Why playing golf less can make you enjoy it less—and how to fix it
Earlier this summer, I hit a low point on a day that should have been a highlight of my year. Playing Kiawah's Ocean Course on my annual golf trip, I went through a stretch of about 10 holes in which I couldn't put the ball in play. Granted, it was a tough stretch—especially under "tournament" pressure—but I was miserable. I was embarrassed. And I legitimately almost walked off one of the best golf courses in the country.
If it was a low point, I can’t say it was an aberration. As a father of two young kids, I expected to struggle finding time to play golf. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would be a struggle once I got to the course as well. And I’m not just talking about my score, but my attitude as well.
Don't get me wrong, I still love playing golf. I'm just not loving it as much these days—because as much as I wish I could say my level of enjoyment on the golf course isn’t heavily tied to my scorecard, that’s not the case. Because while everyone knows how frustrating golf can be, that frustration really ratchets up when you know you would be playing better if you could just play as much as you used to.
Although I’d never claim to be a good golfer, my decline in play since becoming a dad is noticeable. Obviously, I’m not as sharp (If you can even call it that) playing on a more infrequent and less standardized schedule. And on the rare times I find myself playing well, I’m much more likely to find a way to mess it up because it’s such a foreign feeling these days.
I'm capable of losing more golf balls now in one round than I used to in weeks. Never a long hitter, I'm lacking even more pop. And those putts that used to save my rounds aren't falling at the same rate. Heck, even my punchout game—which I need a lot more—has suffered.
So what's the solution to being happier on the course no matter how you're playing? I called Dr. Bhrett McCabe, a sports psychologist who works with several top tour pros, including World No. 1 and new dad Jon Rahm, to help me make sense of this.
“How do you go out there and have fun when the game is hard? It’s the problem we all have, right?” McCabe said. “I think what we can get better at is the same conversation I have with my tour players: Can I find the best that’s available to us that day? If you haven’t been able to prepare, why should you assume you can hit a 3-wood off the deck and cut it into a pin? You may not have been able to do that every time before even though you think you did. So it’s lowering some expectations and enjoying the challenge to make things happen.”
Lower your expectations. Enjoy the challenge. Sounds like a plan. But perhaps easier said than done as well when dealing with a sport that has a way of creating delusions of grandeur.
It’s the reason why studies show amateurs overwhelmingly come up short on approach shots. They believe they’re going to hit the next one flush because they’ve done it before, much in the same way they think they should shoot a certain score based on past performance. Golf, however, doesn’t work that way.
“I hate to say it, it’s not like skiing,” McCabe said. “That’s hard, but once you kinda get it, you get it. But golf is ever changing every day. It’s a skill that needs a lot more preparation than most of us are willing to put in to be good.”
OK fine, so it makes sense I get frustrated not playing to the level I know I can. But given how little I play, shouldn’t I just be happy to be playing golf at all? Why would doing less of something I love—the thing that has become my only hobby and only form of socializing outside my family—make me enjoy it less when I actually get to do it?
You'd think the less golf you played, the more you'd savor the experience. But in reality, it’s a lot more complicated, because, well, things are just different as a dad. And as amazing as some of those different things are, sometimes it's tough to forget about how different your golf situation used to be.
“If it was a choice, we wouldn’t miss it because we’re choosing to do something else. But when it’s theoretically not our choice, we miss it more,” McCabe said. “Having kids is great, we don’t need to say that, but at the same time, it’s hard. When it’s difficult and you’re going through the ups and downs, you kind of romanticize about getting out more.”
As a fellow father of two daughters, McCabe let me know I’m not alone—and that I’m not a terrible person for sometimes longing for the days of playing two rounds of golf instead of watching 22 episodes of “Paw Patrol.”
He also assured me getting out more becomes easier with older children—especially if you play the sport with them. But until then, there’s nothing wrong with parents doing activities on their own.
“We gotta make sure that moms and dads have things individually for themselves and as a couple then that way they’re better off when they’re with the kids,” McCabe said. “When you go out there, enjoy it. You may only be out there for an hour, but enjoy that hour versus thinking, ‘Man, that could have been two.’ So it’s shifting your perspective a little bit.”
I needed to hear that because on the flip side of missing my days of more golf, I miss my kids when I get to play now—especially in a post-COVID world where I'm almost always at home. And there are feelings of guilt and anxiety that something will go wrong when I leave, which leads me to wonder if I’m going to get the quick hook every time my phone buzzes.
The nature of golf doesn’t help. For one, it takes a lot more time than most activities. A LOT more time. For another, there’s a lot of opportunity between shots to think about all this stuff. You know, on top of stuff like, "Don't chunk it into that water hazard!"
McCabe says top tour pros also struggle with this transition into fatherhood, and that they work hard with their spouses to find ways to be more efficient with their time. Of course, getting away to play is crucial for their jobs so it’s necessary for someone like Jon Rahm to make that time. But for us (semi) weekend hackers, McCabe says the key to maximizing enjoyment from those breakaway moments is to actually break away.
“When you make the commitment, be out there and be present there. When you’re home, be present there,” McCabe said. “You get the pass, you get to play golf. Go be the golfer. When you come home, though, be dad. And that will allow our kids to be comfortable with mom and dad going to do their activities and coming back and being present with them. The most important thing with kids, it’s not volume, it’s quality of presence.”
Thanks, Doc. The next time I'm at the Ocean Course, I'll be better prepared—even if I don't play any better.