Golf," the outwardly unruffled Fred Couples once told me, "can
really make you mental." So true. The game leaves me depressed
and delusional, obsessed and self-centered, miserable and
consumed with doubt. Yet it also so enthralls and elates me that
I can't wait to play again. Golf has the capacity--on any
swing--to either inflate my pride or fire my rage. Golf makes me
so mental I probably should have my head examined.
You, too? I had a feeling.
Needing help, I found a shrink to put golf on the couch for me.
Given the severity of my neurosis, I sought a team of
professionals, convening a threesome of golfing psychiatrists
from Philadelphia's Main Line--doctors Vick Kelly, Rudolf Laveran
and Eric Stake--for a therapeutic intervention across 18 holes at
historic Philadelphia Cricket Club. Happily, our round crackled
with analysis and insight. (And, less happily, with the echoes of
errant drives ricocheting through the trees.)
So, gentlemen, what is it about this game that roils the dank
dungeons of our subconscious and turns us into certifiable
wrecks? Confer, please.
January 19, 2004
After making some quick observations about what motivates us to
tee it up in the first place--some ache for competition, some for
camaraderie, some for accomplishment, while others simply relish
a walk in the park--Dr. Laveran offers a perspective that is
filtered through 50 years' experience as a psychiatrist and a
golfer. "Simply put," he says, "golf challenges our
self-restraint and makes us work on our self-esteem."
Dr. Stake, who says he was attracted to his profession in part
because he wondered why he and other members of his otherwise
calm, Midwestern family would suddenly show symptoms of clinical
hysteria while playing golf, elaborates. "Golf constantly
examines the way you relate to yourself," he says. "Any conflict
within yourself will come out on the course." And? "And it's such
an enormously frustrating game that it constantly challenges our
ability to manage our emotions."
Dr. Kelly, whose mother and grandmother were club champions,
talks about why we'd like to bury ourselves in the nearest bunker
after every flub, foozle and yip. "What golf really brings out is
our vulnerability to shame," he says.
I feel better already. Maybe a triple bogey is simply a triple
bogey after all.
Once the concept of shame emerges, so does its side effect:
trying to avoid it. That, our three experts agree, leads to the
internal conflict that leads to the fear that leads to the stress
that leads to the tension that leads to the horrible swing that
leads to the poor shot that leads to shame.
Is there any way to break this vicious cycle? Yes, there is, if a
golfer views every shot as an opportunity to expand as a human
being by honestly examining and acknowledging his vulnerabilities
and making peace with what makes him uncomfortable--on the course
"We all have certain images of ourselves," says Dr. Kelly. "When
we play well--or poorly--we challenge that image. That's what we
want, that challenge. The first thing you have to do is accept
that you're uncomfortable, because you have to accept discomfort
and the tensions that come with it to challenge yourself."
It also helps to play with empathetic people. "That generalizes
to life, too," says Dr. Stake, "but golf presents a lovely arena
The game is also a perfect laboratory for observing our darker
side. "Golf can absolutely reduce us to feeling helpless and
incompetent," says Dr. Kelly, "and no one wants to feel that."
Is that why we throw tantrums? "What is golf?" Dr. Kelly asks. "A
game, right? Children play games. Under golf's pressures some
people regress and act like children."
That can't be very good for one's self-esteem. "The real mistake
most of us make," says Dr. Stake, "is tying self-esteem to golf,
because if you try to measure or buoy yourself by a good
performance, when that performance goes awry, you feel like a
Is there a cure?
"Look at Lee Trevino," says Dr. Laveran. "He's always laughing."
Dr. Stake concurs. "It's hard to be tense when you're laughing.
Laughter is the safest, nicest tension reliever I can prescribe."
And it's less expensive than Prozac.
"Any conflict within yourself," Dr. Stake maintains, "will come
out on the golf course."