Golf, Life and Surprising Serendipity on and Off the Fairways
Distant Greens travels to the highest golf course in the world, where breathless Tibetan precepts come face to face with the oxymoron of Indian military intelligence. To a golf course in the Amazon rainforest, near the source of rubber, which revolutionized the game. To the Middle Kingdom, to examine claims that it was the Chinese, and not the Scots, who invented golf. And to a volcanic Indonesian course where the Mermaid Queen ensures that “her” sultan always has good weather when he plays.
Distant Greens also travels into the soul of golf, the rituals, the belief that a tetrachaidecohedron-dimple-pattern can make a difference. Why can throwing junk-shop 4-irons provide an insight into the soul? What does a Zen priest in Japan hope to teach his acolyte golfers? Why do people cheat? Why do golfers remember the bad shots instead of the good shots? And why is golf more important, to some folks, than sex?
What is the future of golf? Can golf and nature support each other? What can golfers do to ensure that their golf course is environmentally responsible? And what happened when Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed played a round?
“Distant Greens is an intimate golfing tour that travels to all corners of the planet and brings us into the heart, mind, and soul of the game that we all love.”
—Rick Lipsey, Sports Illustrated
“These enthralling stories take us to some of the world’s strangest golf courses. They are more than travel stories; they are insightful, funny, and often touching human tales that provide new insights on why we play the game. Proves the adage that the quality of sports writing is inversely proportional to the size of the ball.”
—Micah Woods, director, Asian Turfgrass Center
“Travels to golf courses where they oughtn’t be, visits with some of the most intriguing golfic characters the world over, and never strays far from the reader’s heart. A quirky, funny, layered, insightful, beautifully written collection for golfers who ponder the meaning of this ever-fascinating, eternally frustrating, always-satisfying game.”
—Daniel Navid, president, International Golf and Life Foundation
“An impressive volume that links reportage on golf around the world with insights on the personal aspects of the game. But what makes Distant Greens so important, and a must-read, is how Sochaczewski addresses the role of golf in environmental destruction and, surprisingly for some, how golf can be a force for conservation. He offers new directions that golfers, and golf course owners and managers, should heed for the good of the game and for the good of nature.”
—Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist, IUCN-International Union for Conservation of Nature
“More than a golf travel book, more than a discourse on the spiritual nature of the game, this collection of insightful (and funny) essays and exceptional reportage explores new vistas about some of golf’s most interesting people and places, and gets to the heart of the very reason so many of us love this game.”
—Fred Shoemaker, coach, author and founder of Extraordinary Golf
“Distant Greens gets to the core of golf’s eco-spiritual essence with a collection of charming, insightful, and often amusing stories, anecdotes, and commentary that traverse the globe yet reside happily in the realm of ‘good heart.”’
—Steve Cohen, president, The Shivas Irons Society
“Paul Sochaczewski brings insight, awareness, vision, and clarity to the unconventional and unsung parts of this historic game. His writing informs and illuminates while drawing attention to the importance of environment to the integrity and future of golf. Indeed, this is big writing.”
—Ron Fream, golf architect of courses in 65 countries
“Distant Greens explores ‘inner’ golf — the golf of the spirit and heart as well as ‘outer’ golf — the magic of playing exotic courses and meeting extraordinary people. Equally interesting and important, the book suggests a new eco-spiritual relationship with the game that each golfer can adopt. Essential (and elegant) reading for anyone who loves the game.”
—Dennis Cone, founder, Professional Caddies Association
“Paul Sochaczewski has created an exceptional book that gives the reader insights into the internal and external journeys of golf. I’m particularly impressed by the chapters on the psychology of golf. Distant Greens is both insightful and thought provoking, particularly since many of the themes in the book relate to how we manage our emotions and how (and why) we create “core beliefs” based on performance. Why do we make ourselves “wrong”? Why do we beat ourselves up when we hit bad shots instead of patting ourselves on the back for good shots? What is going on in our complex brains? Golf is a beautiful game, and Paul provides insights into how we might enjoy it more.
