Golf Digest editors picks
Golf Saved My Life

The Game Gave Me The Focus I Needed

December 2012

In high school I weighed 300 pounds. I wore tracksuits, earrings and a chain around the roll of skin I called my neck. I rode around the back roads of Colchester, Vt., pretending to be a gangster. I failed classes, hung out with the wrong crowd and, most painfully, had no girlfriend.

Motivated by unhappiness, I managed to turn things around some before graduating. I shed 100 pounds to become a pretty good player on a pretty good football team, and I finished with a high enough grade-point average to get into the University of Vermont Guaranteed Admissions Program (GAP), which is a funny name because my admission was anything but guaranteed. Along with other students whose academic readiness was deemed borderline, I was granted a trial period: If I didn't have at least a 3.0 average after my first 18 credit hours, I'd be kicked out.

Schoolwork never came easy to me. Every time I went to the library I thought it was necessary to drink a Red Bull mixed with crushed Adderall, the amphetamine used to treat attention-deficit disorder. I wasn't diagnosed with this condition, but I knew a student who was, and I paid him a few bucks to let me "share" his prescription. It's with embarrassment that I look back on this and degenerate behavior in college, but somehow I made it out with a finance degree. After graduation I jumped into real estate by purchasing a preconstruction condo with my older brother and renting it out illegally. Several owners in the condo association did the same, and when the bank caught us, we were forced to sell. Luckily, this was 2006, near the peak of the market.

I got married, and my wife, Sarah, and I started a real-estate business. We stayed even with other small outfits and led lives like other young couples we knew. This was 2009, the year I was introduced to golf, and my life went from mediocre to exceptional.

It was a crystalline April morning, the ground still not completely thawed. My friend thought I'd appreciate the mental challenge of golf because he knew I was reading self-improvement books. I chunked or skulled every shot except one. I know it's tiresome to describe the purity of contact that surges your nerve endings and gets you hooked, so I won't bother. I'll just say I bought clubs that same afternoon.

I joined Vermont National Country Club, a Jack Nicklaus II-designed course in South Burlington. Soon I realized what every golfer knows: You don't get better just by showing up a lot. It takes structured, mindful practice. You have to break the game down into all the shots, and apply a consistent method to mastering each.

It was like a light went on. Golf was an engaging application of the principles I'd been reading about. As I worked on my chipping, the breathy, abstract paragraphs about discipline and habit-training that had put me to sleep began to make sense.

Wanting afternoons for golf, I started waking up earlier for work. Instead of rolling into the office at 9, grabbing a newspaper and coffee and waiting for the phone to ring, I started my days at 5 with a proactive attitude. Rather than throwing money at advertising and hoping (the business equivalent of hitting a jumbo bucket without checking your alignment), I systematically took on a project to get our listings to return higher in Google searches.

What I was learning in golf I also applied to my personal life. For example, I began writing a daily "gratitude" diary for my wife, essentially a few sentences expressing my love and appreciation that I presented to her at the end of the year. Just as you gain muscle memory through practice, this regular act of reminding myself how lucky I am strengthens my soul.

I'm 31. This year our real-estate businesses will do more than $100 million in sales. Sarah and I live with our daughter in the dream house we built along Lake Champlain. I'm getting into motivational speaking and have already faced some large audiences.

If it weren't for golf, my financial, mental and physical health would probably resemble what they were in college. The game has trained me to focus on one thing at a time. Which is why if you call me after 3 on a sunny day, I probably won't pick up.

Hergenrother's favorite cause: KW Cares

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