Cover story: The Happiness IssueAugust 10, 2015

Happy Pros

The new superstars are showing us how to play like kids again RELATED: Why Good Golfers Are Fools

Some people exude happiness. In the case of Rickie Fowler, all his showy trappings of stardom--the fast cars, the flat-brimmed orange crush of fans, the YouTube backflips and motocross aerials, the steamy victory embrace with his fashion-model girlfriend--might make a facile impression, but they aren't the truest indicators. The 26-year-old Californian's centeredness and serenity are more convincing.

Observing Fowler leaves one believing that behind the arresting features is a keen mind that can hold and manage opposing qualities necessary to a fulfilled life: adventure and caution, energy and patience, humility and confidence. He is both watchful introvert and charismatic performer, each persona somehow always at peace.

Even when he's making the still-too-frequent double bogeys, Fowler never actually looks unhappy. In lively practice rounds with Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, Fowler might wear the brashest outfits but typically talks the least trash--though his on-target observations always draw laughs. He plays with a brisk dispatch, showing no holdback in a swing that kept its fluidity after some significant surgery by Butch Harmon. When the ball leaves the club, Fowler's eyes follow it with an unmistakable love for the next shot.

"I've been crazy about the game from day one, and I try to keep it the same as far as that early feeling," says Fowler, who at 3 began hitting balls at a mom-and-pop range in Murrieta. "I think you definitely do better when you're happy, and I'm kind of wired to keep that outlook with golf and, really, in everything."

Golf's place in Fowler's personal happiness is validated on off weeks from competition, when he plays almost every day and, often as not, 36 holes. With emphasis on the word "play."

"I never really feel like I get burned out," Fowler says.

"It's more like I have to pull myself away so I don't overdo it. I love to just go play, and if I play badly, I still get something out of it." And even though the game is his living, that doesn't mean every round is serious. "Maybe if I'm down in the Bahamas at Baker's Bay, I'll go mess around and hit some shots cross-handed, or grab a lefty set of clubs and play a few holes lefty," he says. "Any way to keep it fun."

In May, Fowler at last became a top player after winning the Players Championship. His "play like a kid" style so resonates--certainly with the young through his engagement on social media and easy in-person contact at tournaments, but also with oldsters open to new possibilities--that just by being himself he has become an important part of making competitive golf a visibly happier game than it used to be.

The message has been reinforced by the rise of Rory McIlroy, also 26, who at his best plays with the verve of an artist eager to share his gift, a natural generosity that has made him the friendliest World No. 1 since Arnold Palmer. A sensitive type who can get out of sorts, admit he doesn't love the game as much as he used to, and even toss the odd club, McIlroy still has the endearing aspect of the 8-year-old prodigy. Watching video clips of the boy at this age, his lifelong swing coach, Michael Bannon, fondly remarked, "Always a happy man, Rory."

Rickie Fowler

Chasing McIlroy is Jordan Spieth, an amiable but intense warrior who can berate himself, but even in the rare moments when he acts 21 he never gives the impression that he isn't having an absolute blast.

Asked why golf makes him happy, Spieth jokes, "Because I'm good at it," before turning his considerable intelligence toward an impromptu manifesto. "I enjoy working at something that is impossible to conquer. I enjoy that challenge because each time you get closer and closer to conquering it ...

you feel your blood going, like you're sky diving. I love the thrill of it. That's the fun part, to see how you can react in those situations, how you can control your heart rate and produce even better shots. We're here to play for that thrill, for that grind. And so I'm not going to sit back and smile when things aren't going my way.

I'm going to get upset and figure out what I'm going to do to get over it. I'm going to go to the next hole and try to make myself a little happier."

In the women's game, 18-year-old Lydia Ko is doing her part to set an example of the benefits of playing happy. At the end of her career, she says she'd like to be remembered as "the player who had the most fun."

PROCESS VERSUS RESULTS

It's natural for society to choose Peter Pans as the messengers of happiness. Watching gifted youngsters excel with an uncomplicated grace awakens the generally inactive inner child in all of us. We're youth-obsessed for selfish reasons.

Traditionalists might clamor for Fowler to win more often, but perhaps happier are those who admire his process more than his results. He's not identified with the win-at-all-costs attitude, but rather as a player who loves the chance to meet the moment with his absolute best. Just as he once took daunting jumps on dirt bikes for the inherent challenge, he now does the same with a difficult shot. Fowler gives the sense that for him, pulling off the shot is its own reward. Second place doesn't suck, but passing up shots one is capable of does.

Purists can criticize how such a style breeds mistakes, but Fowler's answer for the near future can be the boldness in playing the final six holes of the Players in six under par, and then in the playoff twice stiffing wedges to a perilous pin on the island-green 17th, the birdies completing one of the greatest finishes in the history of the PGA Tour.

Fans have always liked happy champions, players who by smiling in the face of difficulties can make ours seem more surmountable. It has long been a part of Mickelson's appeal and gives seemingly always-sunny Matt Kuchar a distinction that compels fans to pay tribute with elongated cries of "Koooch" regardless of his score.

"Being happy and positive and enjoying what I do is not really a choice I made, although there might be a correlation with results," Kuchar says.

"I'm very lucky to play golf, because I think I've got a good natural makeup for the game."

