Voices

Why it's healthy to hope

April 16, 2020
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Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

A return to normalcy has been in the works, on chalk boards of sports league executives and in the hearts of fans, since balls stopped bouncing in March. Professional golf has been at this effort’s forefront, becoming the first major American sport to outline its season in a joint statement last Monday, highlighted by the three U.S.-based major championships finding spots on the calendar. In a follow-up this week, the PGA Tour has targeted June as its restart.

These updates have conjured two passionate, contrasting responses. One is of optimism and hope, elation that these annual celebrations of the game have only been delayed. The other is skepticism, bordering on dismissiveness, that golf has any realistic chance of returning in 2020. Many are oscillating between the two, like grappling with a 3-wood over the pond or taking an iron and laying up. That includes me.

The Tour feels it is equipped to carry on and, just as importantly, knows the inherent risks as well as the perils of being among the first leagues to return. In that regard, onward. Then there are the horrors I see on TV and read online, and hear outside my door. My neighborhood sits in the shadow of a hospital outside New York City, and the sirens do not stop. Sounds that make the game seem very, very distant.

So I reached out to Dr. Brett McCabe and Dr. Greg Cartin, each a renowned sports and performance psychologist, to reconcile the opposing thoughts.

“It’s perfectly normal, I would argue healthy, to have a degree of skepticism toward the uncertain,” says Dr. McCabe on the phone, his voice cutting through the wails of an EMS vehicle. “That is the problem with hope. It defines that we don’t have the final say.

“But the alternative is worry. You can’t expend energy on something you can’t control.”

The PLAYERS Championship - Coronavirus Press Conference

Sam Greenwood

The golf season has a rhythm and regularity to it. For better and worse, we mark the time by the cadence of the schedule. There are far greater tragedies than postponed events, but it’s likewise OK to lament a Father’s Day without the U.S. Open or a summer bereft of the claret jug. Is spring even allowed to start if there’s no Masters to escort it?

“It was Masters week and there’s no Masters; it’s shocking,” say Dr. Cartin, who operates Performance Consulting in Boston and works with both average golfers and pros like Jon Curran. “Sports are such a constant in our lives, when something familiar gets taken away, it’s odd. It’s not just the loss and grieving, it’s that things aren’t normal anymore.”

When those tentpoles are removed, it can feel like the pavilion is crashing in.

“Panic ensues when things get shut down. When sports [were] canceled, the uncertainty brought a lot of fear,” Cartin says. “Seeing something on the schedule removes uncertainty.”

To McCabe, who works with a stable of tour pros and NCAA athletic departments, much of the joy in golf attempting to be played lies in the notion our past reality is not lost. “The idea of [golf events] returning, it’s familiarity in an unfamiliar time, and it’s something that brings us joy. It goes down like home cooking.”

There is power in vision. Yes, as Cartin says, staying in the moment is imperative during a crisis. “In a way, it’s why sometimes players do better on a golf course they’ve never seen,” he says. “You don’t know what’s coming next, so your focus is on the task in front of you.” But there is a want, a need for a beacon on the horizon in this current storm. If golf is that guiding light, McCabe says, sail away.

“I’ve had friends ask if it’s all right to plan trips after this is all through,” McCabe says. “Yes, of course. I’m doing it in my head, too. You’re giving yourself a finish line, even if we don’t know where that is precisely at the moment.”

The Tour's venture back can be viewed as ambitious. Health experts have been reticent to say when stay-at-home measures will be eased and warned of easing them too soon, raising the question whether golf is in position to be dictating a timeline. Other professional sports leagues are exploring one-site proposals to restart their years in order to reduce travel, and as a corollary, exposure. Golf, even in its most scaled-down form, would be sending hundreds around the country each week. That includes visits to Ohio and California, states whose governors have cast doubt on hosting spectator events in the near future. The Tour acknowledged it will lean on guidance from health and government officials, and hold its events without fans for their safety and the safety of the players. However, its traveling-circus construct seems potentially susceptible to the virus.

Worries that have merit, but ultimately, they are not where most skepticism resides. Rather, it is with fans not wanting to become emotionally attached to the idea golf will return, for fear it will eventually be canceled, thus deepening their disappointment. “As human beings, we have a negative bias; it takes a lot of positive reinforcement to take it out,” Cartin says.

THE PLAYERS Championship - Round One

Ben Jared

A recognition that is also balanced by thousands who are fighting for their lives, thousands of doctors and nurses risking theirs to help, and millions who have lost their jobs. With these battles ongoing, playing a golf tournament, to some, seems wildly inappropriate.

But sports have the capacity to transcend. It's entertainment, sure. Competition and drama and struggle capture our attention. Yet in that immersion, there are moments of levity, empowerment, goodwill, inspiration. (As anyone that watched CBS’ rerun of the 2019 Masters can attest.)

So much of our daily lives have been extinguished, and some parts will never be re-lit. What matters, say McCabe and Cartin, is finding ways to keep the embers glowing on our passions.

“We have to adapt to this pandemic. To not is ignorant,” McCabe says. “As we adjust to how this affects our lives, there are going to be hard times. But do not compromise your motivation or excitement; you cannot assume you will be disappointed.

“We keep hearing this is a fight. Throwing away all hopes or curbing positive expectations to prevent future disappointment … that is letting the virus win.”

In the background, an ambulance wails. A lot will be endured until the sirens stop. Eventually, that day will come.

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