In my part of the world, spring ushers in golf season. My buddies and I are starting to get out, and opening day is around the corner. Contemplating the new season has me reflecting on the past one, including one particularly impactful round near the end.
I took up golf as an adult. In my 40's actually. And when it wasn't kicking my ass, it was teaching me life lessons. Actually, it is always teaching me life lessons. It's just harder to hear them when your ears are full of sand. So as I improved, I eventually declared victory when I found I could accept golf invitations without worrying about embarrassing myself. And for the most part, that was true. With one notable exception. Wagers. No one told me that serious golfers are closet gamblers. Crap. So one Wednesday late last fall, "Golf" teamed up with a "Wager" to bring me face-to-face with an interesting aspect of my model of the world. We all have one. And left unexamined, it can unwittingly tether us to the past, as I and my wallet were about to find out.
I was invited to what turned out to be a friendly, but competitive round by Bob, a casual friend and business associate. He also invited Dave and a fourth who bailed, so we played “Wolf,” a game for three players. Unknown to me, Bob and Dave were friends and ball busters who play together regularly. That came clear over lunch before we went out. The stage was set during our lunch when another mutual friend, Mark, came over and busted Bob’s chops for taking $80 from him a few days earlier. My stomach turned over. Mark is a really good golfer! With that we walked to #1 and tossed a tee in the air to decide the order of play. The tee landed, pointed to me and the die was cast.
Wolf can be fun, and I'd played it before thanks to my good buddy, John, who’s golfed since he was a kid. Bear with me on the details and don't worry if you don't totally get it. The lesson will come clear no matter how confused I make you about the rules, which, by the way, can vary.
On the first tee you establish the playing order off each tee. The first to hit is the wolf, and the wolf rotates from person to person, from tee to tee. On the tee, the wolf can choose to play alone after he hits, or he can pick one of the other two players to play with him to increase his odds of winning the hole. It’s match play, meaning scores do not accumulate from hole to hole. The low score wins each hole and whatever points go with it. Playing as a lone wolf you get two points if you win. Pick a mate, and you each win one point if either wins. Losses are likewise with points going to the winning players.
Bob then added one more twist - the hammer. The hammer resides with the first wolf on #1 and moves in the same order as the wolf, but only after it’s been used. Its effect is to double the value of the points, thus doubling the bet. We started at $1.00 per point. When a hole ties, it’s a “push.” The points are added to next hole's points and the betting continues as if it were one long hole. This push continues until a hole is won by someone at which time the points start over and the bet returns to its starting level, in our case $1.00. The absolute worst case is constant ties and pushes the entire round with two hammers on each hole. A one dollar bet would result in a staggering $2.5 trillion loss for the final loser! I didn’t do that full math at the time, but I did indeed know there was the potential for a significant hole in my pocket and bank account. Just losing every hole with no pushes but two hammers each would be $72. That math I could do in my head. And did. Manageable, but still a bummer.
So off we went. Beautiful day, great lunch, good conversation and pleasant company all around. But I had a sinking feeling, one that was all too familiar to me. It was the same feeling it get when my buddy, John, insists on playing a competitive round, albeit with much less cash at stake. He has a hard time concentrating on golf for a full round. He needs something to keep him focused and a small wager can keep him engaged. We don’t do it often, but if he feels the need, our regular playing partners happily go along. Well, somewhat happily. I noticed from the first time I played this way that my game suffers. It is entirely mental, and it is frankly weird. In these rounds with my friends, no one realistically ever has more than $5.00 at stake. We are evenly matched, playing $1.00 a hole with no hammer. It’s just a friendly wager to keep things interesting, mostly for John. But its effect on my game is disproportionate. From the first time we played this way to the present, I’ve recognized it. But it isn’t debilitating and I never thought seriously about working to get over it. Mostly I just hoped it wouldn’t come up.
That is until now. Playing with Bob and Dave seriously intensified the wager distraction. In the end, I scored about 8 strokes higher than usual, losing $18 to Dave and $6 to Bob. This result wasn’t horrible, but it doesn’t tell the story. My play was way worse than that. I wasn’t keeping the score, so I was pleasantly surprised that I was only about 8 strokes higher than my handicap index would indicate. I thought it would be at least 18. And maybe it was and they were being kind. My drives were embarrassingly short. I topped the ball numerous times off the fairway with my 3 wood. Fat iron shots. You name it, I did it. The only redemption I had all day was on the greens and a few decent sand shots. My mind raced around the betting all day. I could not relax and just play the game. Three days prior, on Sunday, I shot 6 pars, 2 bogeys and one double bogey on this same course on the front nine. And I should have. I outdrove everyone and hit one decent shot after another. Playing with friends. No betting. I was chill.
My perspective has changed dramatically as a result of this more intense experience. I believe this issue runs deep in me, and I think I should and can address it. Growing up, my parents forbade us from ever wagering. Thinking about it now, I also have recollections of my maternal grandparents having strong opinions about this. My father would never go to a fair, had no interest in games of chance, and wouldn’t spend a dime, or let me, on arcade games. Once, in high school, I went to a friend’s house where they were playing poker with a growing pot. They invited me into the game and I ended up winning the $25 pot. That's $125 in today's dollars. I was stoked! I went home and excitedly shared the amazing news! To my horror, my mom told me I had to return the money. Return the money? Are you kidding? First, I didn’t steal it. I won it fair and square. Second, they invited me into the game. Third, how would I ever figure out how much everyone had in the pot. And fourth, I’d rather kill myself than die of embarrassment doing that. She relented but made her will known in no uncertain terms. Don’t do it again! And I didn't.
There are so many lessons and points in this, it's hard to know where to start. But start I will as I share this list with you and ponder it for myself.
It is worth the time, effort and discomfort to pause and reflect on things that don’t sit well with us, like the pit in my stomach when we bet on a golf game.
We all carry baggage from our past that affect how we feel and function today in our world.
The only way to address #2 is to spend time doing #1.
We all live in a model of the world of our own perpetuation, if not our own making.
We didn’t create this model alone. We had plenty of help from many influencers from our birth to the present.
To change our life experience, we must change the model of the world we believe we live in. We must take responsibility to change that model to affect the change in our experience.
I always told myself that I took up golf for the personal challenge, the mastery, and the social element. I convinced myself that betting, and the competitive environment that produces, detracts from that, turning it into a stressful activity. But my experience on that fateful Wednesday has motivated me to shake the sand out of my ears and listen to what "Golf" is actually trying to tell me. I'm still not sure if it's the betting per se, or the competition, or a combination of both. But I am looking forward to spring golf this year with my buddies. I'm planning on suggesting a small wager early on and listening closely. It's time to update my world view model and I'm going all in.