Par for the Course

Posted Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 18:27
How to take aim at self-improvement
“No, no Socrates, it says you need to relax your grip.” Cartoon by Richard Lee

I am a firm believer in the value of libraries because I have always enthusiastically accepted the axiom that you can learn how to do anything from a book, even the most difficult of all human endeavors—how to swing a golf club. In the course of my life, I have competed, at some level, in about every sport to which a red-blooded American boy is exposed, so I can say with absolute certainty that nothing compares to golf from a degree-of-difficulty standpoint.

I lived a basically happy life for the first 58 years of my life, and then I retired and decided to take up golf as a way of staying in functional physical shape. A couple of years ago, my playing partner Fred, a retired chiropractor, put it succinctly as we finished yet another round of dysfunctional golf: “Enough torture for one day.” Forget waterboarding; the military should take captured terrorists out on the golf course and make them play until they break down and confess their deepest, darkest secrets.

When it comes to things that I want to master, I tend to be rather stubborn. So while Fred would head for the golf course cocktail lounge to alleviate his pain, I would head for the public library. There I would find a seemingly endless collection of “how to” golf books and videos. It was just a matter of finding the right one. Hope and change became my mantra. I would change my swing and then hit the little white ball and hope for the best.

The hallmark of golf literature is that every expert has a different theory. One day I would follow the advice of Johnny Miller and hold the club “loosey goosey,” and the next day I would “grip it and rip it” à la John Daley. One day I would swing with a strong right arm (Tommy Bolt), and the next I would swing with a strong left arm (Tiger Woods). One day I would coil my body into a pretzel (Ben Hogan), and the next I would relax and swing easy (Julius Boros). Some days I would tinker with a short backswing, and others I would wind the club back as far as I could. Nothing worked.

So I got frustrated and decided to empty my head of all the swing tips I’d learned and do what felt comfortable to me—a medium grip, a moderate backswing, and a left and right arm working in tandem. My scores improved and the game became fun.

It all reminded me of my career in management. I progressed from being the director of a small-town public library in my 20s to managing a good-sized city in my 50s. Like any good librarian, I had to keep up with the times and read the management book du jour. Every author seemed to have a different theory: You should be an intimidating presence, a warm and fuzzy life coach, a wily politician. You should stay the hell out of politics, be on the cutting edge of technology, shun fads and stick with classic principles, take a collegial approach, exert strong leadership, follow the data, go by your instinct, be an extrovert, be an introvert. . . . Management literature is like golf literature.

Was it Socrates who said “Know yourself”? If so, he was the greatest management theorist of all time—and probably a pretty decent golfer.

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for more than 30 years and has written nine books on the lighter side of library science. Contact him at wmanley7[at]



Hello Will, Growing up with a professional golfer father, my dream as I really got into playing golf as a teenager was to be a great golfer. Not just a decent player, but, you know, better than Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. I had read every sports biography in the Wilmington, N.C. Public Library by about age 11 when I took up golf. Roy Campanella, Billy Martin, Sam Snead, Frank and Joe Hardy (oh wait a minute, they were detectives - never mind!). Anyway, just as I took up my quest to improve upon my Dad's personal best (at the time, 17th place finish in the 1952 Los Angeles Open), he offered me the chance to work every day in his golf shop. I thought, "practice and play golf every day." He thought, "He worked for 1 cent per bottle thrown out near the tee or rough, hmmm how 'bout I pay him $1 an hour for the next eight years. Well, I read lots of golf books and magazines those years including Hogan's Modern Fundamentals of Golf, Arnold Palmer's My Game and Yours, and the hilarious autobiography by Sam Snead, The Education of a Golfer. I loved my Dad's article, "Stay Behind the Ball," in Golf Digest magazine. But as I got older, I got wiser and figured out that life had more to it than golf, beating myself up for missing putts, feeling guilty for throwing clubs, etc. One of my favorite stories is of a would be, could be, nearly was professional golfer at my Dad's club in Columbia, S.C. where we lived while I was in college. He usually drank gin and grapefruit from a bowling-ball sized and shaped thermos when he went out on his daily rounds of the course. One day, he went beyond throwing clubs or trying to bend them around trees. He threw one club into the lake where he'd hit his golf ball. Then another. Then he just walked over to the cart, unstrapped his golf bag, grabed it by the handle, and pitched into the lake with everything else! I look back and think, Skip, that coulda been me. And I say to you, Will, that could be you! Make some birdies for me next time you're out. And yes, I'd love to play a round with you some time. I still have my persimmon woods, but I finally changed from steel cleated golf shoes to the new kind that don't damage greens. Golfers had been using those about 20 years (without me knowing it) by the time I finally got back on the course and brought out my old clubs, shoes, and other equipment. Times change but stay the same.