Tour golfers won’t be piling in to criticise Simone Biles for scaling back her Olympic schedule to focus on her mental health. Unlike some of the numpties weighing into the Biles debate with absolutely no knowledge of what it takes to compete at sports' highest level, golfers know all about mental health demons.
They live with it on a constant basis.
You don’t have to look far in this royal and ancient game to find players who’ve struggled to cope mentally with the demands of trying to get a wee white ball into slightly bigger dark hole. The nether regions of the Official World Golf Ranking and Rolex Women’s Golf Rankings are full of players who struggled with the mental pressure of trying to hit a 4-iron to a tiny green to make par. Not just to win tournaments, but to make the cut, or keep their cards, or just to make enough money that week to pay the mortgage.
Even the best struggle to cope with the demands of this game. How many players have been on top of the world for one week, etched their name on a trophy, even a major trophy, and have never come close that form again? How hard is to deal with going from near perfection one week to struggling to make cuts? “Extremely” is the obvious answer.
As Tom Kite once famously said:
“This game has made cry babies out of all of us.”
That’s literally true. Thomas Bjorn starts Mind Game: The Secrets of Golf's Winners, the excellent book he penned with Michael Calvin, with the words:
“Why are you crying?”
Bjorn is a 15-time European Tour winner. He’s played in three Ryder Cups, and was on the winning team all three times. He famously captained the 2018 European team to victory in France. He has eight top 10s in majors, including three seconds. You don’t have to know Bjorn intimately to realise he’s as hard as nails; the image of him weeping is hard to compute.
Bjorn answers his own crying question at the end of the book:
“You cry when you are a lost soul, wandering aimlessly, wondering what you have become. You are crying because you lose yourself. You feel that everything you are is running through your fingers, like grains of sand. You ask yourself, ‘What am I holding on to? Am I prepared to do all the things I need to do to get back in control?’
“You can turn to your wife, or your better half. You can turn to your friends. But they don’t understand. They may try, bless them, because they want to help. But they don’t get it.”
The game is littered with examples of players who have struggled with the pressure that comes from this stick and ball game. Bjorn's book highlights many of them. Meghan MacLaren provides an excellent commentary in her equally excellent blog on dealing with the stress of life as a tour pro. Bubba Watson has openly talked about his mental health issues.
Not many who play this game, even handicap golfers, have escaped the soul-destroying effect one bad shot can inflict on the psyche.
I interviewed Ewen Murray in 1990 when he transitioning from the fairways to the microphone in what has become an excellent career in TV commentary for Sky Sports Golf. Murray won the Scottish Boys, the Scottish Boys Stroke Play and the World Junior in 1971. The affable Scot didn’t carry that success into professional golf. Murray’s professional win tally includes the 1980 Zambia Open and 1984 Nigeria Open.
At the end of the interview, I asked Murray if he had any regrets. His answer has stuck with me for 30 years.
“I didn’t make the most of my talent, and I think about that every morning and every night.”
Murray is far from the only player who failed to life up to his own expectations. It’s a heavy cross to bear. In fact, it’s a wonder mental health issues aren’t a bigger issue in our game.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Biles story is that there are those unwilling to take her at her word. But then that’s the world we live in. Happens in golf too. Those who have never played at the top level have no idea what it’s like to cope with the weight of expectation, personal as well as public, yet are quick to castigate.
That’s why the world of professional golf can easily relate to what Biles is going through, and hope she somehow comes through it.
#JustSaying: “You’ve got to be very thick skinned. You’ve got to be able to take knocks, bounce back from them straight away, so that they don’t get you down. You’ve got to be very single minded, selfish and committed to what you’re doing.” Lee Westwood