My Golf Journey – Overcoming my fear of playing with strangers

Golf is Hard

It is common knowledge that golf is hard and anyone who plays the game knows that anxious feeling on the first tee. New or less skilled golfers often describe golf as intimidating and pray they avoid cringe-worthy moments in front of other golfers. And for women golfers add the crap shoot factor of possibly being paired with men who do not hide the fact their round was just ruined by your presence in their foursome. For me the anxiety created from feelings of intimidation often felt overwhelming. And, for years I let my anxiety of playing golf with strangers keep me from enjoying the sport I love.

Source of My Fear

As a young girl I watched golf on television but it never occurred to me that I could play golf because I didn’t know anyone that actually played the game. In my late-twenties I met my ex-husband, a golfer with an eight handicap, and my golf journey began.

My ex-husband went on a business trip to Japan. He was gone for a month so I got clubs and took lessons. Besides teaching me swing basics, the golf pro gave me tips for playing with my husband (e.g., play fast, pick up your ball after your hit your drive and hit your second shot from where your husband’s drive lands) and for my last lesson he took me on the course to teach me golf etiquette.  Above all the pro told me “Don’t be that golfer that plays slow, takes too many swings, or is clueless about what is going on around them.” I knew exactly what he meant because my ex-husband would complain about “that golfer” when he talked about players in his Tuesday night golf league. All the tips were great but the message “don’t be that golfer” was probably not the best thought to put in someone’s head who already had a tendency to care too much about what other people think.

In the beginning I only played with my ex-husband and he was very supportive when we played alone. I played fast, ready golf and I had excellent golf etiquette. However, when we were paired with other golfers, my ex-husband made me feel uncomfortable. On the first tee, he would excessively reassure the other golfers that I wouldn’t slow them down, or he would pick up my ball even if I was not slowing anyone down. I have one clear memory of a golfer whispering to me, “Don’t let your husband pick up your ball. You’re doing fine and not holding us up. Play your own game.” Instead of feeling grateful for his support, I just felt embarrassed. Of course, these experiences sewed the seeds of my fear of playing with strangers.

After my marriage ended, I only played golf with two female friends. My fear kept me from playing golf when my friends were not available. At one point I joined a women’s golf association hoping for the opportunity to play golf in a less intimidating environment. Unfortunately the few times I played, the women in my foursome were seasoned players and not very welcoming. Instead of finding women in the chapter that were more welcoming, I just felt stressed and went back to only playing with my two best friends. Even with my friends, if a stranger joined our group my anxiety went through the roof.

I moved to a new state for a job and did not know anyone. I knew if I wanted to play golf I had to address my fear. I knew “getting out of my head” was part of the solution but telling myself not to worry wasn’t going to cut it.  I needed something tangible to focus on to improve my game which would boost my confidence and hopefully reduce my anxiety. My tangible issue, a reason I felt I could work on, was the lack of distance in my game.

Create and Work a Plan

My plan was simple. (1) Find a good teaching pro and I defined “good” as someone I felt comfortable with and who taught in a way that fit how I learned. (2) Practice what I learned in my lessons. (3) Force myself to play with strangers.

I found a great pro, Mike Havay at Quail Brook Golf Course in Somerset New Jersey. I knew from my first lesson he was a great fit for me because he was honest about the work it would take to meet my goals. As we worked together that first day he explained the first swing change he wanted me to work on in four different ways, after which Mike said to me “you are a very visual learner.” Bingo!

Basically. we had to completely rebuild my swing. I was not offended when Mike described my swing as a “typical beginner women’s swing” (even though I had been playing golf for a number of years). My swing was over-the-top, steep and all arms. My driver and woods went about the same distance (and not very far) because I wasn’t creating any power.

I worked hard at rebuilding my swing. After each lesson with Mike I would sit in my car and put notes into my phone. I would go to the range after work to practice before my next lesson. In the off season I would swing a club in my house. By the end of the second golf season Mike told me it was time for new clubs! I was so excited because I knew that meant my new swing was consistent.

During the time I was rebuilding my swing I joined the local chapter of Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA) which was the golf association I had joined but never really participated in while living in Boston. I played in the Tuesday night league and attended a few weekend outings. I also joined the golf club at work and forced myself to play in work golf outings which was very stressful because many of the staff played college golf. Playing in my first work golf outing I was paired with a woman that played from the back tees, hit her drive 230+ yards and had a 0.7 handicap. I hit my drive about 130 yards (with roll) and my handicap was 34. Talk about triggering anxiety!

You would think that after two years I would be completely cured of my fear. I had made great strides! I had no stress playing with golfers I did not know at work or in my EWGA chapter. I even played competitive golf (e.g., EWGA championship events and work championship events). But the reality was I still could not get myself to signup for a tee time as a single.

Every week in my lessons, Mike reassured me that I was a good golfer and I just need to go play with strangers. He said you may get paired with guys that don’t want to play with you but that’s not about you (they’re just jerks) so don’t let them get in your head. He told me to remember every golfer has a bad shot, a bad hole or even a bad day. That’s just golf and no one is judging you. If anything, most golfers just hope they don’t catch a struggling player’s bad mojo and find their own game going south. The only thing golfers hate is the same thing you hate – slow players or players that display bad golf etiquette. After his mental coaching, I took the leap and booked my very first tee time as a single.

Weeks later I was taking a lesson with Mike, two men in a golf cart (making the turn) stopped and said “Hi Catherine! Remember us? We played a few weeks ago.” Then they said to Mike “She’s a lot of fun to play with but don’t make her any better or she’ll beat us!”  They drove off and Mike said to me “In all my years of teaching I have never had any golfers stop and make comments about one of my students. And certainly not male golfers about a female student. You need to realize how big this moment is for you.” I just laughed. Looking back at that moment, I now recognize it was a big deal.

Results

As golfers we always look at our numbers. I track greens in regulation (GIR), putts and other parts of my game to discover areas to improve but how I play (my score) is really the ultimate measure. I typically shoot in the mid-to-low 90s but twice this year I broke 90 (breaking 90 was a goal I set for 2017).  I also set a goal to get my handicap to 18 this golf season and I exceeded that goal (handicap chart below).  I am thrilled with my numbers but overcoming my fear is my greatest result!

My Handicap History 2017

This year, four years after I made my decision to address my fear, I have no anxiety going to the course and playing as a “single” or being paired with men to fill out a  foursome. Sure I have the first tee jitters that most golfers feel but that’s normal. I have bad days and feel a bit embarrassed (and frustrated) when I play poorly but I know all golfers have those feelings when their game leaves them.

The overwhelming anxiety is gone. I feel excited to get to the course. It saddens me that I still have to face the “cold shoulder” when I get paired with some men but I don’t let it get in my head. After a few holes the guys usually get very chatty with me trying to make up for the blatant disdain they displayed on the first tee. And, playing more as a single I have experience more nice guys that like playing with women then men that jump to conclusions about playing with me just because of my gender.

One last important metric – rounds played. The active golf season for where I live is April 1 to October 30 or approximately 30 weeks. In 2013, I only played 12 rounds of golf compared to 2017 in which I have played 40 rounds of golf. My 2017 rounds could be inflated because of the great weather this year – playing golf in November and the handicap season was extended to November 15. The point is, I played!

 

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