Voices

Anger & Golf: A Love Story

Professional golf is a game of anger, which isn't necessarily a bad thingApril 20, 2018

While reading John Feinstein’s story about the increasingly famous temper of Jon Rahm, I couldn’t help remembering one of the simplest and most reliable truths I learned while following the PGA Tour: Golfers are never more than one shot away from rage.

It’s an angry sport full of angry people, and for every moment of triumph and joy, there are hundreds of temper tantrums, big and small, to tilt the emotional balance in favor of fury. The old PGA Tour slogan, “These guys are good,” is a lie by omission. Sure, they can play, but that’s missing the real point. Spend any time on the scene, and you’ll come away with a very different message: These guys are mad.

Depending on the player, the anger takes different forms. With someone like Bubba Watson, it seems to come out of nowhere, and either engenders itself in a self-pitying quality or shoots out at the nearest target—occasionally his caddie. Patrick Reed’s anger is more predictable. If he has a bad round, red blotches appear on his cheeks, he grits his teeth, and he retreats with his wife after rounds, declining to talk with the media after his round.

Others, such as Tiger Woods or Rahm, keep it together in front of the reporters, but can’t help themselves from shouting obscenities after bad drives that are inevitably caught on camera and result in lectures from the TV commentators and undisclosed fines from the tour. Other players throw things. Others sulk.

Ernie Els and Ian Poulter represent yet another variety—players who look mildly irritated on the course, but save their true bile for the reporters waiting to ask about their struggles. It’s a recurring theme; they’re already angry, and we make an easy target.

Anger is so prevalent on tour that it’s practically a way of life. In 2014, the year in which I traveled on tour on an almost weekly basis, I can think of at least one incident from almost every player I encountered. Graham DeLaet kicked his bag in Akron. Billy Horschel kicked a trash can by the scorer’s tent at the Wyndham. On the more subtle side, Hunter Mahan gave a deep sigh and shook his head the two times in 2014 when I asked for a minute of his time, though I think this might be a strategy he employs with all media in an effort to A) keep the interview brief, and B) dissuade us from ever asking again.

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Sometimes a good scream is necessary.

Nobody is immune to the anger—not even the good guys. Jim Furyk soon became one of my favorite athletes because no matter how poorly he played, he never resorted to peevishness or silence after a bad round. But even he could get pissed off. After his final-round 70 at the 2014 Barclays, when he finished eighth after being in contention early on, the New York Post’s Mark Cannizarro caught him in the flash area by the clubhouse to ask about his close calls.

Q.  These things build, these runners‑up and things like that, and you're getting so close.  I know you said yesterday you kind of learn from each thing.  Is there a common denominator for these things where you just can't punch it in on Sundays, you know what I mean, where you just haven't had that really low round‑‑
JIM FURYK:  I'll be honest with you, I think it’s kind of a shitty thing to say. And the reason I say that is I had three seconds this year with a 65 and a 66 on Sunday—

Furyk only lost his cool for a second, and he finished the conversation by shaking Cannizarro’s hand, but it shows that even the coolest customers succumb to the culture of anger now and again.

The list goes on—Steve Stricker, often considered the nicest man on tour, can get snippy with reporters after a bad round, or dodge them altogether. Adam Scott and Justin Rose, two champions who carry themselves with the type of grace, dignity, and kindness that tour executives and agents dream about, will, on rare occasions, make a noise that sounds vaguely like a curse. Rory McIlroy, one of the smartest golfers in the game and someone with an excellent perspective on life in general, will throw clubs at his bag and let off steam with a terse f-bomb. Jordan Spieth, golf’s golden boy, had to fight his penchant for the kind of self-directed anger that can spoil an entire round—and that arguably cost him a Players Championship and a Masters title early in his career.

Why Does It Happen?

What makes golf such an angry sport? If you’ve ever played, even for a week, you can probably make an educated guess. Every amateur understands the psychological pitfalls of golf—it will drive you to madness 10 times, at a minimum, for each time it delivers a brief moment of satisfaction. It’s a game for addicts, and it inspires varying levels of misery among the masochists who play.

The difference between you and the professional is that you can walk away—your life will be judged by other metrics. For a professional golfer, the only escape is failure. What preserves them, aside from the natural gifts that are never enough on their own, is perfectionism. It’s the quality that delivered them to the lofty heights in the first place, the thing that drives them to sharpen their skills in the face of intense competition. It’s also, paradoxically, the thing they have to fight in order to retain even a shred of sanity.

That was my theory, at least. To see if an actual expert agreed, I reached out to Dr. Greg Dale, the Director of the Sport Psychology and Leadership program at Duke University. Dale has worked with athletes of almost every kind in the last 20 years, from juniors to D-I college talents to pros. In his time spent with competitive golfers, both at the collegiate and professional levels, he identified the same general trait shared by many who excel at the sport.

“Golfers tend to be more perfectionistic in their tendencies,” he told me, “and that can be a great quality. But you also have to be able to recognize when that quality is kicking you in the butt.”

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The calm before the storm.

