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The Thin Line between Winning and Losing: A Piano Lesson Learned on the Golf Course

Golf has traditionally been aligned with privilege and power as the sport of the entitled elite. The game developed a blue-collar dimension with the rise of Arnold Palmer in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the initial impression is that golf has become the country club of the rich and famous.

I was exposed to the game in grammar school and high school and caddied at an exclusive country club outside New York City. I learned more about people from those experiences as well as from the experiences at local racetracks than from any course in college. But I learned a very valuable lesson on the links not too long ago.

Apart from my diligence at the piano, I also make chip shots on the golf course when I get a chance. Recall that I live in Rochester, Minnesota, so I have many more days when I can play piano than putt.

An opportunity arose to speak at a corporate venue where one of the perks was to play at a local golf course of some distinction.

At this particular venue I signed up for a 6:30 a.m. tee time, an ungodly hour when few normal beings would be on a golf course especially on a damp, miserably cold autumn morning. I logged onto the website of the venue and discovered I was the only person who signed up. This was okay, and I took it as an opportunity to practice and fine-tune certain shots, which I ordinarily could not do.

When I arrived to play, I saw online that another individual had signed up to play with me. I had never met him, but his name sounded vaguely familiar. We casually introduced ourselves, shook hands, exchanged the usual pleasantries about weather and sports, recognized where we were from, and that was it.

After one hole, I could tell that this gentleman who was probably in his late forties was the finest golfer with whom I had ever played. My drives under ideal circumstances might go 180 to 190 yards. His drives were well over 300 yards. If a hole was 400 yards, which is a standard length, I was lucky if could get on the green in three shots. He was almost always within a few yards off the green because of his prodigious game.

Every facet of golf was mastered by this gentleman, and I was absolutely mesmerized by his skill. As our time together evolved, I could not resist the magic question: “John (fictional name), I am stunned by how good you are. May I ask what you do for a living?”

He then told me the rest of the story.

This gentleman casually told me that he was a professional golfer, but as I recalled at one point he was one of the top players in the world. By his mid- to late twenties he had won several major championships and was destined for the golf kingdom equivalent of Mount Rushmore.

But then he disappeared off the radar and plummeted in the national golf rankings. I vaguely recall articles in sporting magazines how he simply lost his swing, he lost his focus. He hired multiple swing coaches, sports psychologists, strength and conditioning coaches, short game and putting experts, yet never was able to regain that prominence.

Every one of us may know someone who was destined for stardom but whose stock plummeted and they never reached their previous level of accomplishment.

We only played nine holes together that day, at which time I needed to leave for the airport. We shook hands, wished each other well, and went our separate ways. On the way home I logged onto the internet and was stunned to read about his professional disintegration.

On the professional golf tour there are 125 pros. The difference between the first-ranked player and the 125th is one or two shots per round—a razor-thin difference between winning and losing. He had it all and for reasons that he could not understand nor did anyone else, he could never recapture that cachet.

So what can we individuals, the people grinding it out in our professions, learn about an unpredictable fall from grace?

1. There is a very thin line between being on top of your game and losing your game. Bad choices, bad decisions, alcohol, some drugs, or a personal setback can derail the greatest talents in a heartbeat.

2. At some point we need to be satisfied, we need to be present, we need to accept that no matter who we are and where we are in the food chain, everything can change in a heartbeat. Trust the process. Stay in the present.

3. We have all learned about the mind, body, spirit, and soul connection. If even one of these parameters is out of whack, if one malfunctions, it is hardly likely that the game whether in business or in some profession will sustain the imbalance. So at the end of the day, on the nineteenth hole, “success” however you define it, is fleeting. But we need to show up and give life our best shot every day.

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