The Longest Drive: Part 6 - The Climb

I've written a 15,000-word novella entitled, The Longest Drive.

The story follows the fictional exploits of 25-year-old Mark Madden and his ability, or lack thereof, to navigate life as a professional golfer.

 While the sport of choice in The Longest Drive is golf--and how Madden deals with added pressures after winning the U.S. Open and being anointed the Next Big Thing--parallels can easily be drawn from what Madden faces to any professional athlete in any sport in 2016. 

Part 1 - The Win

Part 2 - The Slip

Part 3 - The Slide

Part 4 - The Fall

Part 5 - The Bottom

Here's Part 6 - The Climb

                Three days later, Madden lay on his bed staring at the tiny, checkerboard pattern that covered the ceiling. He had spent many hours in this position counting each small square row by row and column by column. At this point, Madden didn't even need to count. The math had been committed to memory:

                15 squares across multiplied by 15 squares down multiplied by 30 larger squares that encompassed the entire pattern equalled 6,750 tiny squares.
                Madden chuckled. Yardages, putt length, wind speed, degrees of loft--all numbers that were essential to golf had been replaced in his mind by a bunch of silly squares in his childhood bedroom.

                However, Madden's levity was short-lived as the thought of golf led to his last confrontation with Dr. Sweeney. He pushed himself upright on the bed, anger now flowing through his veins.
                Who is she to talk to me like that? Telling me that I'm not mentally strong. That I'm weak. I can't handle pressure? How could she say that to me? I've won a major. I've shot great rounds on Sunday before.

                Madden was now pacing around the room. He felt the familiar tightness in his chest, the short breathing, the leaden feeling in his muscles.
                Yeah, but that was a long time ago that you played like that. You couldn't even hit balls on the range in front of people in the offseason . . . and then everything snowballed from there. You weren't playing golf this year. You were just trying not to implode. Until you did.

                Sweat glistened off of his forehead. Madden stopped in front of the mirror hanging over his dresser. He studied his reflection. A misshapen, scraggly beard meandered across his face. He hadn't shaved in weeks. His thick hair billowed over his ears and completely covered his neck.  Madden's cheekbones were gaunt, evidence of his consistently empty stomach. He took off his shirt. His chest looked sunken and his once well-defined abs looked like a bag of milk.
                What the hell happened to you? You're a professional golfer and you look like a drifter. How did you let yourself fall so far? You need to get out of this. But how?

                Madden knew the answer. He had hit bottom. And there was only one way to climb out of this hole. He took a deep breath and stared at himself.
                "The pressure did get to me. It was too much all at once and I couldn't handle it. I'm not mentally strong enough. I'm hurt and I can't fix this by myself. I need help."

                A sob escaped Madden's throat. He felt a great release of emotion, of pent-up frustration, rage, and fear.  Tears ran down his face and into his open mouth which was turned up into a smile. Madden wiped his eyes with his forearm and saw energy creep back into his face. He stood a little bit straighter. He no longer felt alone. A weight had been lifted. He needed to call Dr. Sweeney. But first things first.
                Madden left his room and moved quickly down the hall to the bathroom. He flicked on the light and rummaged around underneath the sink. He grabbed the electric razor, plugged it in, and switched it on.
                Madden peered through the shadows cast by the rapidly setting sun. The parking lot appeared to be empty. The only sound he could hear was the wind tickling the trees at his back. Confident that the area was clear, Madden emerged from the forest path and walked toward the manicured field.

                His hood was pulled tight over his head as he scanned the width of the field. It had been a few years since he had stepped on this grass, a couple of miles from the Madden family home. He moved toward the far side of the field and started stretching underneath the goalpost.
                Madden was standing on his high school’s football field. He hadn’t done anything physical in months—and now Madden wanted to change that, so he figured he would go back to the beginning. Not that he spent a lot of time on that field during his youth. Madden was typically on the range when his peers were on the gridiron, but he wanted the isolation of the field rather than a gym.

                In fact, Madden had been, for lack of a better word, hiding in the forest waiting for the football team to wrap up practice. He wanted the field by himself, especially since he was in such poor shape.
                Even as he stretched, beads of sweat slid down his newly-shorn face. His breathing was already heavy. He leaned back against the goal post and looked skyward. He was surprised at how quickly and how far his fitness had fallen. Madden didn’t consider himself a gym rat, but there had been a decided movement toward building more athleticism in the world of golf and he had ridden that wave.

