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How to Play Golf... Six Times a Year

2 - Golf and Chocolate

Minivan Dad



How to Make a Chocolate Soufflé, or, Why Aren’t There More Golf Books Like Cookbooks?


The reason this book exists is that about a year after I changed my approach to golf, I decided to teach myself to cook. If you think there are a lot of golf books out there, take a look at how many cookbooks there are! There are cookbooks from the greatest chefs in the world, cookbooks from scientists, cookbooks by home cooks and amateurs, cookbooks from catering companies and restaurant chains, cookbooks of every regional and ethnic cuisine. Some of them are classic books of techniques, others redefine the classic techniques, and others throw classic techniques out the window. There are plenty of cookbooks out there by people who do not have formal cooking training. Heck, Julia Child didn’t even start cooking seriously until she was in her forties.


Even more surprising is that cookbooks “work.” Why is that? Why are there so many successful cookbooks? Why is it that with a recipe in a book and the right tools, a moderately experienced home cook can EXPECT to prepare an outstanding meal even just once a month, but athletic people with the most advanced equipment available approach an infrequent round of golf with trepidation? Even more to my point here, why are cookbooks able to make the most complicated recipes accessible to complete novices?  


All of these cookbooks have one thing in common, whether they are written by Thomas Keller or a cooking blogger with no professional training, and I think that it’s the reason cookbooks are so successful and proliferative. Although they are inspired by, and encourage us to strive for, a level of success that most of us will never achieve, they provide specific instructions that PROMISE a basic level of achievement for even the most inexperienced user. They all start from the basic assumption that no matter how complicated the recipes are that they present, the person reading the book and following the directions will be able to complete at least a reasonable version of the recipe.


Before we get to the golf, let’s use a chocolate soufflé as an example of what I’m talking about. Soon after I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook, I made a chocolate soufflé for my youngest daughter, who was 11 at the time. I chose that recipe because a soufflé represented a challenge to me. It’s a dessert that conjures images of fancy restaurants and great chefs, fraught with potential for disaster. I wanted to see if I could pull it off! I found a recipe in Julia Child’s The Way To Cook, and set to it.


Guess what? It came out great. Guess what else? It isn’t that hard. I have made soufflés many times since then. I don’t always follow the recipe exactly anymore, and I have come up with shortcuts and my own variations and flavors. I’m not saying that I could charge $20 for my soufflé on a Saturday night on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But they look good, and they taste great, even if I mess up a bit sometimes. If I do screw one up, I can usually figure out why, and I can expect that the next one will be fine. 


The basics of making a chocolate soufflé are... Separate egg yolks and whites. Make a sauce with milk, flour, sugar, the egg yolks, a pinch of salt, vanilla and melted chocolate, which you basically do my warming the milk and sugar until the sugar dissolves, adding a bit of flour, warming some more, add the salt, pour some into the egg yolks to warm them up and then mix back into the milk, throw in a dash of vanilla, stir in the chocolate. Then rub a stainless bowl with a bit of lemon juice but leave it mostly dry, beat the egg whites until they are thick but floppy, add some sugar and beat them until they are thick and stiff. Then gently mix the sauce into the egg whites, pour the mixture into small straight sided dishes (ramekins), put it in a hot oven, and bake it for about 20 minutes.


You have to prepare by having all the ingredients measured as you need them, having straight sided dishes with a little butter and sugar on the sides so the mixture will glide as it rises, and preheating the oven. There are things you have to do correctly, including separating the eggs, stirring the sauce, gradually mixing the egg yolks in so they don’t scramble, beating the egg whites. There are also times you have to get out of the way. Don’t burn the sauce. Don’t combine the sauce and the egg whites in a way that smashes the foamy egg whites. Even if you only have a little cooking experience, chances are you’ll end up with an awfully tasty and impressive-looking dessert.


Why does that work? Why can someone with a minimum amount of experience and a little basic knowledge make something that is a reasonable version of a dessert made by the best and most experienced chefs in the world? Well, as we just said, it’s a combination of doing a few things correctly and staying out of the way when you’re supposed to.


