My father, who had marched across Europe as a very young man in the Second World War, took a much kinder view of mankind, despite the horrors he had observed. He once told me that, in his estimation, most people are just trying to do the best they can with what they've got to work with. I remember thinking this was an outrageously naive statement to make, especially coming from such an intelligent man, who had seen so much of life.
As I get older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I tend to understand where he was coming from. It is true that the more I learned about people, particularly criminals, the more I came to appreciate that it was often no great surprise that they had ended up in prison. They had often come by their dishonesty honestly.
It seems to me that humankind sort of fall along a continuum, with a minority of truly evil people at one end, a small number of saintly people at the other end, and the majority of us falling somewhere in the middle. I suppose you might wonder how this relates to golf, given that this is a golf blog. But, I think it does.
Golfers tend to be the same way. At one end there are the minority of truly horrible golfers, who not only can't play a lick, but who are lousy company on the course, and don't make any real effort to improve or get the most out of what precious little game they have when they are playing. Then, at the other end of the curve, are the true champions, who are not only highly skilled players, but work extremely hard at their games, and, when in competition, try harder than everyone else. The rest of us fall somewhere in between.
There are golfers, however, who manage to get more out of their games than they reasonably should be expected to get. They regularly win the prizes in their flights, and often beat players who appear to be better, or, at least, more skilled than they are. They fall closer on the continuum to the champion class of golfer than the rest of us. Then there are the players who are good ball-strikers, and look like champions on the range, but can never take it to the course, at least when it really counts. Perhaps, they fall closer, despite their superior ball-striking ability, to those terrible players at the other end of the continuum, because they, intentionally or otherwise, are not doing the best they can with what they've got to work with.
Very few of us are destined to be champions. So, I suppose the real question for us is, are we really doing the best we can? Because, at the end of the day, as golfers, and as people, that's all we, or anyone else, can ever ask of ourselves.
I think the great players are those who absolutely do the best they can with what they've got to work with. Bobby Jones, as I recall, once wrote that he believed the reason he was so successful was that, when playing in a championship, he tried harder than everyone else. I think the same can be said for Jack, Tiger, and, the new kid, Jordan Spieth. They all play, or played, their hearts out; never, or at least very rarely, taking a shot for granted. That's why they are great champions.
We hear advice from teachers, especially those who teach sports psychology like Bob Rotella, that you can try too hard; that there is an optimum level of effort, beyond which you actually hurt your ability to perform. That is probably true. Perhaps you can try too hard.
However, Bobby Jones advised all of us to try our best, to try to always hit the absolute best shot we are capable of hitting under the particular circumstances. He felt that this was the way to truly enjoy golf. He did not believe in the idea of relaxing on the golf course. He believed the real fun in golf is only realized by throwing ourselves whole-heartedly into the game. I think he's right.
That doesn't mean we have to necessarily start spending hours on the range, or that we have to start taking an inordinate amount of time sizing up each shot when we're playing. It just means that we will probably enjoy our time on the course, and feel better about ourselves, and our games, if we know we are giving every shot our best shot; if we really are doing the best we can with what we've got to work with.
I know that I am often guilty of frittering away strokes on the course by not always trying my best on every shot. In fact, that is the only time I really get annoyed at myself; when I hit a shot half-heartedly, or when I knew it wasn't the right shot, or the right club, and I went ahead and hit it anyway. I am going to really try to make it a point to follow Bobby Jones' advice, and put it all out there when I play; to play one shot at a time, and to give every shot the attention it deserves. Then, regardless of whether I win or lose, play well or play poorly, I will at least be able to say I did the best I could with what I had to work with on that day. If I can say that, what more can I ask of myself?