                And Madden needed to recapture some of that fitness. He jumped up and grabbed the middle bar of the goal post. Painstakingly, Madden completed five laborious pull-ups, shaking as he reached his chin over the bar to finish the last rep.
                He dropped from the bar and as soon as his feet hit the ground, Madden took off on a sprint across the field. One hundred yards later, he bent down and touched the goal line and sprinted back to the starting point. Madden felt his legs seize as he crossed midfield. Breathing became panting. An anguished groan escaped his lips when his feet crossed the line. Dropping to his knees, Madden felt a thick welling of mucus form in the back of his throat. He gulped the cool air into his lungs, trying to slow his frantic heart rate.

                He flopped onto the grass and looked up at the sky with a smile on his face, despite the pain. A rush of endorphins flooded his system and the exercise, after so many weeks of inactivity, felt invigorating.
                A car door slammed in the high school’s parking lot. That broke Madden’s post-exercise euphoria. He snapped to attention and moved to a knee. He saw a family of four emerge from the car carrying a soccer ball and, most likely, cell phones. Not wanting to be caught on-camera, Madden ignored the tightness in his legs and started jogging toward the forest as the family approached.
                "I think this is the first time that you've smiled since I met you."

                "Well, I guess you can say that I've finally seen the light, Doc. Better late than never I suppose."
                Madden sat on the edge of his chair in Dr. Sweeney's office eager for this therapy session. His body felt better after a handful of increasingly strenuous workout sessions and he was now willing to put in the necessary work on his mental state.

                "I'm glad you feel that way," Dr. Sweeney replied. "Now, we can finally start looking ahead toward getting you to a stronger place mentally."
                "I'm ready!" Madden interjected.

                Now it was Dr. Sweeney's turn to smile. "I appreciate the enthusiasm, Mark. It's a wonderful contrast to your initial visits, but this isn't a snap your fingers and make it so type of process. All we've done to this point is identify that there's a problem. The implementation of the solution is going to take a lot of work."
                Madden put his hands up in mock surrender. "Doc, I know. I'm not going to fight you on this anymore. And trust me, I am ready to work. I will bust my tail on this, just like I busted my tail on the course to win as a pro. I am all in. Besides, the new season starts in January. I want to come out of the gate guns blazing."

                "What?" Madden inquired.

                "Well, I can see how a short memory would serve a person well in sports, but it's not that effective in therapy."
                "What do you mean?"

                "What did I tell you at our first session?"
                Madden stared at her with a blank expression.

                "I could not care less about sports," she said. "This therapy is all about helping you cope, understand and work to eliminate the anxiety that had overtaken your life to the point where you had your episode. After we're done, I want you to be able to recognize potential anxiety triggers and, using the mechanisms I show you, think and breathe your way right past them."
                Dr. Sweeney now leaned forward in her chair and peered into Madden's eyes.

                "This is not about golf, Mark. This is about your quality of life. I don't care if you ever step foot on a golf course again."

                "But I'm a golfer. It's what I do. It's who I am," Madden protested.
                "No, it's not, Mark. That's my point. Golf doesn't define you as a man. You're a much more complex individual than what you can do on the golf course. That's an unhealthy way to think—boiling down your existence to wins and losses."

                "That's the way my life has always been though," he replied. "I won in junior golf, separating myself from my peers before moving up the ranks to amateur golf. You win there, and then you go to a big golf school and then the pros. That's the track to take. It's survival of the fittest. I have received many advantages in my life, a lot of perks because of what I can do on the course."
                "And I'm sure everything is great when the sun is shining," Dr. Sweeney retorted. "But as I am sure you are acutely aware, things aren't as rosy when the results on the course aren't good. I believe the last few months of your life are a testament to that."

                Madden nodded.
                "You see, Mark, that's the problem with tying your self-worth to your job. Especially one that experiences as many ups and downs as a professional athlete. If you're successful, you're a winner. If you're not, you're a loser. That's a dangerous way to think, Mark. Putting solely professional eggs into your self-worth basket is not healthy. That's a lot of mental stress that starts building up over time, more and more until your mind can no longer handle it and there's an explosion. And you found that out firsthand."

                "So, what's the alternative?"
                "You, me, everyone is a sum of many different parts, not just one. I am a Doctor, yes. But I am also a wife, mother, friend, daughter and sister. I have many different interests and hobbies. I am not just what I do for work. And you need to understand that you are much more than a golfer. Once you realize that, wins and losses won't matter as much. It's not a matter of life and death, even though many people view sports in that vein."