—Jennifer K. Jones, consultant in sport and performance psychology, Staffordshire University
This piece is excerpted from the “Negativity Land” chapter in Distant Greens.
Why do we take such delight in golf’s screw-ups instead of the great moments of success?
EVERY COURSE, Everywhere
A golfer faces more Dark Side moments than Luke Skywalker.
We take a morbid delight when golf legends screw up.
And we wallow in our own masochistic moments of crash and burn.
Why is that? Why can’t we spend more energy applauding and internalizing the great shots? Why do we revel in the dark instead of savoring the light? Something is upside down. Our brains seek the shadows.
Neurotic and unproductive as it may be, it is fun to recall golf’s most memorable disasters.
At the 1939 U.S. Open at Philadelphia Country Club, Sam Snead, needing pars on both the 17th and 18th to beat Byron Nelson, bogeyed 17. Requiring a birdie four on 18 to win, but only a par to make a playoff, he hooked his tee shot into the rough. His topped 2-wood bounced into a bunker 110 yards (100 meters) short of the green. His 8-iron thudded into that bunker’s sodded face. His fourth shot dribbled into another bunker. On in five, he three-putted for an eight, finishing fifth.
Although he won 48 events on the Japan Golf Tour and was once ranked fifth in the world, Japanese golfer Tsuneyuki “Tommy” Nakajima is best known for his never-ending visit to the Road Hole bunker at the 17th at St. Andrews. It was the third day of the 1978 Open Championship and Nakajima, tied for the lead with Tom Weiskopf, was happy to be on the green in two. But his putt rolled past the hole and off the green into the hazard. Trying to hack out, and trying again, and again, Nakajima took four strokes to extricate himself and ultimately had to write a nine on his scorecard, which led the British tabloids to christen that bunker the “Sands of Nakajima.” When asked if he’d lost concentration Nakajima replied: “No, I lost count.” (It was a tough year for Nakajima. In the Masters several months earlier, he shot a 13 on the 13th hole at Augusta National, a score that remains the record for that particular hole.)
At the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco, Arnold Palmer had a seven-stroke lead over Billy Casper going into the last nine holes. Palmer decided to play aggressively and try to beat the U.S. Open scoring record held by Ben Hogan. Palmer had a few implosions, Casper didn’t, and Casper won the next day’s playoff, 69 to 73. Sports Illustrated called Palmer’s collapse “one of the great debacles of modern times, comparable to the Italian retreat at Caporetto, the Edsel car and Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra.”
Most golf fans remember Jean Van de Velde’s go-for-broke attitude on the 18th at the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. The French golfer needed just a six on the par-4 final hole for victory. After a so-so drive he should have, in retrospect, laid up in front of the Barry Burn, then hit a short iron to the green which would have left him with three putts for the victory. Van de Velde however thought he had a good lie in the rough and he went for the green. But his 2-iron second shot hit the grandstand next to the green, then bounced off the rocks on Barry Burn and into the creek. What happened next was one of the iconic images of professional golf — Jean Van de Velde taking off his shoes, rolling up his pants, sporting a Huck Finn-like grin and thinking about playing out of the water. He reconsidered and took a penalty drop. He still could have pitched on to the green and one-putted for victory. But his fourth shot landed in the greenside bunker. He splashed out to about two meters (six feet). In an eerily silent moment he hit arguably the gutsiest shot of his tournament — he made the putt to put him into a playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie, the ultimate winner. When Val de Velde went for the post-game press conference he noted the serious and downcast looks of the journalists. “What is the matter?” he asked. “No one has died.”
