Breaking 80 is a stupid thing for grown men to obsess about. And yet . . .

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You could fill one of those old medieval scrolls with the list of things that take a higher priority in my life than “skill at golf.” There’s family, friends, work, and any number of other life elements that would take precedence if you forced me to choose. And yet, if you were to press the pause button on my brain at any point this summer, crack open the cranium, and peer inside to see what was currently on my mind, there was a very good chance that the answer was. . . yes, “skill at golf.”

Late adopters of just about any fad or game or philosophy tend to be passionate, and despite the fact that I’ll never make money from this sport or even get any attention from it—beyond an odd essay or podcast or three—nevertheless, it’s very serious to me. More than that, I like that it’s serious; I like having a goal to pursue. Like a lot of recreational golfers, my goal revolves around a number, and that number is 80. I want to break it, and as it happens, Golf Digest’s digital editorial director Sam Weinman is on the same quest. We both took up the game in adulthood, we’re getting plenty of strokes from the college golf veterans who also work at our company, and yet we’re equally monomaniacal in our quest to shoot 79 . . .

. . . just once, please, for the love of God.

We know we’re not alone, and that’s why we’ve made our respective journeys the subject of this week’s episode of Local Knowledge. Along with holding our own mini-therapy session on our hopes, dreams, shortcomings, and frequent choke-jobs, we spoke to our friends, family, and a few brilliant experts on the topic of What It All Means. You can listen to the podcast here:

So, what does it mean? The truth of the matter is that the topic of whether Sam or I ever actually break 80 is far less interesting than why we want it so bad. Personally, I take great joy in having a sport that I can improve at in my encroaching middle age. Age 40 is glowering just around the corner, and at this point, there aren’t many physical feats that will improve between now and…well, death. I’ll never run as fast or jump as high as I did when I was younger, I’ll never throw a football as far or make a quicker crossover to the basket or throw a runner out from deep short with quite as much strength. C’est la vie, BUT! It’s likely that my best golf is ahead of me, and that’s intoxicating.

“Part of loving golf is wanting to get better,” Sam agreed. “On some level, it validates us. It’s not like you walk into a room and say, ‘Hi, I’m Sam Weinman, and I just broke 80.’ No one cares, beyond us…it is completely meaningless in almost every other context, but it’s this barrier we’ve created that is super important.”

“Every book I’ve read about golf and self-help—which are often the same books—are all about how it shouldn’t be about anything other than yourself, and yet, for some reason it’s important to me.”

That word, “progress,” is key. For some of us, there is a need in life to feel like you are improving, working toward a peak, and if you grew up playing competitive sports, there’s a potential waiting for you in adulthood. A pursuit like this fills that void, and—crazy as it may sound—injects a degree of purpose into our days that’s different than the purpose we feel from our families or our careers, but perhaps almost as necessary.

The difficulty, too, is part of the selling point. Sam compared the dark moments of golf to missing a turn on the highway, and then another, and suddenly you’re miles away from what was once a close destination. In the film The Matrix, the simulated world the machines created for humanity was full of challenges and suffering, and the reason wasn’t that the machines were cruel, but that they tried to give us paradise, and we didn’t want it. It’s the same with golf; life is long if we’re lucky, and we need a challenge, and a riddle, and a frustration that can last until the end.

Golf is a terrific answer to that particular problem. We’re never in danger of mastering it, and we explore its contours for as long as it will have us. The goal today is 79, but there are newer goals on the horizon, and the horizon never ends.

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