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Old Dog, New Trick (a work-in-progress)

About three million. That’s my best estimate of how many times I hit a tennis ball with a racquet during my seventy years playing the game.

But some neurological nonsense—disequilibrium and double vision, mostly—forced me to quit playing the game a year ago. Falling down is no fun at any age, but these days I don’t bounce any more.

So I took up golf. In that game, I get to stand still, and so does the ball as I swipe at it.

But that turns out to be the most trivial difference in the two sports. In the year that I’ve been playing golf—no, let’s say it plainly: that I’ve grown addicted to golf—I’ve been blown away by the profound differences, as well as the sheer joy of learning something brand new. And learning something new about myself.

The vast majority of the differences in the two games are pretty obvious when you think about it:

All tennis courts are pretty much alike, save for the composition of the flat surface. Formal arenas for battle, they are located in predictably civilized places with lots of real estate in view. Most of the variation is provided by how the ball behaves. Your opponent changes the speed, spin, and direction of the ball coming toward you, but everything happens within the fixed lines on the court.

But all golf courses, and all holes on the same golf course, are quite different from one another. Maybe forested, or in the desert. Maybe hilly, maybe flat. Maybe arid, or riddled with ponds and rivers. Necessarily bucolic in locale, they are inherently serene. As for the action of the ball, that's entirely up to you--but insanely variable. Your next shot may need to fly two hundred yards or two hundred feet or two hundred inches. Moreover, the “lie” of the ball you must strike may be on a tee, in short grass or tall weeds, on a side hill or up/down hill, behind a tree or under a bush, buried in a sand trap, or facing into a howling wind. Or all of the above simultaneously.

In tennis, you hit every stroke with the same implement: a racquet. You may have several, but they are identical to each other. You vary their effect with touch, power, spin, intent.

In golf, you may hit any given stroke with one of fourteen clubs of different length, loft, and weight—each designed variably to whack the ball 200 yards down the fairway, blast out of sand or weeds, or tickle a putt no more than a couple of feet down toward the hole across sloping grass whose grain grows several different directions to deflect it en route. Which club you choose under the circumstances, and how you choose to swing it, is as important as the athletic skill you bring to the effort.

Unless the server hits an ace in tennis, there is an exchange of shots—three or four, or maybe a dozen—until someone hits a winner or makes an error. During that exchange, many of the shots are relatively inconsequential, just working toward something that counts. And losing lots of points and games or even a set early in a match certainly doesn’t preclude winning the match in the end.

In golf, every single time your club makes contact with the ball, it has consequences that are immutable. Total concentration is everything. The care you take on each stroke utterly determines your own next predicament or opportunity. And the gain or loss of a stroke carries straight through to the last putt on the eighteenth hole.

And therein lies the ultimate difference in the two games: in golf, your final score is not against an opponent but against the course--and yourself. The outcome is totally in your hands. It unflinchingly reveals your capacity to deliver your best effort that day. In a tournament, your final score may be compared to someone else's, but the assessment is really of you yourself, not the other players.

By contrast, in a sporting encounter between best friends on a tennis court, each player politely does their damndest to make life miserable for their opponent. It's all about beating them. Picking on their weaknesses, and denying them chances to hit their best shots. Hitting them with your best shots. Wearing them out physically with side-to-side shots, drop shots, lobs, extended rallies. In that regard, it is ever so slightly reminiscent of boxing.

On a golf course, you are doing your damndest to defeat the natural challenges presented by the combination of the course, the conditions, the consequences of your previous shot, your skill level,, and (most of all) your own state of mind. In that regard, it is a constant process of self-mastery—and avoiding self-inflicted wounds.

As a neophyte golfer, I found I can feel insanely frustrated whenever I botch a shot. I swing too high and top the ball, watching it scuttle harmlessly a few yards forward into deeper grass. Or swing too low, and my club digs into the ground behind the ball, not moving it at all. Or hit it cleanly enough, but not far enough, watching it fall kerplunk into a pond.

After one such maddening mishit, I was on the verge of crushing the club over my knee when I caught myself up short. Hey, what’s going on here? You’re frustrated, right? But you know very well what is at the root of frustration--an expectation that wasn’t met. Now, Eliot, what in heaven’s name led you to expect anything other than what just happened? Golf has not been your game, you don’t take lessons, you don’t practice, you haven’t played often. Face it, fellow: that lousy shot you just hit is exactly, precisely, and only what you should have expected.

And with that realization, my bliss on a golf course has been all but unshakable. I can honestly say that I’ve “lost it” only a couple of times, when I knew I’d failed to concentrate on a particular shot but got hasty instead. I owed the bad result not to lack of expertise but a lack of self-management.

So I'm staying fairly serene on the golf course. Accepting that I'm a rookie here works pretty well. I just wish I could be as self-forgiving when I have a shot to meet reasonable expectations in the rest of my life, and don't.

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