Playing a Maddening Game: Golf Under Pressure

In high school I often worked as a caddy, hitchhiking to a golf course in the morning. (Oh, weren’t those the carefree days.) Flat rate for eighteen holes paid $1.75 for carrying a kangaroo bag with a fifth of scotch stashed in the pouch; if you carried double the rate jumped to $3.50. I used to play golf, too, on the free days when courses accommodated their toilers. And the two facts are not un-connected; it was caddying that cured me of golf.

The truth is that I must not have been a very good caddy. The main trouble? I just couldn’t keep from laughing—not from the contrived golf jokes but at the profanity that followed the bad shots. Golfers like their fairways green and the air blue, and as a parochial school kid, the volume of swearing that these crotchety old duffers generated cracked me up. I vowed never to become like those guys. For their part, they surely believed that I was snickering at the hooks, toppers, shanks, and slices—which certainly didn’t help me any as they calculated my meager tips.

Thinking back on all that cussing makes me wonder now why so many play at a game that so enrages them. Cutting edge brain science actually comes to the rescue here, partly. The hard consonants, plosives, and fricatives that are common to most cuss words—cotton pickin’ chicken pluckin’, and the like—may well play a role in releasing tension. In 2009, neuroscientists from Keele University in the UK discovered that cursing lights up the circuits on the brain’s right side and this actually alleviates pain. But neuroscience does not explain why players play an annoying game.

Believe it or not, it’s the hazards that keep them playing. To make sure that the game favors only the most graceful under pressure, landscape architects have long conspired with players’ distractibility and temperament by purposely filling golf courses with magnetic sand traps, exasperating ditches, spreading oaks, and picturesque sinuous waterways that will swallow a golf ball without apology. Hazards such as these have made courses more interesting by giving players more to overcome besides unfavorable winds and inconsistencies in their swings. Golfers love to compete, and competition, even if it is with oneself or the landscape, is often part of play. Robert Trent Jones, the legendary Cornell University architect who made designing golf courses his life’s mission, believed in “holes that required dramatic, heart-stopping decisions with grave consequences for miscues,” according to his biographer, Geoff Shackleford. Jones introduced these surprises into more than five hundred courses he designed in the twentieth century.

Course design ensures that the very rhythm of the game of golf conspires to heighten the frustrations of a bad round because the long walks between demanding shots leave brooders time to brood about failure and enlarge upon it. And this validates the claim often attributed to Mark Twain that golf “is a good walk spoiled.” In fact, amateurs play worst when they forget that they are playing. During a trying round of golf in Florida, late night television comedian Johnny Carson once heaved a new set of clubs into the lake. But even pros give in to fits of temper. The notoriously explosive Tommy Bolt (“Terrible Tommy”), who won the U.S. Open in 1958, wrote a wry advice-book called How to Keep Your Temper on a Golf Course. In it he advised players “never to break your putter and your driver in the same round.”

But is such catharsis good for the player? According to clinical psychologist Alan Shapiro the answer is no. He pointed out in his book Golf’s Mental Hazards that “by losing your cool you have also lost your ability to think clearly and focus. You have lost the time-suspended, childlike joy that the game can evoke.” The great Bobby Jones understood the relationship of maturity and pleasure and learned early on not to pound his clubs into pretzels. In his memoir Down the Fairway, which he wrote at age twenty-five, Jones apologized for so early an assessment of his life by explaining that golf was not just a humbling game, it was also an “aging game.”

I’m thinking of defying that observation, though. My wife and I have for many years lived across the street from a busy, well-kept public course and this past year she decided to take up the game. I became her caddy, advising when to hit with the three iron, when to use the newfangled hybrid wood, and when to keep her head down; I also keep track of the drive. Though her shots are not much for distance, she has the smoothest, most natural swing I’ve ever beheld. I’ve never seen balls fly truer. Now that she makes it look so easy, a heretical thought has crept in: why shouldn’t I pick up a club again? And I could even get a kid to carry my bag, $5&!Xdoggonnitt!