Every competitive golfer is a loser.
The club champion at your home course? A loser. The hotshot junior golfer from your town or county? Loser. Every player at every elite amateur or professional level? Losers, every last one of them.
Even legends like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are losers. They may have lost many fewer times than their peers, but even the greatest golfers of all time have still lost far more than they’ve won.
To play competitive golf is to lose. You tee it up as part of a 100-person tournament, even as one of the best players, chances are you’re going to lose. The game is simply too complex and inscrutable for anything else to ever be the case.
As of press time, Brooks Koepka is the odds-on favorite to win the 2020 Masters at +800, or 8-to-1, or 12.5%. The best anyone can hope for against peers – a two-person field, as in match play – is even odds.
“There’s golf, and then there’s tournament golf.”
Whether or not the quote originates from Jones, it’s true. Having played competitively at the junior, high school, collegiate and amateur level, I can say that while tons of fun (especially on a compelling course), casual golf has its limitations. To me, competitive golf is the superior form of the game, be it the state amateur or a $1 Nassau with your fellow 15-handicap pals. Stroke play or match play (my personal preference), the game takes on a particular meaningfulness when the end result is some sort of hierarchy, however temporary. Still, any golfer who tees it up in competition is almost certainly bound for disappointment.
Because every golfer has been exposed to professional golf on television, even those who have never played a competitive round have some sense of the gravitas competition adds. It’s easy to be seduced by the glory heaped on winners; golf crushes almost every delusion of grandeur that any golfer has harbored, and yet the seasoned competitor loves competing all the same. Why?
The answer is that we competitive golfers are not just losers. We’re a community of losers. Step into the bar after a tournament round and there are several fellow competitors available – eager, even – to commiserate about errant swings, tough breaks and boneheaded decisions. Play enough rounds under the gun and you’ll have plenty of battle scars to display in friendly company. There is no shortage of comfort in our hapless fraternity.
So why bother compete at all if the results are so demoralizing? Is the occasional thrill of victory worth all the failures? Yes, but not for the reasons you might expect.
I’ve had occasional individual golf success, and if I’m being completely honest, while winning is fun, it’s not as exhilarating as might be expected.
What does make competition worthwhile is, well, competing. The act of trying to put together a round of golf, be it on a scorecard or against an opponent, is heroic and even a little romantic. The difficulty of the game gets amplified when you know you’re going to post a number or return a match result. It triggers the fight-or-flight response that connects us to the rest of the animals.
The formality of a round of count-‘em-all golf turns the golfer into Teddy Roosevelt’s vaunted “man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” (And missed four-footers.)
If standing over a 12-foot birdie putt when nothing is at stake rates a 4 out of 10 for drama, the in-competition version of the same shot rates a 9. If it’s late in the game, and that putt might get me a shot at victory, it’s a 15.
Even though I’ve failed far more than I’ve succeeded in those moments, there is always the possibility – a delicate balance of expectation and hope – that the next one will be some kind of breakthrough. A casual round of golf can never produce the chains of physical sensations, from high to low, that result from preparing, executing and reacting to competitive golf shots.
Remember: even though some sort of loss is almost guaranteed to lie at the end of a competition, it’s the feeling of being in the arena that makes it so damn much fun. If you enjoy golf as recreation, you just might fall in love with the game as well.