THE game of 'get your handicap down' is not so easy but it can be rewarding, albeit in the most unexpected fashion. That was the experience of 27-year-old Brendan Coffey from Kildare, who took up the game as a relative novice in June 2010 and spent the next year in a challenge to reduce his handicap.
Coffey, a member of Maynooth GAA club, had very little experience of golf when Alan Kelly, manager of the GUI National Golf Academy at Carton House, Maynooth, threw down the gauntlet: "Let's see if a newcomer to the game can get to single figures in a year."
In his day job, Coffey works as the Sports Editor of the 'Kildare Nationalist' newspaper.
His main hobby was playing GAA with Maynooth, but he was intrigued by the test offered by Kelly. The extensive facilities at the National Academy were made available to him for practice. Tuition was provided by former Irish PGA champion David Mortimer and fitness advice from Tony O'Regan of the Spa at Carton House Resort.
Coffey had no handicap at the time, so he played three rounds at Carton House and received his first official handicap -- 16.5 and a playing handicap of 17.
Starting in the summer wasn't a great plan in terms of his work and getting time to play, but Coffey got into the swing of things -- literally. He diligently took his lessons, did his practice, performed his stretching exercises, got to the gym regularly and, of course, played plenty of golf.
Coffey took it seriously -- so much so that in the depths of last winter when the snow and ice caused major disruption, he remembers badgering Kelly to open the driving range at the GUI National Academy so he could hit balls into the carpet of snow covering the range.
As a hurler, he had a good level of hand-eye co-ordination, but there were many lessons to be learned about the nature of golf and the vagaries of the game, particularly as he had a deadline of 12 months.
The basic fact is that between June 2010 and last June, Coffey reduced his handicap from a starting 17 to 11, but he knew it could be lower than that.
Finally, on August 28, 2011, albeit a few weeks past the 'deadline', Coffey got to single figures by scoring a six-over-par 78 on the O'Meara course in the first round of the Carton House captain's (Patrick Russell) prize.
And after all the sweat, effort and pain -- he admits to shedding tears at the frustration at times after a round -- it eventually happened with ridiculous ease. Isn't that typical of golf?
"I had been struggling to make a breakthrough, but I had a great sense of relaxation playing in that first round of the captain's prize," he said. "I had 12 pars and six bogeys, and some of my best holes came from situations in which I'd got myself into trouble but got out of it to get a bogey.
"It was almost a boring round of golf, in that I was so steady and relaxed. No drama. It got me to nine handicap. I eventually finished fifth in the captain's prize, but I had got to single figures."
Reflecting on the journey, he had a number of realisations about the game.
First, Coffey looked back on the year and wondered how he got the time to spend on all the aspects of the golf challenge, but realised if he could do that, he could harness that discipline to other areas of his life.
He also took up yoga and gained some insights into sports psychology, which opened him up to new possibilities for the future.
As for golf, the Kildare man experienced some key revelations:
1 He now has a golf game that he's confident can allow him tee it up anywhere in the world and not feel inadequate.
2 His quest for a better golf game was not a quest to be flawless. It was about reducing the number of mistakes and ensuring that whatever mistakes he did make were made for the right reasons.
3 Just because you hit a good shot doesn't mean the next one will be good. Equally, just because you hit a bad one doesn't mean the next one will be bad.
4 The game is about keeping grounded when you're going well and relaxing when you're going badly.
5 Golf is often a game of opposites. You can play well and score poorly, and you can play poorly and score well. It happened to Coffey many times, even in the round that took him to single figures.
6 Being a single-figure handicap golfer is about keeping double-bogeys off the card rather than putting birdies on it.
7 When you get in trouble, take one shot to get out of trouble.
8 When you miss the green in regulation, make sure your next shot makes the putting surface.
9 Knowing that the real work of a round begins on the putting surface is huge. Until you putt, nothing has been decided. That's why match play golf is such a great learning curve.
10 Becoming a better golfer is as much about attitude as ability. "I've always had ability. We all have. And there is a limit on ability because not everyone can spend the same amount of time working on skills but anyone can have the right attitude," he said.
Coffey went back hurling with Maynooth during July and August. They won the Kildare intermediate hurling championship and got through a couple of rounds in the Leinster junior championship.
He doesn't practice so much golf now and work is busy too, but he said: "My time was filled up with golf for so much during 2010 and 2011, but now I'm not so intense about it, the game is more enjoyable.
"And one of the things I enjoy most about it is the social aspect -- meeting all kinds of different people.
"Everybody has their story and when you spend a few hours on the golf course with someone, you can get to know them in a way you wouldn't have done otherwise.
"It has been a great experience."