Perfectionism, like fear of failure, can be a positive force in a player’s life. But taken to extremes, it can lead to obsessive and unproductive habits—many is the golfer who has learned the hard lesson that you can spend too much time on the range—and it can also lead to anger when the best laid plans go awry. Dale said that in most sports, players shouldn't dwell on a mistake for longer than three to five seconds. That time can be slightly longer in golf, but not much—it's important to move on as quickly possible.

You begin to see the problem, though; players at the professional level expects a flawless performance, yet history and statistics tell us they’re doomed to failure. So how do they reconcile the ideal with the reality? The main coping mechanism is to divert blame. When you see a golfer hit a bad shot and then stare at the ground with a baffled expression, or look at his club as though it’s a misbehaving child, or yell at his caddie, or curse the wind, it’s temping to think of him as a whiner.

In truth, this is a necessary step in the mental process—any ritual that alleviates the stress of those unavoidable failures works like a drug, allowing the player to continue his pursuit of perfect golf without having an existential crisis and melting down in a puddle of anxiety on national television. There’s a reason no golfer has ever struck a bad putt—if his miss was due to a bad read or a hidden divot or the goddam earth not behaving like it should, he doesn’t have to question his own skill, and the foundation of his psyche is preserved.

It may sound like the type of mental gymnastics routine that would collapse under the glare of even the slightest self-examination. And it is, and it does.

Which is where our old friend anger comes in.

There’s a huge, gaping chasm, between the pursuit of perfection and the inevitability of failure, that no rationalization or misdirected blame can cover. Quitting is one solution, but pro golfers aren’t quitters. Acceptance is another—that Buddhist ideal of inner peace which remains constant no matter the result. They all strive for this, but none of them ever reach it. Once you accept failure, it corrupts that all-encompassing drive for perfection, and even losing a fraction of your mental edge can make a significant difference in a career. Some try the human vices, some try religion.

When these tactics fail, there’s only one outlet: Anger. You get angry that you’ve devoted your life to a sport that still sees fit to humiliate you a few times every round. You get angry that you took a perfect swing but the g****** club was wrong, or the wind was up, or the son of a bitch in the gallery snapped a photo at the worst moment, or the flag was in an impossible location. You get angry that you’re pushing your irons right and you have no clue why, and your coach will probably correct it in 10 seconds on the range after you finish, but until then you’re throwing away a perfectly good tournament. You get angry that your caddie is smiling too much, or made you wait when you needed your putter. You get angry at that redneck in the crowd who’s been following you around for nine holes and keeps yelling “Ba-ba-Booey!” every time you tee off. You get angry at your bad luck, and your bad play, and the misery of a world where you’re doing everything right and reaping no reward.

The important thing is to be able to release that natural anger after a bad shot, Dr. Dale told me. And because the standards of etiquette in golf are higher—unlike baseball, you’re not allowed to scream obscenities into your glove or smash a bat in the dugout—he works with players on “triggers” designed to release the frustration. These subtle displays, which should not be part of the player’s normal routine, can include tapping the heel of the foot with the club, snapping the Velcro of the glove, or even making a literal flushing motion with the hands, symbolically consigning the bad shot to the distant sewers of the memory. These acts of release are especially critical in golf, he said, because there’s more time to think in golf, which makes the mental side even more challenging.

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The aftermath of anger.

There’s a school of thought that says anger might, in fact, be useful, at least when employed in small doses. Chris Kirk is one of the rare players who had to learn to let his anger out on the course. He was so quiet as a child that he would bottle up his rage and let it affect his play, to the point that a solid “f***!” today, or even the rare thrown club, is an act of therapy.

Dale can buy that—at least to an extent.

“It’s very much an individual thing,” he said. “Small outbursts can be a way to release it and move on. Sometimes that’s a rationalization, but sometimes it can be effective. So it can absolutely be legitimate, but I would also say that very few people can use anger consistently to help them perform. If you can do that, I can see where it would be helpful for some guys. But you have to be able to be honest with yourself, and to recognize when you’re not using it in a way that’s healthy, but rather because you’re frustrated and can’t maintain your composure. It’s a fine line.”

Which is why, Dale said, he works very hard with golfers to help them release the stress in more subtle ways. Those who can train themselves to have short memories will be able to focus more effectively on the next shot, and that, of course, can echo through the round, the tournament and, by extension, an entire career. If a player can’t figure out that balance, and is unable to release the anger in an effective and healthy way, Dale says it can be a fast road to failure.

“Your ability to master the mental part of the game is crucial,” he said. “And if you can learn how to do that, you can last in this sport a whole lot longer.”

Even for the ones who succeed, though, the anger will inevitably return. It’s almost a universal law, and of all the players I’ve met to date, only one has broken the mold—I’ve never seen Rickie Fowler succumb to anger, even in his most stressful and disappointing moments.

He was the exception that proved the rule. When it comes to golf, anger is king. It’s a constant internal battle—anger isn’t conducive to good golf, but when the maddening quest for perfection meets the cold truth of human error, what else can they do?


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