Today I turn 24. When I was 14, I threw all my baseballs into storage and shot my last basketball into a trashcan. I gave up all of my other pursuits to focus on one - golf. Since that day ten years ago, I’ve seldom spent time away from the game. In high school, snowstorms would burry my clubs for a few days, but I’d swing through the flurries in my basement net. The longest break I can remember taking was two weeks one winter to focus on fitness and build up an urge to play again.
On my 24th birthday, I’m back out on the golf course for the first time in six weeks - marking my longest time away from the game. A shoulder injury handcuffed me from full swings. The grooves on my wedges and the spot on my putter face will tell you where I’ve spent my time. Over the last week, I’ve progressed from 10 balls to 50 balls on the range, but I haven’t dug any dirt on a fairway yet.
As a birthday gift to myself, and with clearance from my doctors, I returned to the course today. For the first time in a while, golf seemed simple. It’s as if the time away peeled the complex game back to its core. My only expectation was to swing pain-free and make contact with the ball. My targets were fairways and greens, but I was shocked how many times my ball found its way close to the pin. When an errant shot occurred, there was no frustration or confusion, I just moved on. It was as if it didn’t matter, I was just happy to swing. Today, time didn’t exist - I didn’t look at my watch once. For the first time in a while, music wasn’t in my ears. I didn’t need the distraction to push me through. The birds chirping and the crack of other golfers on the course were more than enough to put me at peace. Far removed from the complexity of competition, I was reminded that I love the game in its most raw form.
This week, former world No.1 Nelly Korda returned to competition after almost three months out due to a blood clot. In her press conference, she was asked if the time away changed her perspective on golf and playing professionally. She first compared it to being able to breathe after having a cold but followed that comment with, “when it’s taken away from you, you sit back and realize how amazing of a sport it is. How you can do what you love.”
She said it was hard for her to watch the LPGA on TV during her injury - feelings I’ve had lately. When it comes to her expectations for the week, they don’t differ much from mine today. Nelly says she wasn’t looking past her drive on the first hole. An expectation I imagine will free her up to just play.
Late, I head to Pine Needles for the U.S. Women’s Open. My golf clubs will remain in the trunk of my car. I’ll live vicariously through the other players on the course. My spot as a fan will no doubt offer a different perspective. I know the pressure, the expectations, and the nerves each player will be feeling, but I wish they could realize what a privilege it is to just swing. That’s the reason we all started playing, but with each divot, it seems to get lost in the dust.
On my 24th birthday, I’m reminded of what it felt like to be 14. Tonight, I’ll blow out birthday candles, but I’d say my wish has already come true - a flame rekindled - my love for the game.