“True mastery transcends any particular art. It stems from mastery of oneself – the ability, developed through self–discipline, to be calm, fully aware, and completely in tune with oneself and the surroundings. Then, and only then, can a person know himself.” – Bruce Lee

This season is my eleventh with the love of my life, Lilly. I couldn’t be luckier to have found my soulmate so young, to experience the radical changes of growing up with her by my side. I can think of no greater privilege than to continually reinvent myself in the context of another half—other than, of course, building such a relationship with a lifelong human partner. 

Lilly is a 2013 Scotty Cameron Newport 2, 33” long, 350g headweight, swingweight D1.1. I change the Super Stroke grip about once every eighteen months. When I got into college, I stripped the paint off the back with acetone and colored the middle dot with orange nail polish, which has faded to a pale peach in the sun. Red paint still sits in the sole decal in patches, stuck spots too narrow to dig out with a toothpick. I can recall each of the half-dozen-or-so dings with the detail of my own bodily scars. On the first tee, I ask caddies to please leave the cover on instead of tucking it in the side pocket of my bag. 

I’ve been a decent putter, but streaky. I go months where the hole looks like a paint bucket and my confidence on the greens drips through the rest of my bag. Other times I feel a dull helplessness, stretches when there’s no magic and I just try to make a decent stroke and cross my fingers. 

Like so many of life’s small miracles, good putting comes and goes. But I’ve used the same putter for eleven years, I’ve putt left-hand-low for the last ten, and I’ve used a line on my ball (either the logo or a black sharpie line, depending on how well that year’s logo fits my eye) for ten as well. The routine changes slightly—subtracting a look, adding a breath—but it’s always a practice stroke looking down, one or two at the hole, step in, one more look, and roll it.

I know players who change putters when they get cold on the greens, who feel the need to look down at something different or feel something new. I don’t believe in this. We make our sense in the familiarity we create. In a game where no two arenas are the same, why change the one thing you get to keep?

I’ve tried to treat Lilly as a partner. Together, we’ve built some space of familiarity in a too-often-unfamiliar world. We’ve had our successes. We’ve had our rough patches. Through it all, a decade of mutual confidence, trust, and love has built something greater than the sum of its parts, something more spiritual than just familiar steel.

The passage of time is the single most predictable thing in the known universe, but somehow it still sneaks up on us. All of a sudden, I have ten weeks until I graduate college. The lavender bleed of a post-grad dawn grows imminently peach. Just as the stars start to disappear in the morning light, questions about my future get answers. I know more about what I won’t do: I’ve missed the boats for grad school, finance jobs, and most of what else my friends are doing post-grad. But the sunlight casts the kind of question that fills vast spaces rather than determinate points: What do I want to do? Who do I want to become?

Aside from NCAAs (which are never guaranteed), I have no more than six college scorecards left to sign. I don’t foresee any six cards being enough to overcome my disappointment with how I’ve played. My results are available online; you can see it’s been a disappointing career. My freshman self didn’t have this in mind when he showed up to school. He wouldn’t be proud of the results. I don’t have many particular regrets, but I regret broadly how things have ended up.

Enough failure congeals like cold fat in a jar, solid and tough to scrub out. Scar tissue is this kind of lingering doubt turned inductive: the notion that, after a series of steps forward that were never enough, why should this one get me there? Why should the next? After all the debriefs, retools, technical tweaks, workout programs, nutrition plans, performance drills, mindset shifts—after all these without the desired results, whatever problem remains seems that much more evasive, cunning, potent. Whatever’s left to be developed or adjusted or overcome or exorcized feels closer and closer to the core of the self, some vital part of the identity. That maybe it’s not something about me, or some part of me, but me.

I’ve joked to close friends that I’m only ever as good a man as the wedges I hit that day. If true mastery is discipline-agnostic, it follows that the inverse is equally true: that shortcomings on the golf course reflect a lack of more general personal aptitude. Any sports psych will tell you to leave the golf on the golf course, but often enough it finds its way home. My college career has weighed on me. When the golf goes poorly, it’s easy to feel like less. But when it’s good, it’s liberating. I feel closer to the man I want to be.

