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Lessons for Families from the Game of Golf

Volume XVIII, Number 2 Summer 2021

Inspired by conversations with Patricia Angus

The endeavor of golf can be a metaphor for the way we live our lives. Many of our pursuits and interests reveal the way we handle challenges and the choices and efforts we make. For instance, before I started playing golf two and a half years ago, I had no idea how vast, seemingly endless, the challenges of golf are. No idea. I actually just thought it was a boring activity I would learn so I could play with my husband.

Yet, now I see that the challenges are many and so varied, some are subtle, others are big and clear. This is certainly true of life. And it has been a welcome surprise for me since it makes golf far more interesting, rich and complex than I realized. Is this not true also of a life well lived? Consider the families you know who do the work of making decisions together well most of the time, who take care of relationships including the times when someone feels pushed away or estranged for any reason, and who struggle with the myriad decisions about wealth in its broadest definition. In the analogy I propose, all of these aspects of life can be found in the pursuit of golf.

How We Learn:

Figure it out

Recently, my colleague Patricia Angus told me about the afternoons of her childhood when her parents let her head out to a local golf course, close enough to reach on foot or on her bike, with her little golf bag slung over her shoulder. She had lessons first, learned to apply her new skills, made mistakes, and improved. She enjoyed the solitary challenge of navigating that ball around the links. This is one of her happy memories from being a kid. Just imagine the challenge of figuring all of that out on your own. She did emphasize the importance of the early lessons. And again, for all of us who work with wealthy families, isn’t the point of it all to lead and facilitate lessons that they can apply to their lives and their families? Our objective is that these individuals, bound together by blood and by marriage, have the skills and the courage to create higher-functioning families.

Lessons and Practice

Patricia had the clean slate and can-do spirit of a child. Many aspiring golfers take lessons and practice to improve. This approach certainly can apply to many of life’s endeavors. Some of us reach a certain level and are relatively content to stay at that level, but for others the vitality is in the pursuit of improving and reaping the rewards of better attitudes and behaviors.

Ultimately we all combine figuring it out with lessons and practice. We identify and clarify our values, set our priorities and act accordingly. The focused, specific endeavor of golf is a reflection of how we choose to live our lives.


Let’s take a look at the definition of “handicap” in golf. The United States Golf Teachers Federation (USGTF) defines handicap as "a measure of…current ability over an entire round of golf, signified by a number. The lower the number, the better the golfer is." What Does Handicap Mean in Golf? by Clint Hale, Golfweek.

Wouldn’t “handicap” be all of the mistakes we make? All of the skills we lack? All of the errors in judgment? It’s all of the reasons we can’t reach mastery – whether for lack of talent or lack of

experience. For instance, my handicap in golf is absolutely based on the mistakes I make, and how many of them are likely on any given round. I’m expected to make them.

From my colleague Michael Hutchinson: “During my life, the best things I have ever learnt have been from hands-on experience and likewise through the mistakes I have made as well as trying to avoid the mistakes that others have made....”

On the golf course, as in life, we learn by watching others. In families we find examples everywhere of behaviors and strategies that work and those that don’t. In golf, while players expect to learn from skilled golfers, and most of the lessons are free and available to observe, there is etiquette about it all. For instance, it is considered impolite to be too aggressive about studying the putt of a golfer when you are waiting to make yours. There are rules. Respect is paramount. The order of it all is integral to the success of the game. Families who learn to work well together learn to respect others and learn to understand and use the common rules.

Measuring Improvement

Among the most important ways a handicap serves golfers is by allowing them to tangibly measure the improvement in skill level. For instance, a golfer with an 18 handicap who improves and drops to a 12 handicap has a quantifiable improvement of 6 strokes per round. The handicap rating also allows the golfer to set up a target for continued improvement.

Families can actually measure improvement by the quality of the relationships of its members. For instance, goals could be set for the number of holiday dinners where no one ends up upset; the number of positive interactions over a period of time; the number of family members who show up and participate in family gatherings; the frequency and speed with which successful family decisions are made. Don’t many of us improve our “game” as we meet life’s challenges? I know I have better relationships and I am pretty sure I make fewer mistakes now than I did when I was younger, and that this has been a progression in the positive direction.

The Perfect Shot

Golfers who have even a minimum of experience know the feeling of that perfect shot that you get on average only once per round, but it is enough to keep you coming back for the chance to make another. This is true in billiards, tennis and many additional sports as well. It is the shot that keeps you coming back for more because you want to experience that high again. It provides motivation to practice, learn and strive to play better.

All of us can look back on our lives and identify times when we did something exceptionally well. We can reflect on the confidence we gained, the motivation to push the crusade further, the inspiration we provided for ourselves. These are treasured memories we can revisit, just as we can revisit that amazing shot of a golf round. It is the same, and the challenge is to appreciate that successful moment while using it to remind ourselves of how well we can do. We can appreciate these moments in our families as well.

The Camaraderie

Once in a while Patricia joined up with a club pro or retiree who was also playing alone. She loved the conversations. And she told me she still loves the conversations between shots. Many wise families have discovered that recreation is an essential part of a successful family retreat or meeting. The conversation on a family hike, a rafting trip, a round of golf or even trying a new restaurant together is really where the glue begins to gel.

In our families, as in golf, the best way to improve is to invest time and effort and have some fun along the way.

© 2021 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.

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