Egg whites consist of protein that is capable of supporting a network of air bubbles, which are introduced by beating. The acid of the lemon juice allows the protein web to unravel and expand, and the sugar coats and protects the protein web, which is why the egg whites stiffen. The sauce adds flavor, and as long as you don’t smash the bubble network too much, you have a flavored mixture of beaten egg whites containing a huge number of tiny air bubbles. Put it in the oven, and the air bubbles expand. The egg white proteins are strong enough to expand without popping, and as a result the whole thing rises using the straight-sided dish as a guide. See? A couple of steps correctly performed, and the magic happens all by itself.


Golf is a difficult game to master, but I don’t think playing golf infrequently has to be any different from making that chocolate soufflé. We just have to figure out what we need to do, when to do it, and accept that there are times we need to get out of the way and let the magic happen.


Despite all the flowery language and life metaphors, in the end, a round of golf consists of a series of consecutive individual golf swings. Really, what is the goal of a golf swing? The goal of every golf swing, at its most basic essence, is to transfer the energy of the moving clubhead into the ball in the direction of the target. If that happens on every swing, you will likely shoot a very good score. That, of course, is not so easy to do, which is why golf is not an easy game. 


However, even beginning golfers can hit a great shot a few times a round. This is one of the major differences between golf and almost every other sport. In golf, a beautiful shot stands there for all to see. If I hit a soaring 7-iron to a difficult hole and it stops two feet from the pin, it’s the same as if Jack Nicklaus did it. It may not be as far, or under the same conditions, but I hit a difficult shot to two feet and there is nothing that will ever change that. And, most of the time, there are witnesses to confirm my momentary greatness!


As infrequent golfers, we are constantly bombarded by the notion that perfection in golf is unattainable. The more skilled we become, in fact, what we perceive as perfection is held to a higher standard. I think that one of the biggest psychological obstacles we face as infrequent golfers is the incorrect notion that we should expect imperfection.


Ben Hogan said that he only hit one or two shots per round exactly as he envisioned them, but this statement should not be misunderstood. Yes, he is acknowledging that he almost never hit perfect shots. That doesn’t mean, however, that he ever expected to hit the ball imperfectly. I submit that he expected to hit the ball perfectly every time he took a swing. It just didn’t always work out that way according to his lofty standards.


I would agree that a well-struck, “perfect,” golf shot is in reality a difficult thing to achieve. I would suggest, though, that anyone who has ever played golf has hit at least one shot that was, well, perfect. Our swing was in balance and rhythmic, we barely felt the contact with the ball, the ball rocketed off our club with no effort, and went exactly where we aimed it. Most of us can recite the various times that we have hit shots like this. I know that I can.


Any putt that goes in the hole because it was hit with the right speed on the right line is a perfect shot, because the goal of the game is to get the ball into the hole. I might hole a blast from a bunker, or chip in from the greenside rough, or hole a shot from the fairway. I might even make a hole in one! Or, I might do something much less glamorous, like deliberately hit the ball as low as I can from under a tree branch to a specific spot in the fairway to recover from a bad tee shot, and hit the shot exactly as I need to.


I submit that perfection on the golf course occurs a lot more frequently than we are led to believe. My father shot an 84 at Pinehurst #2. We came to the par 4 18th hole and he had already had four birdies in his round. “Wow, Dad,” I said. “Four birdies on Pinehurst #2! That’s amazing.” He looked back at me, cocked his head, and said, “I’m not done yet!” He then proceeded to smack his drive down the middle of the fairway, finesse his second shot 20 feet from the hole, and drain his putt with a clubhouse veranda full of onlookers who cheered his 5th birdie of the day. I dare you to tell my Dad that wasn’t a perfect hole!


So, the problem we face at our level is NOT that perfection is unattainable. The real problem is that we cannot reliably duplicate those moments of perfection. When we do execute a “perfect” shot, the feeling is so effortless, so simple, and so memorable, that it feels like it should be easy to replicate. Our frustration arises from the fact that it isn’t easy at all. 


I don’t believe that the solution to our problem is to give up the notion of striving for perfection. Just as an amateur cook can use a recipe as a guide to make something like a chocolate soufflé, we need to arm ourselves with a plan to make it a little easier to achieve those moments of perfection so that they occur more frequently. What is more important, we need to trust that plan, so that if a shot is not perfect we still have confidence that the next one can be.


This is the plan. Hold the club correctly and start our body in a proper position. Maintain control over the momentum of the clubhead through the end of the backswing. Maintain our body posture or “spine angle” throughout the swing. Let the magic happen all by itself. Sounds simple enough, right?