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Can you play golf without anger if you’re an angry person?

October 24, 2019
An angry, frustrated golfer bends a club over his head. Wide-angle lens distortion adds a humorous, cartoonish appearance to the subject.

On Monday, I watched this video of an enraged golfer attempting to throw his bag in the water and failing:

I laughed because it’s objectively very funny, but I also cringed because it’s all too familiar. I have to go back only a few years to remember my bouts with rage on the course—broken clubs, the humiliation of losing your cool in front of other people, the shame of admitting to the pro that you need him to fix your 60-degree wedge because, yes, you’ve done it again. I wrote about this anger once, at a time when tennis was overtaking golf as my sport of choice, and the last line of that piece conjured up a hypothetical moment when I might return to the links:

“ … there will come a time, if I can live long enough, when even the forgiving surface of a clay tennis court is too hard on my knees, and the endless sprinting after the yellow ball is more than my lungs can handle, and the green fairways, plush and long, shaded by oaks and pines in the late afternoon sun, appeal to me again.”

The words were prophetic, and I didn’t have to live very long at all: Earlier this spring, I tore the ACL in my right knee playing tennis. I had reconstructive surgery in May, and though it will still be months before I can get back on the courts, I can already take full swings on the course. When the brutal and long recovery from this injury finally gives way to actual athletic activity, there’s no turning it down. In other words: I’m back.

It’s been only three weeks since I returned to golf, and I’m delighting in the honeymoon phase. I have no right to expect anything remotely competent (my best 18-hole score from my earlier short obsession with the game was 85, so I was never great to begin with), but I’m stupidly grateful just to be playing, and I’ve actually surprised myself with how well I’m hitting the ball. It’s not consistent yet, but I’m not murdering whole colonies of grasshoppers with topped shots as I assumed might happen for the first month or so. I even shot a 48 in the first nine holes I played last week, and when I made par on the last hole to break 50 after two gorgeous 4-irons, a short pitch and a two-putt, I felt a rush of pride commingling with the return of the love I’d once felt.

But as I improve, I can feel the slight irritation returning as well: The annoyance when I decel/duff a short pitch with my 60-degree wedge. The frustration when I inexplicably hit six inches behind the ball even though I insist that I’ve done everything right. The sudden flare of anger when I move my head forward too soon on a long approach, or swing too hard, or lift my shoulders and hit a shot thin, or make any of the avoidable errors that a little focus would have prevented. And I wonder: Is it possible to play this diabolical game without anger, when your natural disposition is prone to it?


Design Pics

In a book chapter that was adapted here at Golf Digest, I wrote about the intimate relationship between professional golfers and rage. Sometimes it’s destructive. Sometimes, in the right doses, it’s cathartic. But it’s rarely absent. Of course, the pros have more of a right to their perfectionism than I do, because they’re far better and because money and livelihoods are at stake. (None of which makes it less damaging for them, when the emotion goes awry, but at least they have an excuse.) Almost all of them have had psychological coaching at some point, and almost all of them slip up.

Since the last time I played golf consistently, I’ve dabbled in meditation, and though I’m not very consistent in my practice or even very good when I try, I still like it, and I think it’s taught me something about emotions in general. Like anxiety, or any unpleasant thought, anger isn’t necessarily in our immediate control, generated as it is by some very old processes in some very old parts of the brain. What is in our control is how we respond to it, and choosing to recognize the emotion but not to let it influence our actions can have the effect, over time, of reducing the initial surge. On the flip side, letting negative emotions control your behavior gives them power, creating a cycle in which anger begets more anger and etc. All of which is knowledge that’s easy to take in, but far harder to put into practice.

I consider myself less reactive and less prone to outbursts than the vast majority of people, but golf—vicious golf, which has far lower stakes than almost anything else in my life and which should be very easy to keep in perspective—has the unique capacity to bring out whatever latent rage still lingers in my subconscious. Even now, in the honeymoon phase, I'm wondering if I can stand up to it once I venture into the dangerous realm of expectation.

I still remember the morning I shot 85, and though I don’t mistake my performance that day for a transcendent athletic feat, the memory gives me a kind of quiet joy even now. It’s not the score as much as the journey—that day, I remained calm, and when mistakes happened, I let them float away like passing clouds. It wasn’t a physical triumph, but it was a triumph of psychology, of controlling not whether I felt anger or frustration, but controlling how I reacted to those demons. Compared to the broken clubs and the mini-tantrums, it was paradise.

That day proves I can do it, but the fact that it was an anomaly proves that it won’t be easy to replicate. It’s the important battle I face in my second phase of golf, and the one that will ultimately determine whether it sticks for a lifetime: Can I remain sanguine in the heat of the anger that will inevitably come? Can I find serenity when my coordination and my athleticism let me down? And can I sail on calm waters within the turbulence of a game that offers the tantalizing glimpse of perfection before yanking it away?

I don’t know the answer quite yet, but this time, at least, I understand the importance of the question.