                "But it feels like life and death," Madden countered. "Last year I was on top of the world. Doors were opened for me. Opportunities that I could only dream of became a reality because I played well. But it didn't seem like enough. The more success I achieved automatically meant I had more success to obtain. The pressure to perform became immense. Fans, sponsors, celebrities, only wanted to deal with me because I was a winner. And I had to keep winning or they'd all move on to the next one."
               "A little 'what have you done for me lately,'" Dr. Sweeney said.

                "Exactly. It was overwhelming. The fear of not performing well consumed me."
                "But you're still here, Mark," she emphasized. "You have a long life ahead of you. And there's more to it than golf. You have a family that loves you, friends, and a strong support system. You are educated. And you have all of this after the darkest period in your life. Sure, you may have lost the extra attention, but was that because of who you are deep down? Or was it because you didn't put a little ball in a hole as well as you did previously?"

                Madden chuckled. "Yeah, I get what you're saying. But I've worked my whole life to become a golfer. Hearing that it doesn't mean as much—after all the time and sacrifice my parents and I have made—is difficult to comprehend."
                The doctor nodded. "I have an assignment for you. I want you to complete this task before our next session. Okay?"

                "This is nice that you decided to join us, Mark," Luanne Madden remarked. "It's been awhile since the three of us sat around the same table for dinner."

                Half-empty plates of roast beef—Mark's favourite—lay in front of the three members of the Madden family at the dining room table. This was the first meal that the family had shared together since Mark had cordoned himself off to the rest of the world.
                Typically, Stan and Luanne would eat together and Mark would only venture down from his upstairs hibernation to grab a plate and then retreat back to his childhood domain. But since progress was being made during his therapy sessions, Madden was starting to feel somewhat like his regular self. And this meal was part of the assignment from Dr. Sweeney.

                "Yeah, it is nice," Madden replied. "I know I haven't made my return here the easiest on either of you. I haven't been the best houseguest."
                "First of all," Luanne began, "You are never a guest in this house. This is your home. You've gone through a difficult period in your life and the best place to go through something like that is at home."

                "Exactly," Stan agreed. "The situation you found yourself in would be completely foreign to 99-percent of the population. You had to endure a very tough time in a very public way. There's no manual to get over something like that. You will bounce back from this."
                A thin smile spread across Madden's lips. "Your support means so much to me but," he chuckled, "It actually makes me feel a bit worse."

                "Because I let you both of you down and I'm sorry."

                "What?" Stan asked. "Why would you say that?"
                 "You guys have put so much work into my career over the years and made so many sacrifices to give me every opportunity to play golf for a living," Madden said. "And just when I'm finally getting to the point where I can pay you back for all your help and support and make sure you never have to worry about money or anything else for the rest of your lives, I blow it."

                "Mark, you're our son. You wanted to play golf more than anything in the world since almost before you could walk," Luanne said. "And your dad and I wanted to help you not only play, but play at the highest level possible. Yes, we sacrificed, but all parents sacrifice for their kids. We did it because you wanted to play, not because we hoped you'd become one of the best golfers in the world—which you are by the way. We didn't do it because we looked at you like a lottery ticket."
                "It's amazing what you've accomplished in your career at this point, but that's not what makes us proud," Stan said. "We're proud of the man you've become. That tells us we did a good job raising you—it has nothing to do with what happens on the golf course."

                "With what happened at Metroland, I don't know, I just feel so embarrassed." He looked at his mother. "We've talked so much since I was young about handling pressure, being mentally strong to perform at your best. Like you did. And I couldn't do that."
                "Oh, Mark, what you've done and accomplished is far ahead of anything I ever did in my career," Luanne replied. "I can't even fathom what it's like to deal with all of the external forces you do. I played a college team sport before the Internet. What you have to deal with as an individual athlete in a multi-billion dollar sport is astounding. It's a 24-7-365 job for you. The pressure and obligations are intense. Yes, it may have gotten the better of you, but that type of environment would take down a lot of people. There is nothing to be ashamed of."

                "That's true," Madden agreed. "Those are the some of the same points that Dr. Sweeney has been making to me."
                "And that's why I thought she'd be a good person for you talk to," Luanne replied. "Think of it this way: you found yourself in a situation that only a handful of people in the world could even dream of experiencing. And you couldn't deal with it yourself and that's okay.”              

"But it certainly seems like you're making progress," Stan said. "You seem lighter, more at ease than you have over the past few months."
                "I do feel better," Madden agreed.

                "Remember," Stan continued. "And I really want you to listen to this and commit it to memory."

