Why is golf so mentally challenging?

There is a classic Robin Williams’ sketch in which he parodies the invention of golf –  ‘Here is my idea for a sport, I knock a ball into a gopher hole’. He continues by highlighting all the difficulties of the sport; ‘not with a straight stick, with a broken stick I whack a ball…..and I put the hole hundreds of yards away!…And I put stuff in the way like trees and bushes…and I won’t do this one time, but 18 TIMES!’. Williams’ sketch is funny as it highlights the difficulty of golf from a psychological perspective. It is often suggested that golf is the original ‘mental game’ owing to this psychological strain it can create. W. Timothy Gallwey, of the famous ‘Inner Game’ series of books put it nicely: ‘Like one’s own children, golf has an uncanny way of endearing itself to us while at the same time evoking every weakness of mind and character, no matter how well hidden. The common purpose served is that we either learn to overcome the weaknesses or we are overwhelmed by them.’ Golf therefore feels like it is designed to test our mental reserves, but we need to ask more specifically what is this challenge we face?

The late and great Prof. Aidan Moran, who wrote extensively on psychology, education and sport, concisely illustrates why golf is challenging for four reasons. First, he suggests that is is an untimed game, and a player must be prepared to stay out as long as possible. Essentially it is self paced, placing the locus of control around speed etc. squarely on the golfer’s shoulders. Second, the stop-start nature of the game means you spend a lot of time thinking rather than playing. For example, the contact time a player has with the ball is just less than 10%, meaning 90% of the time is left to becoming anxious at the next shot, angry at the last shot, or getting distracted by an opponent! Third, he suggests that golf can be quite isolating – generally you are out there on your own with no team mates or substitutes available. And finally, he highlights that golfers are both a participant, and observer of, the game. You are watching your competitors play as well as being watched by them. The potential here for distraction is huge, with even a ‘compliment’ by an opponent on your grip, perhaps legitimately or not, can cause you to begin to consciously process what was once automatic. 

It is a bit too big of a task to detail here how can we ensure that golf does not become ‘a good walk spoiled’. Perhaps though the words of Severiano Ballesteros Sota, who had over 90 professional wins, may resonate – ‘People have often said I was a born golfer, that it was my destiny. They reckon I’ve been blessed genetically…But the fact is my right hand isn’t any longer than my left; it’s just that I have a slight stoop…The truth is the day I was born in Pedreña (his home village) any idea that I might have a career as an international golfer wasn’t even a dream, it was pure fantasy.’ There was a commitment since very young for Seve to enjoy and revel in the process of the game, not its outcome. I believe this applies to both ambition and the scorecard. Part of the beauty of golf is the psychological challenge within its process – we should never look to ’cut’ this part out but rather lean in and savour the difficulty. Even in reframing the ‘mental game’ as a challenge therefore, rather than a threat, we can begin to ease much of the psychological strain in the game.  

Worth a read, look and listen: