Golf as Life: Coaching During a Pandemic

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“Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shotsbut you have to play the ball where it lies.” -Bobby Jones

I haven’t thought about this quote from the legendary amateur golfer, Bobby Jones, in quite a while. I tend to only look this quote up when things aren’t going so well in my life. Up until March 10, things were going great. I had recently been hired as the new Head Women’s Golf Coach at Luther College, the cooperative grocery store that I manage had just won a national award, I was looking forward to the final weeks of my youngest son graduating from Decorah High School, and I had just recently come back from a trip to Arizona where I had played exceptionally good golf. After a ten-year absence from coaching golf at the NCAA DIII level, I was ready to get back on the course for the Norse!

Then, the COVID-19 virus showed up in Iowa.

As a coach of a team of ten golfers, it was difficult telling the team that we did not have the option of stepping on a golf course together this spring. Our time together was going to have to wait and we would need to communicate and support each other in different ways. Our final, in-person team meeting on March 13 consisted of some difficult conversation, a few tears and a lot of candy. We left the meeting unsure of our future and unsure of when we would see each other again.

If you’re a golfer, you know the feeling of hitting a perfect drive on a dogleg hole. You’ve split the fairway, it’s long and it feels really good. Your playing partners are giving you fist-bumps and a lot of praise. A tingling sensation of accomplishment races through your veins and you can’t wait to see where your ball has ended up. Thoughts of a possible birdie even start to get you excited as you approach where your ball should be, but reality sets in and it is nowhere to be found. Where is it? Did someone in the group ahead accidentally hit your ball? Rage and a long menu of words you’d never use in front of your mother begin to occupy space in your head. Then, one of your playing partners says, “Here it is, you went through the fairway and it’s under this tree.” Your hope for a birdie quickly exits your brain and the idea of bogey or worse begins to take over. Your options at this point are either take a penalty stroke and get a better lie, or attempt to get the ball out on the next shot. Either way, you are just trying to limit the damage and get to the next hole.

For the past eight weeks, I feel like I’m still trying to play that shot from under the tree. I’ve had to be creative and rethink my ways of recruiting, communicating with my team and communicating with my fellow coaches at Luther. Weekly meetings with the coaching staff and Athletics Department staff at Luther have given me a positive outlook on recruiting and developing players and they’ve renewed my hope in the future of athletics at the DIII level. My fellow coaches and administrators are like my own coach right now, guiding me in this new game.

Golfers often visualize what their round is going to look like before they even step up to the first tee. This visualization helps them hit better shots and manage their game to be better golfers. Unfortunately, most of us are not tour-level players and most of the time our vision does not come to fruition. Constant adjustment on the course is critical. Course management and dealing with adversity are key to having the best score possible. In the early days of managing life with coronavirus, I just tried to tell myself that this will all be okay. I visualized that we will all emerge as better golfers and be better prepared for bad shots. Forty-five days into this, I still believe that is a true statement. The difficulty is that this feels more like a bad break from a good shot. It’s time to give up thoughts of a birdie and move on to the next shot.

As a late hire in the academic year at Luther College, I knew that my energy would not be well spent on recruiting these last few weeks of the semester, but better spent on trying to keep the team that we have. This team has the American Rivers Conference MVP/Individual Champion and three academic all-conference honorees. They are a team from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Texas who did not know each other before coming to Luther. They have had three different coaches in the last three years and yet, here they are, being successful both on and off the golf course. We have something very special at Luther College in this team and I think they could teach the rest of us about overcoming adversity. They know how to come back from bad shots and how to be successful on a difficult course and in a difficult world. As of yesterday, all ten are coming back to Luther in the fall. I can hardly wait to step on the first tee of our first tournament and be their coach. They are going to be just fine through all of this and make a big impact in their world after college.

The announcement last week from the Presidents Council of the American Rivers Conference declaring its intention to conduct intercollegiate athletics programs this fall and for the entirety of the 2020-21 academic year gives me hope as a coach that we will have a golf season this fall. I had a Zoom meeting with my players after this announcement became public and there were a lot of smiles on their faces during that meeting. President Ward and the cabinet have put together a thoughtful, safe plan to return to campus and I can tell you that my golfers are ready to get back on the course for the Norse!

So, here I am, still under the tree. But, it is time to hit the next shot. That is what I love about the game of golf. Once a hole is done, it’s done. The next hole is full of opportunity and potential to get some of those lost strokes back. We’re only on the front nine of living with COVID-19, but I am eager to make the turn and start playing the back nine with patience and awareness. There are still a lot more holes to play and a lot more birdie opportunities out there. Be well, take care of yourselves and keep playing the ball where it lies.

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  • May 23 2020 at 12:21 pm
    Paul Gardner

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post David.  The 'under the tree' analogy is perfect and suggests an equivalent challenge from one's personal experience, if not a golfer.  I too was glad to hear about the possibility of resuming athletic competition in the fall.  So many things we took for granted we now have a better sense of their value.  I am glad your 10 golfers are returning to Luther and hope the same is true for other teams, ensembles and organizations on campus.  Communcation between coaches and players, players and players,  coaches and coaches, and administrators with coaches, staff and faculty - is essential for helping all get through this.  Your story is a good news story that I hope is repeated by many others.  Paul

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