The summer I won a state junior championship and played my way onto a college roster, when I was seventeen, I didn’t miss a putt inside 10’ for seven weeks running. The statisticians will tell you this is impossible; I don’t much care if it’s true or not. All I know is that I stood over each putt and felt something take over me, watched the ball track along a yellow line and into the center of the cup. I wasn’t always comfortable or confident—often enough, I’d think, “this will be the one that misses.” But for seven weeks it didn’t matter. For seven weeks, something way deep down took over and rolled the ball in. 

I’m too young to know what I believe took over me, takes over me—I haven’t yet picked a religion or philosophy, any scheme that I’ve decided is the way the world works. I only know what I know. I’ve seen two versions of what exists “deep down”: either some pernicious lacking that keeps me from my becoming, or some source of magic that brings me towards it. Despite the times that my best efforts haven't been enough, I choose to believe that there’s something in me that is. In whatever lets me stand over a putt, connect mind, body, target, ball, club, and spirit, and pour one in without any doubt where it’s going. In being “completely in tune with oneself and the surroundings.” In whatever lets me carve out those little pockets in space and time when the world makes sense. In the possibility of true mastery. Whatever it is, I believe in it. 

This summer, during a stretch of bad putting, I got fit for another putter. Lilly had been in my bag since I was six inches shorter and eighty-odd pounds smaller. I wondered if she just didn’t fit me anymore, if I’d outgrown this region of sense and needed to create another one. 

I got fit into a beautiful wingback mallet with a high-tech composite shaft. My stroke tends to be straight-back-straight-through, and something with less toe-hang would let the face rotate. The high-MOI head and low-torque shaft would stabilize off-center hits and improve distance control. The math added up; the story made sense. I commit to playing with it for a while, giving myself a real chance to learn it and build something. It stayed in my bag for two of the worst putting months of my career. I switched back right before our fall season. 

My third round with Lilly back in my hands was our first round of fall qualifying. I had slept poorly the night before after visiting a friend in the hospital (she’s fine), and my warmup was mediocre at best. None of the tangibles suggested a special day. But it was one of those days when the path to the hole opened up to me. I made two thirty-footers and two seven-footers en route to birdieing six of my first seven. My irons and wedges fed off my putter’s confidence. I made my shorties when I hit it close and fell back on my lag putting when I didn’t. 

Standing on the seventeenth tee, a rain delay called us into the clubhouse. I sat on ice for forty minutes, seven red through sixteen. The flow of execution solidified into hard facts; with the momentum gone, I’d have to make new sense in a foreign place. 

No words capture the feeling of the next half-hour, when the adrenaline-soaked confidence that starts bar fights meets the cool, prepared reactivity that wins them. I hit my best drive of the day off seventeen tee, and I got a ten-footer for brdie to fall over the edge. I drove the par-four eighteenth green, leaving myself fifty-four feet for eagle.

Fifty-four feet is “just two-putt” territory. There was no more magic left to perform, just the pedestrian task of a lag and a cleanup. With nothing left but a statistical probability, I found myself thinking the worst thought in golf: “don’t screw this up.”

I remember the lag like watching a movie. I felt Lilly in my hands, held the same way, doing the same routine I always have. But the putt simply happened, and the ball rolled to three inches. On the precipice of the moment, I don’t know if I had what it took in me; but Lilly did. I have no explanation other than that, when I needed her most, she executed for me. I tapped in and signed for a 62. Whatever got me here, I trust it with everything I have.

As best I can tell, often enough we have less agency than we think. The ideas of a totally free will or the capacity for absolute self-determinism break down under pressure. My college career taught me as much: no number of range balls or quality of gameplan or strength of white-knuckling can escape the fact that competition reveals something beneath all of these, something that blurs the boundaries between ourselves and our context.

With practice, we can expand our circle of control and create greater agency over ourselves—after all, “true mastery transcends.” It’s clear I’m no master. Golf both reveals this to me and, I believe, brings me closer to mastery. The game shows me when I’m capable of less than I think. But I’m the luckiest man in the world to continue along this path, to keep learning to build those moments of total sense when the boundaries blur and awareness takes over—those moments when I see what I’m capable of.

Connor Belcastro is a senior at Princeton University, where he is studying philosophy. He’ll be writing occasional pieces this year for No Laying Up about golf and what’s next after graduation.

The golf bag belonging to Connor Belcastro, senior on the Princeton men's golf team.
The golf bag belonging to Connor Belcastro, senior on the Princeton men's golf team.