We’ve seen it in many sports where an injured or ill athlete rises to the occasion and, playing hurt, scores a victory. With golf, Tiger Woods at the ’08 U.S. Open comes to mind where he hobbled to victory over a shocked Rocco Mediate. With skiing, think Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn, and Bode Miller all of whom won while competing hurt. And even in professional team sports you can see examples of this at almost every game where players overcome physical ailments and excel. You may have experienced this as well, to some degree. You wake up with a sore back or neck ache on a Saturday morning and think there’s no way you can play that day. But you go out anyway and maybe you break 90 or 80 for the first time in over a year. As the saying goes, “Beware the hurt athlete.”
In my own experience, I went through chemo for a stage four form of lymphoma over the last year that killed off most of the cancer but knocked out many of the healthy cells as well. This not only left me weakened but caused a phalanx of other maladies such as insomnia, peripheral neuropathy, sleep apnea, and congestive heart failure. Hey, I’m not complaining. I’m alive! Other then an occasional foray to the range (could only manage about 12 balls at a time) and the putting green, I was unable to play a round of golf for almost 14 months. I was so discouraged and depressed over this, I didn’t even watch the Golf Channel or keep up this blog (I managed one post in all that time).
Now, with the help of doctors, a physical therapist, YouTube videos, and my wife’s caregiving, I’m regaining my strength. Encouraged, my thoughts turned to golf and wondering if I could play again (the range told me I’d lost at least 40 yards on my drives and about two clubs of distance on my irons). So after a rare good night’s sleep, I called my buddy Steve (who, at 82 is healthy, except for some dental issues–the lucky dog!) and arranged to play nine holes at Oakmont West (No, not that Oakmont. This one’s in northern California), a fairly level tract that allowed me to walk, pushing my cart, like usual.
Let me tell you, that first drive was sweet. Given my loss of body mass over the year, it was short, but the contact was pure. I had lost a lot of clubhead speed so I compensated by flowing with that reality instead of fighting it. I started with a waggle to get a swing rhythm going, shifting my weight from right to left, regripping some, and getting a feel for the weight of the club by cocking my wrists forward and back a foot or so either way. It’s hard to describe this waggle in detail (watching a video of Sam Snead probably comes closest) as there is no cookie cutter approach to it. Every person needs to find that rhythm for him or herself. But contrary to many practitioners of the modern swing, I do think the golf swing needs a waggle to prepare for the athleticism that golf requires. It’s a way to transition from no motion to the kind of locomotion a golf swing generates. Now to transition from the waggle to the trigger that starts a swing, I borrowed a little mannerism from Mr. Nicklaus. This involves a slight turning of the head to the right while keeping it on the same plane. This brings the left eye a bit closer to the ball, which is good if that is your dominant eye, which, for me, it is. Then you’re set to start a flowing backswing that sets the tone for the eventual journey to impact and beyond. Actually, the waggle sets the tone even before the backswing begins.
The results were satisfying, resulting in good contact and decent distance, given my limitations. To compensate, I moved up to the tee box one step shorter than the whites where I used to play from. Oakmont wisely didn’t name these tees, thus removing the stigma, and allowing golfers to choose the most appropriate color-coded tee for their age and condition. Steve joined me there, and, consequently, we both had increased our chances of reaching greens in regulation, and so heightened our enjoyment of the round.
It was fun–the most fun I’d had in months. And for those nine holes, my mind was off my personal trials and tribulations around my illnesses, and now focused on the breezes and trees and bunkers and ponds and challenges of each shot, and that gentle topography of ups and downs on most courses that was easy on the eyes and body–all encountered during a round of golf. It was probably my best medicine yet, with only good side effects.
How did I do? Well, mostly bogeys and doubles, with two nice pars to finish the round in some semblance of efficiency. It was cold, and we both got a bit tired after the 7th hole, but we talked each other into continuing. It paid off with those last two pars. But scoring took a backseat to the contact I felt of ball to clubface, which, I believe, is what draws people to golf. Beyond that contact, it’s a daunting game, with tough challenges, that sometimes cause people to give it up. Those disheartening doubles and triples, and horrendous final scores, eliciting derisive comments from companions, are too much for some egos to handle. So some give it up for ping pong, and others stick to the range to get a taste of golf’s main attraction; namely, that feel when a swing leads to sweet contact and the ball takes off like a pheasant roused from a high grass meadow.
Another great attraction of the game is the camaraderie of an easy going walk in the fresh air with a friend (which you won’t get from ping pong, or just going to the range). You get pretty isolated going through chemo. I was off work, and just wasn’t up for getting together with friends or keeping in touch via phone or social media. So being out there with Steve, chatting about this and that (Steve knows something of cancer as he lost his wonderful wife Carol last year to this awful disease), trying to outplay each other as we always had in the past, was great. And besides, I’d missed the delight of getting all those three-footers he used to so graciously give me!
As for my health, the round highlighted my capacity for resilience in the face of serious illness and bodily discomforts. It showed me that once I got passed the anticipatory fear of going past my supposed limits, I could return to golf and other pleasures–with moderation, of course–and return to some sense of normality, albeit a new normal. Other than a tad of dizziness after the round, I proved to myself that mind over matter (or should I say mindfulness over matter) was a real possibility as hurt athletes worldwide have often demonstrated.