Golf and Music

Courses, albums, and the art of letting opinions evolve


After my first round at George Wright Golf Course, I knew I was in love but not necessarily the reasons why. Anyone who has played this old, quirky municipal course in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston will tell you it takes several rounds for the course to reveal all of itself. The front nine alone has three blind tee shots, more than enough to scare off a lot of golfers, but I was thrilled by them. Not knowing where the ball would land lent a sense of the unknown to the course. Cresting a hill in the middle of a fairway and seeing for the first time how Donald Ross had designed the rest of the hole was a pure delight.

With time, that mystery gave way to familiarity. I knew what waited on the other side of those blind shots, and the breaks of the greens no longer flummoxed me. But this familiarity only enhanced my appreciation. I began to understand new aspects of George Wright. While my basic affinity for the course had not changed, my opinion on its merits had evolved.

George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Photo: Ross Mungeam

This brings me to my larger point: allowing an opinion to evolve is a dying art form in modern society. New experiences in the same place, just like new conversations with the same person, can and should inform a new perspective. So why is it that we view changing one’s mind as a sign of weakness?

Maybe we grow so familiar with our own opinions that we become afraid to change them. That kind of familiarity can engender a false sense of accuracy and can ultimately lead to complacency. You know how after a snow storm, some people see it as evidence that climate change must not be real? Perhaps they think that way because they’re so familiar with their own lived experience that they can’t or don’t want to see past it. Long-held beliefs rarely call out for examination, never mind revision.

So familiarity can be a double-edged sword. It can give you a deeper, subtler appreciation for an experience, but it can also make you overconfident in your take.

To understand why it’s beneficial to allow our opinions to evolve, we have to reckon with the experience of familiarity. What activities give us an opportunity to become familiar with something? Beginning a relationship with someone? Obviously. Moving to a new town? Clearly. But when I think of becoming familiar with something, my mind first goes to two of my passions: golf and music. Our responses to both courses and albums offer great examples of how our opinions form and evolve.

I’ve played hundreds of golf courses and have called more than a few “home” for periods of my life. I’ve listened to hundreds of albums and have called more than a few “favorite” for periods of my life. I could have given up on some after one disappointing play, but thankfully I stuck with and grew to appreciate them. Familiarity must be earned.

Most golf courses have nine or 18 holes—which happens to be about the number of songs on most albums. Any golfer can relate to the feeling of playing a new course and, afterwards, struggling to remember all 18 holes; the same goes for music fans when they try to remember every song after listening to an album for the first time. The parts blend together, making it hard to assess the whole after only one play. This is why becoming familiar is important. Repeated listens to an album of music and repeated rounds at a golf course create the opportunity to get to know them like an old friend.

When listening to a favorite album, for example, have you noticed how when one song is ending you start to hear the next song in your brain before it even starts playing? This anticipation is a result of your familiarity, and I would argue it heightens your enjoyment.

Aren’t there holes on your home course that you know so well it feels like you can almost swing with your eyes closed? The resulting feeling of confidence and aggression makes for some of the most fun shots in golf.

Cape Ann Golf Club in Essex, Massachusetts—the author's home course. Photo: Mike Fillyaw

At the same time, even as we become familiar with something, new experiences will present themselves to us. Given the shot dispersion of most amateur golfers, I’d expect most of us to walk every square yard of a golf course after three to four loops. Drive it up the left one round, drive it up the right the next, and you’ll have two different perspectives on the course. In the process, your opinions can and maybe should change. Each round offers new views, new sounds, new shots, new favorites, and new lessons. We should relish this opportunity not only to familiarize ourselves, but to allow our minds to change.

Frank Ocean’s Blonde came out the day my girlfriend moved out.

Ocean writes love songs from point of views I had never considered before, so the fact that his album was dropping on the day that my first real love was moving to the other side of the country felt cosmically apt. My girlfriend and I had spent four months together in Boston during the summer of 2016. Those four summer months were the first I had ever spent living with a partner.

I dropped my girlfriend off at the airport, returned to my apartment, and pressed play on Blonde. The first listen was bewildering. Why does the first song start with Ocean’s voice drowned in helium? Where are the drums? What are these sounds? Like George Wright’s blind shots, Blonde’s songs were not meant to be digested in one play. They challenged conventional song structures and most likely repelled many one-time-only listeners.

But like the proverbial golf shot “that keeps you coming back,” there was one lyric on Blonde that struck me on the first listen:

I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me

From the song “Ivy,” this lyric evoked a memory of my girlfriend, who was 30,000 feet above me flying father and farther away every second, telling me for the first time that she loved me. It was in the middle of the night. I barely heard her. I didn’t know how to respond. I thought that I was dreaming. Another blind shot, in a way.

