Low Net

How to be a less miserable golfer

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This story first appeared in Low Net, a weekly newsletter written for the average golfer by an average golfer. The newsletter will be for Golf Digest+ members, but you're getting it free for now. To continue to get Low Net, sign up for Golf Digest+ right here.

Have a topic you want me to explore? Send me an email at Samuel.Weinman@wbd.com.

For all the unkind things people say about my game, some golf partners will occasionally sprinkle in a compliment. One is how I maintain a generally positive outlook despite not being particularly good.

My colleague Luke Kerr-Dineen calls me a “golf sicko”—in the best sense, really, because I’m eager to play whether it’s a top course in July or just a mild afternoon in February.

While still susceptible to an F-bomb or three when things aren’t going my way, I likely am a happier-than-average golfer because I’ve learned to define happiness on the golf course differently than you might think. And since a fundamental Low Net principle is to find ways to appreciate the game even as it tortures us, I plan to devote periodic space to ways to being a less miserable golfer.

Golf happiness is not really about fun

The author and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks is considered one of the leading experts on happiness. Although he might not have much specific to say about golf, Brooks does have valuable insight into the people who play it.

In his writing and public speaking, Brooks identifies what he calls the “macronutrients of happiness”. That one of them is “enjoyment” might sound obvious, but Brooks says there’s a difference between the deeper experience of enjoyment and the fleeting sensation of “pleasure”.

Without getting too wonky, the two tap into different parts of our brains. In golf, pleasure might be outdriving your playing partners, or the taste of a cold beer after the round. Enjoyment involves greater reasoning. It is seeing your range practice pay off, or using the post-round beer as an excuse to hang longer with friends. By Brooks’ definition, enjoyment means more even if you might actually sense it less.

“Enjoyment can also be ruined by a worldview that is excessively practical,” Brooks explained in his Atlantic column, “in which we feel our time and energy should never be ‘wasted.’”

You might have a bad round and then come home after five hours and ask what the hell it was all for. I’ve done that, too. But Brooks says the key to maximizing enjoyment is to not expect anything tangible in return. That’s why I’ve learned to recognize the mere pursuit of a goal as worthwhile on its own. It helps to make golf enjoyable even when it isn’t always particularly fun.

Below: Luke Kerr-Dineen and I discussed how to be a happier golfer on the Golf IQ podcast.

Questions from Low Netters

We’re back to more reader questions, and if slow play has a rival among hot-button Low Net issues, it’s the topic of equipment and the upcoming golf ball rollback. Have a question or idea? Send me an email and I’ll do my best to dive in.

Yes, clubs matter, but maybe not as much as one might think. I’m a 6 handicap who plays almost half my rounds with hickories and see very little difference with the irons, even ones that are over 100 years old. —Doug

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Doug, I don’t know whether to congratulate you or hate you, because clearly you are better than me. A low handicap playing well with old equipment is like a chef cooking a decent meal with ingredients from 7-Eleven. A foundation of skill still goes a long way. While there is new equipment that can benefit even the best players, it’s fair to assume the forgiveness built into modern clubs is less of a difference maker if you can consistently find the center of the clubface. The rest of us welcome a little help once in a while.

In response to a recent article showing how the tee boxes we play don’t come anywhere close to equalizing a hole’s length and difficulty relative to one’s handicap, I’m wondering if a graduated ball “juiciness” could be applied so as to at least partially reduce this disparity? In other words, a tour player’s ball would be less lively than a scratch golfer's, then down the line of 5-10-15-20 handicappers. —Thomas

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Thomas, this is either a genius idea or an invitation for anarchy. You’re hitting on the core of the issue, however—distance isn’t really a problem for most of us, so why do we have to be penalized by a rollback to the same extent elite players are? The roadblock here is golf has long resisted “bifurcation”—different rules for different levels—and what you’re proposing is something closer to quadrification. I’m pretty sure that's a word I just made up, so if your idea goes through, I should be entitled to royalties.

Fast play is just as annoying as slow play. And this issue is more new than old. Please instruct your audience on how pace works and tell them they might enjoy another sport if they can’t set aside 4 or 4:30 hours for a round. —Bill

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Bill, I know who you’re talking about: the antsy foursome behind that is breathing down your neck on every shot, or the restless playing partner who is marching to the next tee before you even hole out. If these people really love golf, why are they SO ANXIOUS to get it over with? I believe what we’re talking about is the difference between playing fast, which is generally good, and being rushed, which is brutal. I maintain a happy medium is attainable just by being efficient. The quicker you move to your ball, the more time you can give yourself when you feel like you need it. It ultimately comes down to greater awareness of others, which one might say is a decent practice for more than just golf.