Golf – Not a Game of Perfect: The Challenge

By Stephen Walker, Ph.D.

If you play Golf, and you really love the game, you already know that its guaranteed to make you crazy too…. Jack Nicklaus used to say that “Golf is a game that is actually played on the course located in the 6 inches between your ears”.

Those that truly work at it, realize that it is a tough game, but many don’t understand why. 

After all, there are several golfers that don’t even consider it a sport because, after all, anybody that can play a sport while drinking beer couldn’t possibly consider it a serious sport.

Truth be told, it is the motor skills required to play well, that make it so challenging.  If they really studied motor learning, and they still cared about playing at an expert level, they would genuinely appreciate the athleticism this past endeavor requires to play at an expert level.

Anybody who has played golf, and who comes from a family of golfers appreciates the game in many ways. First, and foremost, golf comes with the mental challenge, which requires highly attuned executive functioning skills. These executive functions require planning, sequencing of shots, focusing on distance, tension, grip strength, speed, tempo and more.

 I’ve made a living working with athletes in every sport, some of them Olympians and Medalists in World Championships.

But golf … it is special.

It begins as a mental test of skills. It calls on the athlete’s “Inner game”, the emotional part is what makes people crazy when they can’t do something one day, they felt was mastered the day before. 

These things confront all who play, at least those that care to compete.  And then, there is the etiquette and social nature of the game. Golfers strive to be cordial, gentlemanly, ladylike and bring their best attitudes to the game, for it deserves that. 

It’s not popular to scream obscenities and throw clubs, because the behavior is bohemian. We are better than that aren’t we? Yet, that’s the kind of crazy that people get when things aren’t going according to plan.

As an athletic challenge, it is unparalleled. Why? Because It requires the use of fine motor skills, coordinating power, in addition to well-trained, eye, hand, ball, and multiple-target orientations. Add to that physical movements that resemble the artful performances of dancers, both classically trained and recreational and you’ve got golf. Lovers of movement in many forms, are hooked. 

It is also important to value the ethics involved in this challenge. Not only are players expected to score themselves honestly, they play with honor and trustworthiness that should they make a mistake, or break a rule, they are expected to call a penalty on themselves.  It is a matter of honor, honesty, and recognizing the “rub of the green.”

Then, there is the beauty of the courses themselves. They are pieces of art, and science, so challenging that course architects work diligently to fool the eye, require the body to hone balance and test their mind’s ability to perform calculations both internal and external.

But what sets golf apart from all sports is that it is performed in man- made idyllic environments amid outdoor landscapes, that embrace birds, lakes, creeks, rivers and ocean scenes. Greenery abounds.  The most challenging architects design courses that aim to make your experience rapture and frustration, all at once.

Rick Reilly, author of several fun books about golf (“Shanks for Nothing”; “Whose Your Caddy?”; “Commander in Cheat – Golf Explains Trump”). Reilly is, above all, a golf lover.  And like me, comes from a family that has played the game together throughout their entire lives, for you can do that in golf.  Those that say it can’t be a sport if you can play it with kids and grandparents and still drink beer are wrong.  They play a different type of game. And their ability levels usually reveal that on the 1st tee.

So, if you are looking for a new obsession, please give it a go! 
There are many quality PGA Teaching professionals, swing coaches, sport psychologists, caddies with amazing experience and many others whose primary goal is to create a great experience for you.  I personally know many of them. So, give me a call if you’d like to meet up with one and take a lesson.  It is the BEST way to learn!

Picture this: “You are in the fairway, on a beautiful hole, you can see the green, but you are clearly aware that this shot is going to be an enormous challenge to even get your ball close.  For some reason, not expecting much, you take a particularly smooth swing at the ball.  It takes off with authority.  You can feel this swing, contact, and physical experience throughout your entire nervous system. It feels like it’s resonating in every cell of your body.  What is occurring is an indescribable sensation you’ve never experienced in ANY other SPORT.  And then you watch the ball take off.  It reverberates with power and “on a line” exactly as you “pictured It” in your mind.  It tracks beautifully on target and it is a wonder to behold. Experience that, even once, AND IT WILL BRING YOU BACK, again and again.  Developing your game well enough that you can do that a lot, and you become obsessed. It is not a game of perfect, but it’s a game that will bring you joy whether you’re 17 or 71, it’s the beauty of the game, experience, challenge, beautiful landscapes, good company, and joy from a great shot that brings you back, time after time.




One thought on “Golf – Not a Game of Perfect: The Challenge

  • October 20, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I think golfers do have a better understanding of the mental rigors of golf compared to tennis players. Half of golfers use the beads to keep score. Golfers are acutely aware of the improved aim when the same neurons that would keep score can focus on the ball and the swing.

    Tennis players rarely use a scorekeeper. At my daughter’s elite tennis camp, the other teens look to her for the game score, since she always knows it because she has izzers on her racket. She is bemused by their checking with her for the score.

    In team tennis events, the mental breakdown almost always shows up during the tie-break. You see the look of confusion at 6 all, wondering what the score is and whether the player is standing in the correct spot, followed by a double fault. Sigh.

    I predict that someday half of tennis players will, like golfers, also use a scorekeeper to improve their mental game.


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