Meghan MacLaren ponders why, as both golfers and humans, experience gradually erodes the fearlessness of youth.
I played a pro-am in the UK recently. My three playing partners were a club captain, a self-made businessman, and the businessman’s 14-year-old son. They were all decent golfers and lovely people, but four hours with the 14-year-old caused me a mixture of intrigue and mild amusement.
The new handicapping system had just seen him cut to three, which was of no small insignificance to somebody trying to nudge open the door of the elusive UK elite amateur scene – a pre-requisite for attracting the attention of US college scholarships.
I remember the struggle of first being a category one handicap golfer – the gritty hours spent building a round of golf, only to incur a point-one increase time and time again. That struggle is felt regardless of age, but this particular teenager seemed to me to personify a battle in golf that fascinates me. He stood, probably unknowingly, with his blue-patterned trousers and hatless spiky hair, on that border between innocence and awareness; between freedom and the shackles of understanding.
To illustrate: walking down one hole, the conversation turned to college in the US. What I enjoyed, how it helped my game, how I chose where to go, etc. It’s an incredibly defining period of your life, no matter where you are or what you want to do. Helping people figure that out is something I feel quite strongly about, especially when it comes to college golf, because it is such an unknown until you’ve actually been and experienced it. In some ways it’s difficult to answer questions about it and try to guide someone without overwhelming them – and yet not doing so will only end up overwhelming them more.
But I was glad he engaged, whether or not he was truly listening. His attention seemed much more focused a couple of holes later, as he eyed up a recovery shot from the trees on the right side of a fairway. I watched the practice swings with the hands finishing high, helicopter-style around his head, and knew immediately that I was seeing the same thing he was seeing as he tried to get back in play on a muddy, grey golf course in England.
He had clearly seen the video from 2018 of Tiger in a fairway bunker, with trees blocking his route to the green, and the hugely exaggerated high-cut swing that did the rounds of social media because it was that heady cocktail of skill, athleticism, and artistry.
In case you haven’t realised yet, I’m almost as big a fan of golf as I am addicted to playing it, and I loved seeing that in someone else. It is sport at its very core: attempting something outrageous; so far beyond your skillset, because the best in the world make it look possible. Without fear of consequence.
And yet… would you try that?
Whether your body could allow it is perhaps another question. I saw a video on Instagram of a kid even younger and smaller than the one I played with, attempting the Matt Wolff move on a dark and cold-looking driving range, pulling it off better than I could hope to. His smile of satisfaction and glee back to the camera got me. It prompted that same question: When does the fear of consequence overtake our sense of freedom? Our willingness to enjoy trying? When do we get so consumed by what could go wrong that we forget the joy of what could go right?
The kids who find a way to hold onto that for the longest don’t always realise how important it is. I have a theory that Rory’s maturation as a person might have cost him more Majors, but how do you defend against your fearlessness gradually being eroded by experience? And would you even want to? Maybe it just makes success a longer process. There also comes a point when you can gradually turn that experience into wisdom and sensibility, two underrated yet important strengths to have in golf.
However deeply or not you want to think about it, it does remind me of one beautiful truth about golf: It has a place for everyone. In one corner you have the young and the fearless with their hoodies and backwards caps, who will the skills of their heroes into their hands through memory alone. And then you have the experienced wisdom of the ageing golfer who has long since putted left handed because they gave up on another cure for the yips long ago.
Golf has a place and lesson for everyone, regardless of age or background, and the more it embraces that and sees it as a strength, instead of fighting it, the better it will be for everyone lucky enough to love it.