The Honest Golfer

I was recently asked in a podcast, ‘what do you look for in your golfers?’. As a psychologist I wasn’t sure I had golfers as such, as I often feel my work is with people rather than on them. The interviewer’s question though was an important one focusing on what psychological aspects are useful for a golfer. I suggested one of the important things is for golfers to be able to reflect on themselves and their own performance, and have a willingness to learn more about their own nature even if this can be very challenging. It takes courage for any of us to confront the darker elements of our personality. As I spoke in the podcast, something else jumped into my mind: honesty – to grow in any domain we need to be hugely honest with ourselves. The original latin word for honesty is ‘honour’ or ‘virtue’. Simply put, we have honour when we are honest. Within sport, it also drew me back to a famous speech by the great rugby coach Jim Telfer when he spoke of ‘the honest player’ during the 1997 British and Irish Lions Tour of South Africa. The footage can be seen here but, in summary, Telfer suggests the honest rugby player is the one who can look in the mirror and dedicate himself to getting better. Considering the delivery was over 25 years ago, it may come across a tad unorthodox now to some (there is the odd piece of colourful language!). However, the wise sentiment of the man or woman who looks in the mirror, is honest with themselves, and will grow as a result is still true. 

Within golf, Thomas Bjørn suggests he looks in the mirror and asks himself the following questions:

‘Why are you crying?’ ‘Why do you put yourself through this pain?’ ‘Why do you play this game?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you in your life?’ ‘What do you want to achieve?’ ‘Do you really want to continue?’ ‘Why does it mean so much to you?’ (see Michael Calvin’s book below). 

Bjørn is no doubt a deep thinker but perhaps golf has made him this way. He continues by stating, in golf, ‘innocence is lost quickly, easily. If you cannot reconnect with the sense of wonder you had as a child, then you, too, will be lost.’ The point is that golf is about putting a little white ball in a small hole. Practically, no more. Yet, it is what we bring to it that turns it into the formidable challenge that it is. When I say ‘bring’ I mean the baggage we carry as human beings, our: ambitions; anxieties; love; fears; dreams; and nightmares. If we do not explore what these are we cannot see what we are putting on our golf game. For we carry our humanity around with us on the course as much as any driver or iron. The research too highlights the importance of being able to reflect on our own thinking and learning (called metacognition) in the development of expertise (see MacIntyre’s excellent paper below). 

Within his book on the father-son relationship between golfing legends Old Tom and Young Tom Morris, the author Kevin Cook reflects that Young Tom, as a lad, ‘was a joyful golfer, a boy who could laugh at a terrible shot and swing harder at the next.’ For me the story highlights how as young Tom grew into a man, the weight of life on his game meant keeping such ‘joy’ in his golf was difficult to do. So being honest is a huge virtue to any golfer – it helps us check in about how we might be deceiving ourselves on things like effort or investment. It also allows us to explore our relationship with the game we love, and importantly the wider relationship we hold with ourselves as people. 

Worth a read: 

Calvin, M. & Bjørn, T. (2019). Mind Games – the Secrets of Golf’s Winners. London : Yellow Jersey Press.

Cook, K. (2007). Tommy’s Honour: The Extraordinary Story of Golf’s Founding Father and Son. Los Angelous: Gotham Press. 

MacIntyre, T. E., Igor, E. R., Campbell, M. J., Moran, A. P. & Matthews, J. (2014). Metacognition and action: a new pathway to understanding social and cognitive aspects of expertise in sport, Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 5, page 1-12.