So, why do we play golf, anyway?

Knowing the answer can determine whether you reach your full potential

Sam Jarman
Tue, 13 Jan 2009

So, why do we play golf, anyway?

Why we play golf
Sam Jarman - in search of the secret of why we play golf

How are you feeling about your game at the moment? Are you happy and fulfilled when you come off the golf course? Or are you disappointed, angry and frustrated? For most golfers this will depend almost entirely on what they scored. Good score and the world is great; a bad score and we tend to ask ourselves "Why the hell do I play this stupid game?"

No one can tell you why you play. Why does anyone choose to do anything? It's a highly personal question and everyone will have a slightly different answer. Some want to shoot the lowest score they can, others love to compete against their mates. Some just want to hit the ball as far as possible, others merely enjoy the feel of a sweetly struck golf shot. For many the fellowship, fresh air and exercise are enough.

Whichever way you answer, it is the foundation on which your whole mental approach to the game will be built. As many of us know, if we have played golf for more than a few weeks, the game is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. If the way you think on the golf course is not organised (and this starts with having a clear motive for being there in the first place) you will never be as good as you can be. Everyone has their own reasons for playing. The clearer you are in your own mind about those reasons, the better your mental foundations will be.

Why we play golf?
Sam Jarman

I came to golf quite late. I was 13 by the time I got onto a golf course and started hacking around with a few mates. I was pretty much self-taught, so I had a bad grip and a bad swing, but I seemed to have a talent around the greens with a good imagination and good feel. I played because I just loved the feeling of hitting the ball and watching it fly or roll and go in the hole.

My hero was the legendary Spaniard Severiano Ballesteros, who in his prime was maybe the most exciting and most naturally gifted player the world has ever seen. The way he marched around the course, playing impossible shots from outrageous positions gaining obvious pleasure, was my inspiration. I was hooked.

Soon I had stopped playing football and rugby and running (all of which I was good at) and just played golf. I took some lessons and improved my swing and my ball striking, to the extent that I got down to a scratch handicap and had a decent amateur career. The highlight finishing runner-up in the 1995 English amateur final. I decided to turn pro at the beginning of 1998, and started playing on the Professional Mini Tours which were just starting in the UK at the time.

The funny thing was, the better I got at the game, the less I found I was enjoying it. My good shots gave me little satisfaction, I was just doing what I expected of myself. My bad shots became disasters in my own mind; I was letting myself down. I started to get horribly tight and nervous before I played, the victim of my own rising expectations.

Looking back, I realise I had started to lose touch with the reasons that I was playing. I had gone from playing golf - a game of hitting a ball into a hole with a club, which I loved for it's own sake - to playing another game.

At the time I had no idea what was happening. I just knew when I played badly (which was happening more often) I was grumpy and angry. The tighter I was, the worse I played, which made me more tense, which made me play worse. Even when I played well, I wasn't really happy, because I was just doing what was 'expected'.

The rounds I was playing were nothing to do with the game of golf. I was trying to live up to my own expectations. I was trying to prove something to myself and to my friends and my family. I was trying to earn money. Golf had become the means to an end, rather than something I did because I loved it.

A shot was either good or bad, depending on how I thought the outcome would affect other things in my life, rather than something I could either appreciate for the great feeling it gave me, or as something to be understood and learned from. The outcome had become more important than the process by which it came about. Once that happened I was dying as a golfer.

So now I ask what game are you playing? If you find yourself getting angry on the course, berating yourself after a bad shot or getting tense and nervous, the chances are you have stopped playing golf, and are playing a different game. The game of golf involves hitting a ball into a hole with a club made for the purpose. There is no pressure or meaning to the game, other than that which you attach to it.

And that brings me back to the question. Why do you play? What meaning are you attaching to the game?

When I ask someone this question during a lesson, especially if they have been playing for a number of years, I usually get silence, followed by some murmurings about fresh air, good company, and enjoying it 'when I play well'. Most golfers don't really think about why they play, it is just a habit they've got into.

They might enjoy being outside, and the company of their fellow golfers; they might even hit a few good shots from which they might gain some satisfaction. A lot of people who play the game are trying to prove something either to themselves or other people. This has nothing to do with the game of golf, and it makes most of them miserable.

Now when I play, I play the game to see how good I can be, and for what I can learn about the game and, more importantly, learn about myself. I know that sounds a bit trite, but as I said earlier, everyone has their own reasons for playing the game. I still care deeply about my own golf game, but I try to care about the process, rather than results. I still get annoyed and frustrated at times, but more when I don't do the things I need to do to play well, rather than when results don't go my way.

I know that playing my best comes from focussing my attention, and doing what I know I need to do, rather than 'trying hard' to achieve a particular result.

So next time you come off the course, frustrated and disappointed at the way things have gone, take a moment to sit down in a quiet place for a few minutes and really think about what golf means to you, and why you play. Think about why you took up the game, and why it was enjoyable then. Has your attitude changed? If so, how and why? If you can come to a conclusion (hopefully which is a positive one, along the lines of 'because I enjoy it', otherwise you might as well go and find something else to do with your leisure time) then you can begin to put together a mental strategy that will not only allow you to keep enjoying it, but also play the best golf you are capable of playing.

Tell us on the forum what golf means to you and why you play it. Has Sam identified some of the symptoms that often make us miserable, when really we should be grateful for the opportunity this great game gives us to play to our potential?

Sam Jarman gained his first handicap of 23 at Bedford and County GC and by the age of 18 had reached scratch. After reaching the final of the English Amateur, he turned pro three years later and gained his card n the Australasian Tour, eventually returning to England. He helped set up the EuroPro Tour in 2000 and after recovering from injury played on it for several years. He now gives golf lessons at The Explanar Golf Performance Academy at Collingtree Park Golf Club in Northampton.