Fearless golfJanuary 23, 2011

A Little Danger Goes A Long Way

The advice most frequently given to golfers--after "Keep your head down, Stupid"--is probably some variation on "Play within yourself." We hear it over and over: "Stay short of the hazard"; "Keep away from the sand"; "Miss it on the fat side"; "Ignore the flag." There's something to be said for the basic concept. Two guys I know played a new course before it had opened officially. There were no flags yet, so they couldn't tell where the holes had been cut; by necessity, they played for the center of every green. Result? They avoided the usual dumb mistakes, and both shot scores they didn't beat for years.

Nevertheless, this sort of fearful conservatism, as a general policy, makes more sense for guys who need to make cuts to avoid foreclosure than it does for choppers like you and me, because all we're really trying to do in the game is put off mowing the lawn. It's telling that the most vocal advocates of risk-avoidance in golf are former so-so tour players who now earn their living as television commentators--a career that, in itself, could be considered a form of laying up. Those guys are always assuring us that Tiger or Phil or Graeme or Rory isn't even thinking about the green, and that all he wants, after his ill-considered 350-yard drive into the trees, is to scavenge a 5 and move on. Then--POW!!!--he hoods a 3-iron, fires a shoulder-high 40-degree hook over water, and chips in for eagle from beyond the green. You'd think that, after being proved wrong so often, the commentators would have the sense to stifle themselves, at least until the player in the trees had selected a club. But they can't. It's the way their brains are wired. It's why they dream about Tom Kite.

You and I can't hit big-boy shots, but we are capable of occasionally impressing even our friends. To do that, though, we need to give ourselves lots of chances, and that means taking risks that might not make sense to someone who's terrified of being demoted to the Hooters Tour. It also means being unafraid to invert the conventional wisdom: "Don't leave your driver in the bag"; "Forget about the bunker"; "Putt that 30-footer as though the next one were good."

The same often applies in so-called real life. The most successful people in all fields, including personal relationships, are usually the ones who are willing to shoot at a sucker pin every once in a while. Avoiding trouble at all costs makes sense in highway driving and nuclear defense, but it's a formula for tedium in activities that don't reward mediocrity. The guys who win, more often than not, are the guys who are unafraid to lose.

When we're too old and feeble to play anymore, we're not going to cheer ourselves up by reminiscing about all the greens we decided not to go for in two. "Have I ever told you about that round in the member-guest when I prudently took double bogey out of the equation?" It's the low-percentage shots, not the smart ones, that make a permanent impression--the parabolic lobs over trouble, not the 6s that could have been 10s. So why don't we tempt disaster more often than we do? In golf, at least, we have literally nothing to lose.


PART I OF A TWO-PART SERIES.

COMING IN MAY: BOLD ANSWERS TO GOLF'S QUESTIONS.