6 min read

Mental Meltdowns

In this letter to Gus: Golf is a hard game, but it can provide us with resolve to embark on a new journey.
Mental Meltdowns

20 May 2022

Dear Gus,

This afternoon, we played golf for the first time in months. You’d been in full baseball mode, so you weren’t up for golf activity. However, as we transition out of your baseball season and into your golf season, you decided it was time to start up the ol’ golf machine again.

On our way to the course, I reminded you that you hadn’t touched a golf club in months. “Let’s set some expectations,” I said. We agreed that we were just out there to enjoy the day, to have some fun. You said you’d be “ecstatic” if you broke 90, especially since you planned to play from tees that were longer than your normal tees. “I want to hit more shots,” you said.

We each got a bucket of balls and went to the practice tee. I got there before you and started hitting some shots. You stretched and then started lining up some wedges. Wow! You looked pretty awful, all out of sorts. For a while, you struggled to even get the ball airborne. You asked me to look at your swing. I suggested that you were taking the club too far to the inside. You made some adjustments, and started hitting some good shots.

After warming up on the practice tee, we went over to the putting green. We putted around for about ten minutes and then went to the first tee. You played from the red tees, which are about 30% longer than the junior tees you’re used to. You hit your first tee shot in the right rough. Your approach went up near the green. You pitched up on and then two-putted for a bogey. You smiled and said, “Bogey’s not bad,” and we went to the second hole, a short par three. You pulled your pitching wedge from your bag and knocked the ball on the front of the green, but the pin was in the back. You three-putted for another bogey. “A little frustrating,” you said, “but bogey’s not bad.”

By the time we arrived at the third tee, we had laughed a bit and you were in great spirits. You pulled your driver and busted it right down the middle of the fairway, longer than I’ve ever seen you hit a tee shot: about 230 yards. You hit your approach to about 20 feet and then two-putted for par.

The fourth hole was the longest par five you’ve ever played, about 500 yards. Before hitting your tee shot, you said, “There’s no way I can get there in three.” I said, “Maybe not, we’ll see. Just take a good, smooth swing at this one and send it down the fairway.” You did just that: another 230-yard tee shot with a little bit of draw, splitting the middle of the fairway. You hit a good second shot and just had a little sand wedge to the green. You reached in three easily, two-putted for par, and moved on. Spirits were great!

You birdied the fifth and then parred the remaining holes on the front nine, including the longest par five on the course. Your tee shots were good. Your irons were crisp. Your short game was on. We stopped for some purple Gatorade before the tenth and you saw that you’d shot a 38 on the opening nine.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer / Unsplash

This is where things changed for you. You’d spent the front nine not worrying about your score. You were just hitting shots to hit shots, playing golf for the joy of playing golf. We were hot and sweaty on a sunny day in May in southeast Texas, but we were having fun. When you saw that 38 on the score card, however, your attitude changed. You started to think about scoring. You started to think about future shots and what you needed on future holes. What if I par this hole and then birdie that one? What if I hit a bad shot here? How will I recover?

In short: you got out of the present and started living in the future.

Even though you double-bogeyed the tenth, you remained in good spirits until you hit a bad tee shot on the eleventh. This shot put you in trouble, blocked out by houses and fencing, unable to see (or reach the green). Things went from bad to worse and you ended up in a green side bunker, trying to hit your fifth shot out of it on a difficult par four. You were really angry, but you managed to take some deep breaths and calm yourself down. You took a swing at your ball in the sand. It came out hot, but hit my ball (which I hadn’t had a chance to mark yet) and went in the hole. Just a routine bogey! Hahaha!

You laughed and celebrated and we moved on.

Things really unraveled from there, unfortunately. By the time we reached the seventeenth green, you were so frustrated with golf that you could barely bring yourself to tap in a par putt (because you’d narrowly missed an eagle and then missed a short putt for birdie). In fact, I had to encourage you to just hit the four-inch putt into the hole. You told me, “I can’t! I’m gonna miss it!”

It was the worst meltdown I’ve ever seen you have on a golf course. To be honest, I was shocked. How had we gone from so much fun on the first eleven or twelve holes to this?

We found ourselves in the car a half-hour later conducting a post-mortem on the round. As we talked, you managed to identify exactly what had happened. On the front nine, you weren’t thinking about scoring; you were just thinking about each shot, focusing on your routine and what you needed to do to hit the best, smartest shot you could. On the back nine, however, your mindset changed: “I just wanted to shoot another 38 so badly,” you said.

You were really down, but I said to you, “This is a really important day for you.” We went on to talk about how we learn from our mistakes. “Mistakes,” I said, “Only become failures when we don’t learn from them. What do you think you learned today?”

“I play better,” you said, “When I focus on each shot and don’t worry about my score.”

This is exactly true. I’ve seen it on the golf course and on the baseball field. When you start worrying about other things — score, statistics, winning, whatever — you tighten up and start to make mistakes. Your attitude changes; you tense up. When you just focus on the moment, however, you play free and easy, and you are such a good golfer.

You agreed and then said, “Dad, how can I stay in the moment?” I told you there are lots of techniques for that, but that, for me, certain types of meditation were helping me to learn how to do that.

You were quiet for a bit, sitting in the backseat, “Strawberry Fields Forever” playing faintly through the Honda’s speakers. I had turned back toward the front, looking at you in the rear view mirror. You were looking out the window, the bill of your cap pressed against the glass. You turned your head and looked at me and asked, “Do you think you can teach me to meditate?”

“Absolutely,” I said, “But you have to understand something about that. First, it’s not a quick fix. It takes time to learn to meditate. Second, you might get frustrated, but I will not let you give up. You’re gonna be like Luke on Dagobah with Yoda. At times, you won’t see the point, but you’ll have to trust me. It’s a journey.”

I would like to think I'm Yoda. I'm not. But...do or do not...there is no try.

You said, “Okay. Can we start tomorrow?”

Of course, we can!

So, I guess our journey into the mind is beginning, Gus. I know that meditation has taught me to be a better, calmer, more present Me over the past six or seven years. I hope it will do the same for you.

Love,

Dad.

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This video from six-year-old Gus seemed appropriate.