October 8, 2007

The joy of starting late

This past spring, I played a round of golf with a guy who made a fortune in Hollywood during the 1980s. He lives in a huge house and drives an expensive German sports car. "I feel like I've wasted my life," he confessed as we walked up the ninth fairway.

No, he wasn't talking about the vanity of material success; he was talking about golf. He's 55, and he took up the game a couple of years ago, and he's haunted by the thought of all those empty decades when he could have been playing but wasn't. "Even if I live to be 90," he began--and then his voice trailed off.

I did my best to reassure him. I started late, too--16 years ago, when I was 36--and I've always believed that was a good thing. I know a couple of oldish guys who won everything at my club when they were in their 20s and 30s but hardly play anymore because they can't stand to hit worse shots than they did when they were in their prime. Would my Hollywood friend want to trade places with them? He's at a stage in his development as a player where he could knock five strokes off his handicap just by paying slightly more attention to where he aims his putts. Virtually the entire continent of golf still lies before him, unexplored. For me, discovering golf in adulthood was like being born again. It gave me something new and complicated to think about--a challenge I knew I could never master. I often do the same kind of mental arithmetic that torments my friend (If I can hold off the yips until I'm 75, I'll have 23 more chances to almost qualify for the shootout at the member-guest), but I don't consider that a bad thing. Thinking about how little time you have left is healthier than, for example, wishing you were 10 years older so that you could retire.

My wife took up ice hockey at a similar point in her life, when she was 40, and has had essentially the same experience. When she went to goalie camp, nine years ago, she was placed in a group of kids ages 6 to 11. She spent a lot of time helping her fellow novices lace up their skates and go to the bathroom, but she knew she had to start somewhere.

The person who said it best was Michelle Wie. In 2004, when she was 14, she told Guy Yocom, of this magazine, "If I ever get bored with golf I'm going to start over and play left-handed." That's the attitude we should all live by, no matter what game we play or how long we've been playing it. Where you end up means less than how you get there.

More articles from David Owen.