It was enough to keep me listening. There may not be a golf-course equivalent for this kind of resonance. At least I haven’t yet seen any golf holes that reminded me of someone telling me she loved me (though Nos. 5 and 6 at Cabot Cliffs came close). But just like my rounds at George Wright, my repeat plays of Blonde revealed more and more to like. By my 10th listen, “White Ferrari” had brought me to tears, “Solo” had gotten me to sing along, and the outro to “Self Control” had taken me to fucking space, or something like it.

Now, four years later, the album remains one of my favorites of all time. Oh, and I’ve been married to my girlfriend from that summer for two years now.

To say that these two mediums of art (and I absolutely consider golf course architecture to be an art) are more than the sum of their parts is a massive understatement.

For instance, the routing of a golf course is as integral to the experience of playing it as each individual hole is. Consider Augusta National, which I have not played but is probably the most broadly recognizable course in America. Amen Corner consists of a par 4, a par 3, and a par 5, each arguably better than the next. But it’s not just the holes themselves but also the variety of pars and the way the holes enter and exit a secluded section of the property that make Amen Corner golfing holy land.

Similarly, the order of songs on an album enables narrative concepts to be part of the listening experience. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a masterpiece because small moments of sequencing and contrast, like the symphonic interlude segueing into the bombastic “All of the Lights.” These minor details will not stand out after one play; they will reveal themselves only with time and repetition. Not to put in the time and effort to achieve these revelations would be to judge the album (or golf course) incompletely.

Transitions between holes and songs are also crucial. The most exciting part of Amen Corner might be the walk from the 11th green up the hill to the 12th tee. Many green jackets have been won and lost on that walk, depending on the player’s state of mind.

More broadly, green-to-tee transitions, while not normally considered part of the design of a course, can provide some of the most enjoyable moments of a round, some of the best opportunities for reflection or conversation. We should not forget them when evaluating a course over post-round beers.

Many other contextual factors play into our judgements of golf courses and albums. For example, listening to music with headphones is different than listening to music in a car, and can either enhance or diminish your enjoyment. For golfers, how well we play inevitably colors our impression of the course. We will always enjoy breaking par, whether at Pebble Beach or on a dog track. Same goes for pace of play, weather, and time of day. Golf courses are different at different times of day and different times of the year. You’d be surprised how beautiful an otherwise mundane course can look in the evenings, when even the smallest hills and undulations start throwing shadows.

Evaluating a golf course or an album—or any experience—is a complicated business, and it’s never finished.

Cape Ann Golf Club in Essex, Massachusetts. Photo: Mike Fillyaw

I wish we were more aware of the ways familiarity can change our opinions, even when we think we know all that there is to know. I fear we put too much stock in our first instincts. Instead, perhaps we should be slow to form a definitive opinion but quick to revise it. Just because you think you haven’t changed your mind consciously doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed anyway.

One of my favorite lyrics from last year was on Phoebe Bridgers’s “Garden Song”:

I don’t know how, but I’m taller

The lesson being, personal growth is usually so slow that you rarely can observe it with the naked eye. Change, whether physical or emotional, occurs incrementally. You can’t learn to hit a consistent draw with one swing, but maybe, with that single swing, you can find a thought that will eventually lead to mastering a draw. Seminal moments are constantly occurring—minor decisions, simple steps, and events that lay the groundwork for us to become different people later on. We rarely go to bed a different person than the one who woke up that morning, but we may go to bed open to the idea of becoming a different person.

So if we treated familiarity as an opportunity for curiosity, wouldn’t we be better off? Curiosity leads to discovery, which leads to evolution.

There is a saying in cognitive behavioral therapy that “you are not your thoughts.” Thoughts may be inside of us, but they are itinerant. The impulses that enter our minds daily, hourly, second by second do not make up who we are. Feelings find a temporary home in us, but they will stay only as long as we let them. We all have the agency to decide what our familiarity with things, with others, and with ourselves means. So let’s not weaponize our familiarity against our own progress. Rather, let’s play golf and listen to music and live life with an open and flexible mind.

Mike Fillyaw works a 9-to-5 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, but spends his weekends, mornings, and evenings three-putting for bogey at any course he can find. You can find him on Twitter at @fillyfillyaw.

This article is part of The Fried Egg’s Sunday Brunch series, which focuses on golf stories that don’t fit the usual categories. Find out more about the series here.