Is golf good for our mental health?

As a sport, golf seems well placed to be beneficial for our mental health. In general, it is played in the open air, often in splendid countryside, and is classed as a moderate intensity activity ensuring it can be accessed by a broad participation base. The reason though I put the blog title as a question mark, is to explore what evidence there is for such a health benefit. Specifically, I know of many golfers who come off the range or course who are much less upbeat and positive than when they went on it. Even the famed golfer Ben Hogan once commented on this golfing angst by stating, ‘It really cuts me up to watch some golfer sweating over his shots on the practice tee, throwing away his energy to no constructive purpose, nine times out of 10 doing the same thing wrong he did years and years back ….His frustration really bothers me…He’s going to get worse and worse because he’s going to get his bad habits more and more deeply ingrained.’ In essence, golf is a very challenging sport mentally, and for many a continued feeling of failure and a lack of growth can eat away at the enjoyment of the game. 

However, there is research available to suggest golf does help out mental health. A recent paper through the University of Abertay highlighted that ‘personal wellbeing’ was significantly higher in golfers compared to the UK population. Such wellbeing was defined as a ‘physical, psychological, and social health’. A study from 2004 even found evidence that golf could be utilised as an intervention strategy for improving those with enduring ill or poor mental health – albeit this work was conducted with a small number of participants. In addition, a further review paper also highlighted that the social connectedness that golf provides also was beneficial for people’s self esteem and self worth (see the ‘Worth a read’ section below for these papers). Similarly there is also a large body of evidence that green and blue countryside spaces have a huge benefit for all performers in sport, elite and recreational alike (see Tadhg MacIntyre and colleagues paper on this one). As psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith reflects, ‘When we work with nature outside us, we work with nature inside us. It is why people feel more fully alive and energised in the natural world…why spending time in nature awakens the connection-seeking aspects of human nature.’ So connectedness, countryside and activity all help make golf good for us.

Yet, I also think there is another reason why golf may be beneficial for our mental health. It is something Hogan refers to when he completes his reflection on other’s ‘frustration’ – he continues by stating, ‘every golfer, at the bottom of his heart, wants to play the game relatively well. To do that takes some application, some thought, some effort, but the golfer who goes about this wisely will play good golf and should go on to enjoy his golf increasingly the rest of his life. The greatest pleasure is obtained by improving.’ In essence, in learning something for its own sake we can take ‘pleasure’ which in itself can fuel positive mental health. Within Japan, this is referred to as shokunin katagi, an idea that we take joy simply from learning, exploring and creating a craft. This ‘craft’ can be fairly broad but can include a sport like golf. There is a nice video on this idea here, even if it is an advertisement for Cisco. Of course, we can never complete golf as a sport – but this fact is part of the lifelong attraction it presents. The pursuit of learning and mastery within golf can in itself, if we let it, give us great pleasure. Unlocking such pleasure entails, as Hogan suggests, application. However it also involves reframing golf not as something that defines our worth as a person or a player, but a space for us to play, grow and savour throughout life. 

Worth a read:

Carless, D. and K. Douglas (2004). “A Golf Programme for People with Severe and Enduring Mental Health Problems.” International Journal of Mental Health Promotion 3(4): 26-39.

Hogan, B. and H. W. Wind (1957). Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. New York, Touchstone.

MacIntyre, T. E., et al. (2019). “An Exploratory Study of Extreme Sport Athletes’ Nature Interactions: From Well-Being to Pro-environmental Behavior.” Frontiers in Psychology 10: 1233.

Murray, A. D., et al. (2017). “The relationships between golf and health: a scoping review.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 51: 12-19.

Sorbie, G., et al. (2020). “The Association of Golf Participation With Health and Wellbeing: A Comparative Study.” International Journal of Golf Sciences 9: 1-14.

Stuart-Smith, S. (2020). The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World. London, William Collins.