BLOCKING HAPPINESS

Most players aren't so lucky. Trying for happiness while playing in a tournament is a complex equation. Tour pros aren't playing the pleasant but dumbed-down version of the game whose central goal is more often a walk with friends on a beautiful day. Pros are intensely engaged in mistake-avoidance while carrying much intimate knowledge of what can go wrong. It recalls the Hemingway line, "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

Vijay Singh, whose zeal to continue playing the PGA Tour at 52 suggests true passion for the game, questions whether happiness and tournament golf can even coexist. "Happy is the wrong term," he says. "Hitting good shots, playing good, that gives me satisfaction, but that's different. On the range, I work, and that makes me feel good, but not really happy. Out there on the course, it's very difficult, so the feeling while I'm playing isn't happiness."

Singh isn't quibbling about semantics. Mental coach Julie Elion also avoids the loaded term as a goal for her athletes. "Happiness is pretty ambitious for anybody," she says. "I try to help people attain a level of contentedness so they can put their best selves into the game."

Happiness would not be the first word that comes to mind when describing the demeanors of most of history's greatest players. Top performers customarily don't allow themselves to be satisfied. The price of greatness is often obsession, which can mean denying satisfaction to keep an edge, and by extension making happiness--at least with one's golf game--the enemy.

Ben Hogan took pride in keeping even friendly games serious, saying, "I don't play jolly golf." Jack Nicklaus recently theorized he kept improving because he believes he habitually underachieved.

Rory McIlroy

'The great players aren't consistent. The great players are great at handling inconsistency.' --Michael Hebron / Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher

"I always feel like I'm never getting what I should be getting out of what I'm doing," he said. "So you've got to work harder to make sure you do that." Tiger Woods said the same thing in the inverse when he revealed one of his goals was to be an overachiever.

Which meant basically blocking happiness. At the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah, Woods was tied for the lead after two rounds, and because he had experienced a performance decline on major-championship weekends, thought a more relaxed approach would help in the third round. "I came out with probably the wrong attitude," Woods said after a 74 dropped him out of contention. "I was trying to be, you know, a little bit happy out there and enjoy it, and that's--unfortunately--that's not how I play. You know how I am. I'm intense and focused on what I'm doing, and nothing else matters. ... That's how I won 14 of these things. ... It was a bad move on my part."

Even those greats who were presumed to be happy while playing weren't really. Bobby Jones possessed a pleasant equanimity, but his internal torture during competition was such that he retired at 28. Lee Trevino got labeled the Merry Mex because his one-liners were funny, but he delivered them to relieve an edgy tension that could frequently give way to impatience and anger.

Some players, like Kuchar, seem to achieve happiness easily in competition. Walter Hagen genuinely seemed to smell the roses along the way. And Palmer, who regarded tournament golf as a haven, was loved for what Dan Jenkins called "the pure, unmixed joy he has brought to trying."

That description--which implies embracing struggle--could serve as the model for a tour pro seeking happiness from golf.

"The beautiful lotus flower grows only in mud," says swing coach Sean Foley, who encourages such philosophical discussions with his players. "When a bad shot gets you down, that immediate unhappy feeling can't be denied, but if you're doing your job, you accept that feeling for a moment, and then it's gone as you enter total immersion in the next shot. It's not easy; it's a highly focused struggle. But the best stuff, the most improvement, and ultimately the most happiness, comes from that struggle."

Peter Malnati, a 28-year-old member of the Web.com Tour who has led the money list this year as he tries to return to the PGA Tour, agrees. Though he describes himself as "probably predisposed toward happiness," he has learned to use those feelings to nurture a "growth mind-set" that girds him against tournament golf's cruelties.

"For a pro golfer, there is so much losing and disappointment to overcome that happiness should be intentional--a real choice," Malnati said a day after failing to advance in 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifying by a stroke. "This is the greatest game ever, and just making progress in trying to figure it out is also a source of happiness. But actually being happy when I play, which is a genuine feeling that I try to build on, has been a part of the equation when I've had success."

ATTAINING 'FLOW'

Golf is often cited as a near-ideal activity in which to attain the psychological and physiological state of "flow," which is getting immersed in an activity so completely that self-consciousness is lost and the only focus is the task at hand. The activity has to have an attainable goal, and too much or too little challenge can kill the flow. Studies on the subject started with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist then at the University of Chicago. He interviewed artists, surgeons, rock climbers and chess players and learned that they would get so lost in their endeavor that they would become oblivious to hunger, thirst and fatigue. Several landmark studies since then indicate that people who experience flow regularly are also the happiest.

Which might leave tour pros expecting to play well all the time chronically unhappy.

"The biggest myth in golf is that consistency exists--it doesn't," says Michael Hebron, a Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher. "The players who are trying to be consistent probably aren't as happy as players who consider their games flexible and portable. The great players aren't consistent. The great players are great at handling inconsistency."

Relating his favorite part of golf, it seems Fowler has already intuitively figured that out.

"It could be almost any shot, but hitting it exactly as you envisioned," he says. "Hitting the ball flush, starting it where you want to, with the right trajectory and shape and actually landing in the right spot. Might happen once a round, maybe."

Doesn't seem like much, especially for one of the best players in the world. But for a happy golfer who became one by fully accepting and--especially--loving the nature of the game and its struggle, it's more than enough.