We’ve all faced a risk-reward tee-shot over a lake to a dogleg fairway. How much lake are you willing to try to carry? On the 543-yard (497-meter) 6th hole at the 1998 Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, Florida, John Daly, one of the tour’s longer and braver ball strikers, hit driver and aimed his shot at an ambitious angle. Splash. He took his penalty drop on the forward tee and for his third shot, hitting 3-wood, tried to cut off even more of the dogleg, a shot of about 300 yards (275-meters). Splish. And another 3-wood. Splash. Spectators began chanting “Tin Cup,” referencing the movie in which a stubborn Kevin Costner hits one ball after another into the pond while trying to win the U.S. Open. Splish. Splash. Splish. Daly cleared the water on his seventh swing, but it plugged in the hazard, plop. He took a drop, and his 6-iron towards the green landed in the rocks and ricocheted into a bunker. He blasted out and two-putted for an 18.
And who can forget Australian golfer Greg Norman’s flaming implosion when he blew a six-stroke lead on the last day of the 1996 Masters. Norman wound up losing by five-strokes to Nick Faldo in a performance one journalist compared to a “horrifying slow-motion death that was evocative of an old Sam Peckinpah film.”
* * *
These grisly moments have taken their toll. Sam Snead, who lost the U.S. Open in 1939 to Byron Nelson, never won the tournament. (He suffered another indignity when, at the age of 89 and suffering what his son called “stroke-like symptoms,” Snead shanked his 100-yard (93-meter) drive when he served as honorary starter of the Masters. That would be bad enough but his errant drive hit a spectator on the nose and broke the man’s glasses. But the fan was otherwise unharmed and was given a Masters green jacket for his pain.) Arnold Palmer, only 34 at the time, never won an eighth major title following that afternoon at Olympic when he blew a seven stroke lead over the last nine holes. Since his crash at the Masters Norman never won another a major. And Van de Velde? He never became a great, just a guy who had fifteen minutes of fame when he waded into the stream and thought about hitting out from an impossible lie.
And Alan Shepard? He hit his mulligan-on-the-moon, a “one-handed chilli dip” he called it, which he claimed travelled “miles and miles and miles!” The astronaut later estimated his shot as just 200 to 400 yards (182 to 365 meters), nevertheless still pretty good for a one-handed 6-iron.
Crash and burn anecdotes of the pros are endlessly intriguing, and I wonder why that is. Certainly there is some schadenfreude involved, the almost illicit pleasure that “even the pros can mess up big time.” But I think it’s more to do with the fact that amateur golfers (yes, me) always screw up shots and make stupid mistakes and this leads to a certain unlikely brotherhood with the likes of Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead and Tommy Nakajima.
Nevertheless, we always live to play another day.
Logically we must accept that we’re not perfect, that we’re as likely to hit some bad shots as the sun is likely to rise tomorrow. That’s life, that’s sports.
But what I don’t understand is why golfers put so much energy into remembering, and thereby encouraging, lousy shots instead of glorying in a finely hit drive, a high pitch that lands softly next to the pin, a long snaking putt that swirls into the cup?
We relish the mistakes instead of cheering the much more numerous good shots. It’s backward, it’s contrary, it doesn’t make any sense and it’s self-destructive.
Examine the memorable disasters of the professionals. They all take place at the end of tournaments, when the unfortunate golfer snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. But to get to a leading position at the end of a tournament means the golfer had to play exceptionally well in the previous three rounds. He had to make some memorable long putts, he had to chip in once in a while, he had to hit the fairways and avoid the bunkers. But everyone ignores those highlights and focuses on the end-game mistakes. Curious.
Pundits say that you only learn about yourself during times of adversity. Maybe, but why do we dwell in Negativity Land? Why can’t our brains do a better job of imprinting the physiological and emotional pleasure of a shot hit pure and straight?
* * *
Such negativity can have implications that go beyond a sliced drive. The respected 1992 Framingham Heart Study noted that women who believe they are at risk from heart disease are 3.6 times more likely to die from heart attacks than those with identical risk factors, but who lack the belief. Negativity as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
* * *
Research indicates that the more setbacks people have, the more resilient they become. Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, says “each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities.” Although Silver was talking about traumatic events like divorce, the death of a loved one, or being in a natural disaster, perhaps on a lesser scale the same could be said of golf trauma.
