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Friday, November 21, 2014

There's An Elephant On The Tee Box!

I've always been grateful that my self-esteem isn't linked to my handicap or my scorecard, but I must confess that there's simply no better feeling in the world than a perfectly executed golf shot.  Whether it's a long, arcing drive that flies up over the middle of the fairway, landing with that forward bounce and leaving me with an unobstructed target for my second shot, or a putt that curves along a break on the green and drops pleasantly into the cup, there's simply no better feeling to be had.  I live for those rare and fleeting moments of perfection.  But what about all those other not-so-perfect shots?

I console myself by thinking -- and sometimes by muttering and occasionally by defiantly announcing -- I play golf for fun, not for money.  But that's not really true. I play for money, just not as much as the pros have on the line; and quite honestly, I have more fun making good shots than I do making bad shots.

It's the feeling that accompanies the perfect shot that I chase -- the adrenalin rush, the wave of serotonin, the flush of dopamine.  The perfect shot produces the perfect chemical balance of happiness and well-being, which is why bad shots and bad rounds leave us feeling just a bit dissatisfied and out-of-sorts.

We've all seen what happens when golfers who chase that elusive, transitory feeling of chemical perfection exclusively through their sport, and the consequences that follow a pile-up of not-so-perfect shots.  At any course on a routine play day, thrown clubs, air turned blue.  Pouting, sulking, raging golfers tearing out of the parking lot.

Is there a difference at the level of pro golf, where the financial stakes are high and so is the self-imposed pressure to excel in a sport where everyone loses more rounds than they win?

Patrick Reed, 2014 Ryder Cup
Is that what was really going on when Patrick Reed derided himself with that profane homophobic outburst for his 3-putt at the WGH-HSBC Champions in Shanghai?  Or at the Ryder Cup when Reed seemed to be responding to a heckler with an invitation to do personal battle?

Although some have tried to make it so, I don't think Reed's personal politics are central to understanding his behavior at either Shanghai or Gleneagles.  There's another interpretation that hinges on how Reed's handling the pressure of hot competition and those inevitable not-so-perfect golf shots.

Professional golfers are supposed to be, well, professional golfers, able to let the bad shots, the bad rounds, even the bad seasons roll off their backs.  Right? That's what Stacy Lewis would have us believe when she tweeted after her disappointing 2-over par 2nd round at the CME Group Tour Championship:


"At the end of the day, it's golf. You just need to take the next shot and if you don't hit a good one, get up and down and move on." - SL
4:04 PM - 21 Nov 2014
Wrong.  Not everyone comes to the game with the same emotional equipment to manage the stress of disappointment or winning, and "move on."  Some are visited by stress-related disorders, invited or not, that take personally destructive forms.  John Daly has openly discussed his protracted struggles with depression and substance abuse.  Dustin Johnson -- well, not so much.  Are both players fighting depressive disorders that are fueled by inadequate stress management techniques?

Given the prevalence of depressive disorders in the population as a whole -- the Centers for Disease Control estimates 1 in 10 American adults struggles with some form of depression -- we can reasonably expect that in any given season between 20 and 30 of the pro golfers we follow, admire, and work hard to emulate, are struggling with some form of this demon.

Christina Kim's disclosure that she entertained suicide, and the tragic deaths of Michael Christie and and Erica Blasberg underscore the potential and very real, devastating results of not talking about and providing support for those who struggle with this elephant that's lurking on our tee boxes.

Isn't it time for open conversation, for a cultural shift away from stigmatizing emotional and mental disorders, for a climate in which golfers at every level of the game can embrace Christina Kim's remarkably simple cognitive epiphany?