 yards forward and 30 or 40 yards to the right. After his daily gab session, he would refine this motion at the driving range for an indefinite period of hours. Being the individual responsible for picking the range at the end of the day, this practice delighted me to more or less the same degree as dental work, family gatherings, and Wheel of Fortune.
On one particular day, quite late in the season it was 39 degrees and rainy, it was Sunday, and yet, although we had no play all day and every sensible member was watching football or whatever sensible members do when they aren't golfing, he came, he hit a crate of balls, and almost surely, he didn't improve or enjoy himself.
Masochism. It has to be, and lest you judge, I think there's an element of that (hopefully not to such staggering degrees) in all of us, as golfers.
I look forward to hearing your rationalizations and additional suggestions.