So, this wallowing in self-abuse is vaguely Nietzschean; “the golf disaster which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
* * *
In the first round of the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon, Phil Mikelson had a five meter (sixteen foot) putt on the 18th hole. If he made it he would become the first man to score 62 in a major championship. His playing partner, Ernie Els, who was lying closer to the pin, putted first, in order to give Mickelson the spotlight for his historic putt. Mickelson’s putt was on-line all the way, the crowd was ready to cheer, and Phil smiled and started to walk towards the hole. At the last moment the ball veered a centimeter to the right, lipped out, and made a half-circle tour around the hole. Mickelson had to “settle” for a 63, becoming the 28th player to score that low in 437 major championships.
This is a classic case of remembering the mistakes instead of reveling in the great shots. The media were full of stories about Mickelson’s “tragic” miss. Mickelson himself said he “felt like crying,” and said “There’s a curse because that ball should have been in. I didn’t believe in the golf gods but I do now.”
And every article on Mickelson’s painful miss (or was it a curse?) focused on how other great golfers had similarly missed what they thought was their final putt. Jack Nicklaus missed a one-meter putt for 62 in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, later saying that he “totally chocked.” As one writer pointed out, “When did Nicklaus ever choke?” In the 2007 PGA Championship Tiger Woods hit a putt for 62 which went halfway down the hole and inexplicably popped out.
My point is that by focusing on the missed putts to make history, the players and the media were celebrating the mistakes and ignoring the fact that prior to that almost-historical putt the player had to play 61 prior shots that were mostly terrific. They had forgotten the great drives, the precise approaches, the sand shots that landed softly near the hole, the heroic saves from the rough, the long curving putts that went in. Everybody had focused on the “wrong,” no one had focused on the “good.” Same dynamic as when a club golfer beats herself up for hitting a drive into the lake. She makes herself “wrong” instead of remembering and imprinting the good shots.
* * *
I’m trying to find a good metaphor. Dwelling on a bad (or unlucky) shot is like picking at a scab — ultimately the wound becomes infected and what was formerly a minor irritation becomes something more serious.
* * *
I have developed a method for imprinting good shots. I won’t bore you with it (it’s complicated) but it involves repeating my pre-shot routine after a good shot, re-visualizing the shot and context, and writing it down for later review.
* * *
Can any good come from meltdowns?
Probably the most sadistic (and masochistic, since participants had to nominate themselves as bad golfers) magazine promotion occurred in 1986 when Golf Digest held a competition to find America’s “Worst Avid Golfer.” The winner: Angelo Spagnolo, then a 31-year-old grocer from Fayette City, Pennsylvania. Golf Digest invited Spagnolo and a few other self-designated bad golfers to compete for the title in a televised event. The darkest moment came at the famous 132-yard (120-meter) 17th at TPC Sawgrass, where the golfer has to hit to what is termed an island green (which is really a peninsula, and the distinction is important).
Spagnolo put 27 balls in the water — his iron shots, even from the drop area, flew like rifle shots, rarely more than waist high. Ultimately and reluctantly, on the advice of his caddy and the urging of the TV producer, Spagnolo putted along the winding sandy path that connected the tee with the green. He got on the green in 63 and three-putted for a 66. “One of the TV networks gave me uncut footage of that hole,” Spagnolo recalls. “It was like watching my fingernails get pulled out.” Journalist Peter Andrews noted “Let me tell you something about Angelo Spagnolo. In enduring perhaps 40 minutes of public humiliation, he did not wince or cry aloud. At no time did a single whispered blasphemy escape his lips. He took a 66 without a curse. Angelo Spagnolo has either the makings of a Christian saint or the most limited vocabulary of any man who has ever played golf.” Spagnolo remembers the support he got from strangers: “Hundreds of people told me I gave them hope. It didn’t make me feel any better about the way I played, but it made them feel better about the way they played. And I figured that was good for golf.”