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Golf with joy: Unlocking the magic of 'personal par'

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

Cheer

My father-in-law, a successful scientist and businessman, was at one point in his life a four-handicap.

A natural athlete and fiercely competitive, he excelled on his college golf team. For years, a round in the upper 70s was a bad day.

Keep in mind, this was back in the day, before wide-soled, forgiving Fusion irons and 460cc drivers with sweet spots the size of Texas. He made all those pars and birdies with persimmon woods and steel-shafted blades. By this I mean, he was a right good golfer.

But something changed along the way. Now he's 68 years old and has a bad rotator cuff. The last time he kept a true score, he shot a 112. That was years ago. Golf no longer holds any joy for him. In short, he hates it.

For a while there, we overlapped. When he told me about his 112, I was delighted. "That's what I shot yesterday!" I exclaimed. He was suspicious: "Counting everything?" I can only imagine how he felt when I started scoring in the 90s, then the 80s. My scores were steadily declining; his crept skyward. After a while I stopped telling him my scores, and these days I pretty much hide the fact that I play golf at all.

I bring up the tale of my father-in-law because I know this happens to everyone. At the beginning of your golfing life, your game can only improve. You watch with delight as your scores gradually get better and better. You learn something every time you go out on the course, whether it's how to hit a bunker shot or how to play a new betting game. It's a heady time.

Then your game plateaus. Your handicap levels out. You become accustomed to playing what is, for you, your "usual game."

And then, eventually, comes the inevitable decline. Your swing gets shorter and choppier as you lose flexibility and muscle mass. You start playing from the "old man" tees and watch with dismay as your scores rise anyway. It's something all golfers know will happen to them.

So what do you do when you know your best golfing days are behind you? Give up the game, like my father-in-law? Or swallow your pride and look for the joy in triple bogies?

I say never give up. Here's why:

• No one cares how badly you're playing except you. So you hit some bad shots. So what? Would you really be happier at home on the couch? Think about the fresh air you're getting, the exercise, the camaraderie.

• If stopping to smell the flowers doesn't do it for you, there's always match play. Don't worry about score. Don't even keep it. If your partner holes out first, pick up your ball. Get all the strokes you're entitled to and every now and then you might win. Match play is genius. Remember all those three-putts that used to make you so grumpy? You won't have as many of those anymore.

• Above all, there's always personal par.

Are you familiar with personal par? "Par" is the score you are supposed to make on a hole. At least, that's how the rule-makers define it.

In their dreams, maybe. The score I can generally expect to make on a hole isn't par, it's something a little higher. A bogey, maybe. On a bad day, a double bogey. That's what I call "Jen par."

You can call it "Jen par" too if you want, although it would be a little weird unless your name is Jen.

My husband introduced me to the concept of Jen par when I first started playing golf with him six years ago.

When my sister started to play last year, I introduced it to her. I'm basically a bogey golfer, so my personal par is a bogey. She's still a relative beginner, so hers is a bogey on a par 3, double on a par 4 and triple on a par 5. When we play together, she has to shoot a personal birdie to beat my personal par.

Personal birdies are wonderful things, let me tell you. Just as exciting as the real kind. And eminently more achievable.

Using a personal par system works a lot better than just giving up strokes. When I have to give someone strokes, I tend to get a little bitter about it. Two strokes a hole? Forget it. I start thinking about how I have to make a birdie just to beat her bogey and my nostrils begin to flare.

But put everything in terms of personal par and I forget that I'm giving up any strokes at all. Or getting them, as the case may often be.

So yes, there can be joy in triple bogies, when triple bogey is your new par. And one good shot a hole is pretty much all it takes to get you there. Maybe you start with a few grounders, a slice into the woods, an OB. But then every so often you'll hit it right and get treated to that lovely crisp sound as the club clips the ball, the beautiful sight of the arch as the ball takes flight.

Oh yes, there's joy in that.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.


 
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