• Alistair Tait

How golf makes us happy – Part 2


Second round of the 2006 WGC–American Express Championship. My daughter and I and her friend are sitting beside the 9th fairway of The Grove Golf Club. I’ve taken them out as a wee treat to watch the world’s best golfers.


My daughter Aubrey and her friend Mikey are 13 years old. It’s their first big-time golf tournament. We watch all the stars come past us – eventual winner Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Ian Poulter, Ernie Els, the rest of the crème de la crème of world golf. After about six groups, Aubrey turns to me and asks:

“Dad, why do they all look so sad?”

I had no answer.


I still think about Aubrey's question when covering professional golf. The top players make so much money, money most could only have dreamed about as amateurs, yet they seem permanently depressed. I’m not alone. Coach Pete Cowen feels the same. In Thomas Bjorn’s book Mind Game, Cowen says:

“I spend my share of time around miserable millionaires. If you assume tour players are unimaginably happy and content, I can assure you that is not the case. Many are, but most aren’t. They’re healthy, rich, living the dream, but something in them – the perfectionist tendencies, perhaps – leads them to not being happy people.”

Maybe this coronavirus pandemic has changed their minds. I doubt it.


Yet are we any different? By we, I mean those of us who play this game for fun and exercise. I play with people who seem to moan all the time on the golf course. They seem to forget they're spending four hours in strenuous idleness in green and pleasant spaces. I’m sometimes no different. I tried go through all of October oath free, without dropping F-bombs. I did well, but admit Tourette’s Syndrome took over a few times.


I’m determined to enjoy this game of gowf when we return to the fairways next week, determined to explore the 10 reasons why "Golf can make us happy," as explained by Stephen Smith, chief neuroscientist for Sport Psychology Ltd.


I gave Smith’s first five reasons from his green paper yesterday. Here are the rest. I particularly like number seven, while realising number eight will make me a better player and, more importantly, a better person.


6. Accept that it is hard

“Life is hard, living through a pandemic is harder still. If we as a society are going to overcome the current challenge we need to build higher levels of inner resilience into society. The first stage to resilience is to take ourselves out of denial and into a state of acceptance and admit things are not expected to be easy – yet few of us do that naturally. Any exercise, pastime or training that can help develop this as a core strength will have benefits to society far beyond the scope of that activity. Golf is a game that can never be mastered, and teaches us we must accept the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This sport teaches people lessons about dealing with challenge that can last a lifetime.”


7. Value what you have

"You must value what you have not what others may have to survive a pandemic. Golf teaches us that there will be others who can hit it longer than us, straighter than us and will always be more talented. But we can still go out and enjoy our own game and get immense pleasure and value out of the childlike joy of hitting a ball with a stick. Golf takes you into its own world as you leave behind the stresses of today – just for a wee while, but that’s all we need to recharge our optimism banks. It only takes one good shot to give a sense of accomplishment, and stoke the fires of our optimism that ‘next time all my shots can be like that one.’”


8. Do sweat the small stuff

"To succeed in a pandemic, you need to focus on the details and live completely in the here and now. Golf teaches players to focus on the fundamentals of grip, stance, alignment. It demands you take one shot at a time. You cannot stress about what you did on a previous hole – it's long gone. You cannot worry about what you might do on holes you have not yet reached – the future is not ours to see. You can only deal with the shot you are faced with in the here and now and learn to accept the outcome, whatever it may be. Golf teaches players to sweat the small stuff.”


9. Don’t let go of purpose

"Humans need a purpose to add meaning to their endeavours and help them face the challenges life throws at them. Research has shown people who lose purpose (the long-term unemployed, for example) can quickly become lost to society and themselves. The challenge of mastering this complex game never diminishes. As soon as a player thinks they may have mastered one aspect (say putting), another area (say driving) will require attention. Even if every aspect of their play is firing on all cylinders, the need to lower their handicap will always add a daily purpose. Golf can add immense purpose to life. That’s why it has been shown to be so important to the physical and mental recovery of so many of our injured war veterans."


10. Remember, we are all different

"Most sports do not allow players of vastly differing abilities to play together on a level playing field. Your local pub football side could not go out and give Liverpool a run for their money. Because of the handicap system, this game enables everyone an equal chance to play and compete. Anyone can play anyone and has a real chance of giving them a close match, whatever the talent difference. Golf is the most inclusive sport on the planet. The need to recognise diversity of talent is built into its very fabric."


#JustSaying: “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.” Thomas Bjorn

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