Why I play golf

When I was 4 years old, my mother bought me a 7 iron. She used to take me for lessons at this beat up old driving range off of route 29 near Columbia, MD. I don’t remember much about the experience other than the rusted out old red jalopy car used for target practice at about 150 yards out. I couldn’t hit the ball that far, but remember aspiring one day to hit it.

I went to golf camps for a week at a time here and there growing up as well. I was never all that good but I enjoyed doing it. It’s where I learned to grip a club, the basics of putting, and to keep my head down to make contact.

But, when I was in college something clicked and I have Jeff Maynor to thank for it. Jeff is the golf pro at the University of Maryland. I got to know him when I served as Student Government President at Maryland. He was also my professor in a course I was fortunate to take called, “Golf for Business Majors.” During the course we spent time on the driving range, playing the course at UMD, and in the classroom learning the rules of golf and hearing from guest speakers.

Other than the extremely generous A- I got in the course, thanks to Jeff, there were also several things I learned from the class that have been some of the most practical advice I have ever gotten and use frequently in my career. I learned how to be a conscientious golfer, how to pick up pace of play when you’re not very good, and how to hit my driver. I also learned what to look for in other players and how to read certain behaviors on the golf course that could also translate to the boardroom.

Jonathan Golf

Me teeing off on the 10th hole at Norbeck Country Club. Playing in a charity tournament to benefit Miracle for Melanie in May of 2017

But the most powerful thing Jeff said to us was, “Golf is a metaphor for life.” As a 21 year old, I absolutely did not get it. In fact, I had no idea what he was talking about. Every year after though I never forgot that and I appreciated it more and more.

Golf is one of the only things I enjoy doing even though I know I am not very good at it. When I practice a lot, I shoot in the 90s (good golfers shoot 10 strokes better, in the 80s and really good in the low 70s). Usually though, I’m lucky to break 100. Golf is a very humbling game.

What keeps me coming back time and time again is that one good shot, the people I play with, and the humbling nature of a simple game.

One good shot

Every time I golf, no matter how badly I play, I always have a takeaway or experience that helps me in the next round. It may not even be a shot but more like something I notice, how I take care of my body, or something I learn. The odds are that in all that time on a golf course and from the sheer number of shots, something is going to go right, even randomly. That part, where things start to come together, is what makes golf so addictive. “If I could just do that every time,” is both the golfers blessing and delusion.

Similarly in life, I find that no matter how something went, I always try to be in a learning mode. I try to notice something new, implement something I read about, or learn more to try to mitigate something that did not go according to plan. I also find that there is always one thing that I can build on, even in a disaster, just like in a round of golf.

The people I play with

The people I play with make all the difference in a round of golf. For an 18-hole round of golf I get between 4 and 4 and a half hours to get to know someone. I prefer this much more than a networking event where we get 5 minutes together. I can learn a lot about another person, past the superficial, during a round of golf. I have had, over the years, groups of friends that golf together including Jeff, David, Andrew S, Andrew R, and Howard. Golf has helped me build and continue these relationships, which are very important to me.

A former boss gave me a compliment and a word of caution during a performance review. He told me that one of my strengths was building deep relationships and then he asked me how I thought that could be sustainable. I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I do know that golf hits my comfort zone much more than a quick meet and greet does because the group can get below the surface.

There are also the types of people you want to play golf with and absolutely don’t want to play golf with. Jeff Maynor gave us great advice that if you keep up with the pace of play, you can play with anyone. Similarly, there are some personality traits that work in basically any environment. Someone who slows everyone else down with slow pace of play is seen as selfish and an annoying golfer to play with, as is someone super negative, someone with a bad temper, or a cheater. These personalities obviously carry beyond the golf course.

It’s humbling

Here is the basic premise of golf: The player gets 14 clubs to move a ball into a hole in as few strokes as possible. The courses are laid out and don’t move during the round of play. You can use any information at your disposal including precise distances to almost every point on the course to complete the task. There is nobody blocking, no opponents playing defense, and no noise to distract you. You can use technology in your clubs, in the balls, and even on your clothing to help you accomplish this task.

Despite the simplicity and data-rich nature of the game, it is still one of the most difficult sports to play. There is also no “perfect round.” It’s impossible to get a hole-in-one on every hole. I’ve played with some really good golfers and even their rounds can look clunky, at best. They miss fairways, greens, hit trees, land in sand traps, and splash in the water hazards. On a golf course, “hazards” are, of course, strategically placed by the golf course architect to be exactly the distance the average ball travels from the previous point.

But, at the end of the day, it is just you out there, navigating the landscape. For some people, this makes golf especially frustrating and everyone handles that emotion differently. Most golfers are really out there playing against their minds.

To me, life is the same way. I find myself often competing with my own thoughts to determine whether or not something I want to do is possible. The landscape is the landscape, that’s reality, and it is very difficult to change. Life, like a golf course, is about how I choose to navigate it, work with it, and make it work to my strengths to get the job done. It may be an ugly process, but it is what, I believe, will make me successful.

Being on a golf course is one of my favorite places to be. Not only is it outside, beautifully landscaped, quiet, and peaceful, but also a place where I am fortunate to enjoy my time with old friends or making new friends. I appreciate the game as a metaphor for life and hope to continue to learn every time I get out there and hit ’em.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Golf can be a metaphor for life. It’s a great way to meet new people and keep in touch with old friends. Golf is humbling and requires skilled navigation and lots of practice and patience.