The coldest round of golf I ever played was our Golf Digest company tournament, the Seitz Cup, in November 2019. It was 19 degrees in Connecticut, frost on every fairway. My outfit was basically what it would be if I was packing for a long weekend, didn’t want to bring a bag, and just wore everything at once.
No one could make a full turn. We needed hours to thaw out afterward.
It was probably the most fun round of the year.
Golf rarely qualifies as an extreme physical test, which is how most of us like it. I have golf friends who start to waver when they see forecasts in the low 60s. Maybe they would rather watch football. But when it comes to golf in adverse conditions, they should know what they’re missing.
There are two reasons I’ve been thinking about bad weather golf recently, and they’re related. The first is obvious: It’s getting cold in the Northeast and the temptation is to pack it in for the season. If I’m hesitant, it’s because of the second reason, a book, “The Comfort Crisis,” in which author Michael Easter argues through research why a certain amount of discomfort is good for our wellbeing.
Does that even apply to golf? Yes, and I’ll explain why. But before I get to that, let’s cover some more direct benefits of toughing it out in the elements.
Reason No. 1: Playing in bad weather makes good results great
Harsh conditions not only change the game, but how we frame success. It’s why tour players know an approach to 30 feet in Scotland might be better than sticking it to three feet in Scottsdale. If happiness in golf is a matter of expectations, bad weather does us the favor of lowering ours.
The weird part is how this actually helps us play better. There is ample evidence of how our focus tends to sharpen in the face of a notable challenge, whether it’s Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open on a broken leg, or a weekend player trying to break 90 in a hail storm. With the right mindset, the obstacle becomes the asset.
"It helps you focus on the right things and on what you can control," the sports psychologist Fran Pirozzolo said.
Reason No. 2: Playing in bad weather is good for ... playing in bad weather
The old story is that Jack Nicklaus would pull back the curtains of his hotel room on a rainy day and know he already had half the field beat. If those players didn’t want to be there, he figured, they weren’t likely to put up much of a fight.
Because Nicklaus recognized that golf isn’t played in a dome, he embraced learning how to adjust his game to the elements—how the club digs into squishy fairways, how the ball travels through heavier air, when to put the ball back in your stance to keep it low, and when to launch it high to let it ride. Nicklaus knew he just needed to adapt better than others, because golfers in bad weather usually can be broken into three groups.
"One simply stays home until the rain stops. If you're playing in a tournament, you can't do that.” Nicklaus told Golf Digest in 2012. “Another group goes out and plays but with a negative attitude and usually a lot of griping and poor scores. The third group accepts the elements as just another variation of the game. When I was playing tournament golf, I made sure I was in that third group."
Reason No. 3: Playing in bad weather makes us ... happier?
That bitterly cold day in 2019 wasn’t our preference. Given the choice we’d have opted for shirt sleeves and full feeling in our fingers. But what made it so rewarding was the collective sense we had done something genuinely hard.
Golfers rarely walk off the course satisfied. There are too many wasted shots and decisions we want back. For one day, though, merely completing 18 holes felt like an accomplishment.
In “The Comfort Crisis,” Easter details how some of the conveniences of modern society can also be harmful, which at first sounds counterintuitive. Isn’t it a good thing that we can buy our dinner at a store as opposed to having to kill it in the wild? Isn’t sleeping in a heated home preferable to shivering in a cave?
When you put it that way, of course. The problem is that these advancements that make life easier also deprive us of opportunities to explore the boundaries of human potential.
There is a Japanese word, “misogi,” which describes the concept of taking on a purposely difficult, and uncomfortable challenge for the sheer purpose of proving you can. Why? Because it reconnects us to a time when this was part of everyday human existence. People then tested themselves for survival instead of fun, yet the benefits for your well-being remain: It’s harder to be stressed about petty things we get stressed about if you’re just happy to be upright. (Side note: this is why I’ve also become an advocate of cold plunges, as many top golfers are as well.)
“In misogi we’re using the artificial, contrived concept of going out and doing a hard task to mimic these challenges that humans used to face all the time....challenges that our environment used to show us that we’re so removed from now,” Dr. Marcus Elliott, a misogi advocate who also works extensively with pro athletes, told Easter. “Then when we return to the Wild West of our everyday lives, we are better for it.”
Here is where you might say: OK fine, but nothing in golf tests us at this extreme level. You’re right. But Easter explains how even small efforts of pushing back on our instinct toward comfort helps, whether it’s walking more than riding, passing on a snack at the turn, or trying to ignore the rain falling on the back of your neck while you putt.
Put it another way: our version of discomfort in golf is often about a shot we don’t want to miss. The more we raise our tolerance for real discomfort, the easier even those shots will feel.