Should you lay up or go for the stick?

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I’ve never played golf. Not even once. So what, you might say. Neither have billions of other people. Yet the game has affected a huge part of my life and taught me valuable non-golf lessons anyone can apply to life, career, or competition.

Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am about learning anything from golf. It was hard to avoid, though.

Because I was once married to a PGA Tour player, and wrote about life inside professional golf, I had a chance to see the best players in the world play on the greatest courses in the world, up close and personal.

I still know next to nothing about the technical aspects of the game. (I can tell a really horrible swing from a pretty one, but that’s about it.) Ah, but the “inner game” – the mental and psychological part of playing – now that is fascinating. Here is where the true lessons lie. And one of the many great lessons is:

Know when to lay up. Know when to go for the stick.

 In the 1996 movie Tin Cup, Kevin Costner plays Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, a golf pro in West Texas whose penchant for always “going for it” and never playing the percentages of risk in his shots has led him down a path to failure. He plays recklessly, and sees “laying up” – not going full-out for the green and the hole every single time you have the chance – as somehow cowardly.

Pros will often “lay up.” This technique enables them to better place their approach shot to the green in a more advantageous position — avoiding trouble, like a big water hazard or nasty sand bunkers. They may lay up to get into a perfect position to land nearest the pin with a good break, and have a chance to birdie.

Sometimes, it’s smart to recognize trouble ahead, play it safe and stay away from danger. Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is to take care of yourself.

In the movie, Don Johnson plays David Simms, a successful Tour player who is Roy’s nemesis. Simm’s strategy is always to lay up, when in doubt –even if it costs him a championship.

Simms is a lot like many of us. Some people always “lay up” in life. They rely on what’s known and safe, and fear risk — and they end up losing by playing TOO safe.

On the other hand, like Roy, if you always go for the stick, no matter how unworkable it may prove, you may end up in a crash and burn. In the movie, Roy has a chance to win the U.S. Open, but refuses to give up on hitting the same shot repeatedly, despite disastrous results. What may look like courage and confidence may just be stupidity.

This is a lesson about balance – a balance of adventure and wisdom. It’s also about using your intuition and trusting your instincts.

Taking a risk based on the belief that you have what it takes to make the shot can be full of reward.

Sometimes the decision between the two — laying up or going for it – makes or breaks your game. Sometimes “going for it” is spectacular and thrilling, and you make an awesome shot – even win big!

Sometimes, you land in the water, and fail.

But if you do experience going into the water, give yourself credit for trying. Don’t let the penalty scare you. And remember, the gallery usually wants you to succeed, and gives you credit for the attempt.

Don’t go through life laying up and playing safe at every hole. You may not experience any disasters, but you’ll never be a true champion either.

The non-golf life lesson for me – and for you – is to use your instincts and trust your intuition. Believe in yourself enough to take a risk. Know when to play smart and take care of yourself.  Use your head, but don’t be afraid to go with your heart.

That’s the balance of adventure and wisdom.

See Roy go for it in the the Video: Tin Cup 7 Iron


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