                "Don't go back to the game for me. Or your mom. Do it for yourself." Stan jabbed at the air for emphasis. "Play only because deep down you truly want to get back on the course. Play because you love it. That's the only way out of this. Golf has caused you a lot of pain the past few months, but it has also brought you unbelievable joy. Don't play because you think it’s what is expected of you, or that it's what we want you to do, or that's it the only thing at which you can be successful."
                Luanne nodded. "You've had a career that nearly every golfer alive would kill for. There's nothing left to prove to anyone, especially the media or golf fans. You don't owe anyone anything. If it makes you happy, then play. Play for the love of competition."

                Madden smiled. "Thanks, guys."
                Madden sat in the driver's seat of the car with the lights off. The sun had set and there were about a dozen cars still in the parking lot. Most of the people still on the grounds were in the clubhouse eating dinner.

                He watched a figure emerge from the pro shop and jog across the parking lot to his window. Madden rolled it down.
                "What did they say?" he asked.

                "Give me a second to catch my breath!" Knight whined, bracing himself against the car's roof. He took a deep breath. "Okay, we're all set. They said bring the car around to the range. They'll keep the floodlights off. But just be sure to hit the headlights once we're over there so we can actually see something. I'll grab a bucket of balls and meet you."
                "And no one will be there?" Madden's eyes flicked toward the clubhouse dining room.

                "Nope, Ted sent the staff home except for the restaurant kids," Knight replied. "No one will even know we're there."
                "Okay, good."

                "See you in a minute."
                Madden slid the car into drive and slowly rolled over the cracked asphalt, feeling his way through the dark. He felt such secrecy was necessary as this was going to be the first time with a club in his hands since the Metroland. And the course he chose was by design. It was the local muni in town where Madden had first learned to play. He figured it was an appropriate spot to try to launch Mark Madden 2.0.

                He parked the car on a diagonal and hit the lights, illuminating the first two spots on the range. Madden grabbed his clubs from the trunk and met a waiting Knight on the tee box.
                "Well, the boys are back together!" Knight exclaimed, dropping a ball on the short grass in front of Madden. "What are you thinking for today?"

                "I just want to get rid of the rust, make some contact, and get a bit of sweat going," Madden answered, dropping his bag behind the tee.
                Knight shivered in the fall air. "You better get moving then. Start with the 7?"

                "Sure." They both stood there in silence for a beat before Madden continued. "Well, aren't you going to get it for me? That's your job," he quipped. "Or have you forgotten already?"
                Knight grinned and punched Madden in the shoulder.  "Glad to have you back," he said, lifting the 7-iron out of the bag and handing it to Madden.

                Madden moved through some simple stretches and practice swings, trying to regain the muscle memory that was lost during his layoff. Then he addressed the ball. As he did, the noise once again rumbled in his brain, seeds of doubt sown in his mind. He backed off, closed his eyes and began breathing deeply. In and out and in and out.
                Knight looked at him quizzically. "Uh, what are you doing?"

                "Doctor's orders," Madden replied, keeping his eyes closed.
                He and Dr. Sweeney had come to an agreement regarding Madden's wish to play again. Initially, Dr. Sweeney was against it, as she had emphasized her desire to get Madden on the correct mental path without golf. But he had talked to her about his conversation with his parents and that, going forward, golf would only be part of him and not the whole of him. And, plain and simple, he wanted to play again.

                So, Dr. Sweeney softened her no-sports stance and worked with Madden to devise a strategy to combat feelings of anxiety and stress in the future. She helped him identify 'sticking points' or triggers that had caused Madden turmoil in the past. Then they worked to eliminate the emotion attached to those stressors with a series of deep breathing exercises and a focus on de-cluttering his mind.
                Removing the emotion from those sticking points would allow Madden to ignore the extraneous noise he had become to associate with golf and, instead, attach an almost clinical focus to the game.

                'The next shot' would be his mantra. At address, he would visualize what he wanted to do with the shot, focusing all of his energy on manoeuvring the ball around the course. Everything else was unnecessary. Outside the ropes, Madden could let his mind wander, but from now on, every time he held a club in his hand, the only thought in his brain would be 'the next shot.'
                And that's what Madden was telling himself right now on the range with Knight. He pushed the doubt and uncertainty away and homed in on the ball in front of him. Madden drew the club back smooth and followed through with confidence. Contact was flush. He didn't need to squint through the darkness to see where it landed--he could tell he hit it straight as a string about 150 yards away.

                Knight dropped a second ball in front of him.
                Madden took a harder swing at the next one. Same trajectory. 180 yards.

                Knight dropped another ball. 200 yards.
                Madden stopped after the third shot and looked back at his caddie. Knight was smiling.

Part 7 - The Summit