How I learned to stop worrying and cheat at crosswords

How I learned to stop worrying and cheat at crosswords

A man of a certain age with a certain level of career success will eventually be expected to pick up a golf club and play.

“You free Wednesday? I usually play in the afternoon,” some plummy friend or business associate will say, mentioning the name of his club with an insider’s shorthand. “I play out at Lynebrook,” he’ll say, or “Piping” or “Havercroft Meadow” or “Blackheart North.” And you’re supposed to nod, impressed, and say something like, “I love that course!” or “I’d love to play there again.” Because that’s the way it is with men who invite you to play golf: They’re competitive. The game starts with the invitation, and if you let them know you’ve never played at their home course, you’ve already lost.

When I was a younger man and less secure in my own physical ineptitude, I used to dread these invitations. I’d invent a cascade of reasons — torn rotator cuffs, arthritic hips, hay fever, one-eye blindness, house arrest — to get out of stepping up to the first tee, in full sight of everyone, and taking that first swing.

Perhaps I should explain what happens when I try to hit a golf ball.

I grip the club with my standard white-knuckle death grip, hunch round-shouldered over the ball, tense up my forearms, lock my wrists, clench my jaw, feel slightly sick to my stomach, and then I swing the golf club.

During the entire second-and-a-half-long action, my mind is racing with thoughts.

Left arm straight, don’t rush, focus on the ball, keep your arms extended, where’s the club head?, don’t pop up, remember to shift your weight, follow through, here comes the release, and where’s the damn club head?

Usually, the ball skitters off to the left (I don’t hit it so much as slap it on the top of its head) and races awkwardly along the ground for a moment until it finally crashes into the bushes. It looks less like a ball than a small animal scampering away in fear.

Over the years, I’ve come to accept that golf, for me, just isn’t going to happen. Now, when the invitations come (and they come less and less often), I just smile and say, “Thanks, but I’m not much of a golfer, I’m afraid,” in a tone of voice that suggests that I’m quite comfortable with my gifts and limitations.

But I’m not. I really do wish I could play golf, especially as I reach the age when a sport that involves lots of little breaks, plus snacks and beer and a cigar, seems awfully appealing. And let’s face it: Golf is not that hard. Unlike other sports, the ball doesn’t move. You don’t have to run. No one is coming at you with a stick or anything. You just swing and hit, and eventually, if you keep doing it, you’ll hit the ball perfectly.

And that’s the key: Eventually, you’ll get it, which means all you need to do is practice. But golf is something you do in front of other people — other judging people. So is practicing golf, which means that if you avoid playing because you don’t want to be mortified in front of strangers, practicing isn’t much better.

Learning new skills is hard but not impossible. Somehow, for instance, I became a person who does crossword puzzles in pen. I ignored them for years until a delayed flight and a lack of Wi-Fi forced me to investigate new ways of keeping myself occupied. I reached for the nearest newspaper with a crossword puzzle and got to work.

The first attempt was a disaster. But then I discovered that there’s an app with almost limitless crossword puzzles and — here’s the important part — the ability to check your answers as you play. I used the app for a few months and then suddenly, without thinking about it, I just picked up the Sunday paper and went at it.

All of which goes to show that the best way to learn to do something hard with confidence is to learn how to do it while cheating. If only there was a way to cheat at golf without being seen.

There was a story, years ago, about a Texas buyout billionaire who was so ashamed of his ridiculous and humiliating golf game that he built his own private golf course — 18 holes on his Texas ranch, a golf course built for one — and practiced daily, for five years, before he would let anyone else, let alone a business competitor, see him step up to the tee.

There should be a more affordable solution.

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