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Is someone else playing your golf ball?
Dr Karl Morris

Who do you actually play golf for? Taken at face value that may seem a somewhat stupid question, to which the typical reply will be, ‘‘ME of course’. Yet do you really play golf just for yourself? Or are there some hidden agendas influencing your behaviour and performance when you step onto the golf course?

The answers to these questions I find fascinating and in many ways they us the key to a hidden world – one that, for all of us, offers an opportunity to look more closely to see what’s really going on.

I am not here to say what is right and what is wrong, I am simply hoping that the following essay shines a little light on what I know to be a widespread problem most golfers are unaware of.

Nobody, in my opinion, plays golf totally for themselves. As human beings we are simply hard wired to seek approval from our peers. We like to fit in, we like to feel appreciated and – above all – we like to feel worthy. Yet some of these powerful unconscious drivers could be wrecking your scores, giving rise to a huge amount of frustration with your game – and no amount of swing instruction will be the answer. I don’t think that you will ever totally free yourself of this but let’s take a closer look at exactly what happens out on a golf course, at some of the behavioural traits we can recognise. Maybe you will identify with one or two of the personalities and then, perhaps, decide to act differently in the best interests of your game (and your sanity!).

I am sure you would agree that we all take on certain ‘personalities’ depending on the context that we find ourselves in. For example, your personality is surely not the same in a corporate meeting as it is when you are having a drink in the pub with your mates. Similarly, our personality will be a bit different with a brother or sister than it would be with our grandparents. Of course our basic character is intact but we all adapt somewhat depending on the environment and the context we are in.

If we can play the game and become absorbed in this task at hand we can lose ourself and create the possibility of entry into that special place called
‘the zone’. We get ‘lost in action’.
This is exactly what happens when we slip into our golf shoes and step out onto the course. We become a certain person, albeit unconsciously, yet it does happen as I have witnessed over and over again. We can best sum up what goes on internally on a golf course by way of ‘labelling’ some of the personalities I have observed over the years. If you catch a glimpse of yourself in any of the following summaries you will have to decide if that personality is best suited to getting the most from your game.

Be warned, though, your golfing personality will be deeply ingrained and it will take a considerable effort over a number of rounds/weeks/months to change if you feel it is necessary. For the majority of golfers I have worked with change is certainly worth it when they begin to see the golf and the scores they are really capable of begin to come through. So, let’s have a look at who is out on the course. If you wander down to the 1st tee this weekend and spent half-anhour watching groups set off I am sure you’d catch a glimpse of most – if not all – of these very personalities.

First up, Mr Exhibition?

Mr Exhibition has one favourite club and one club that he thinks is for sissies. Can you imagine what they are? Mr Exhibition absolutely loves his driver, he reads all the latest articles on maximising distance, he has the latest biggest headed, shaft-loaded tungsten whopper that he can take out onto the course and really show the others what he is capable of in the big hitting and impressing stakes. To Mr Exhibition it is the adrenaline pump that comes from really flushing that drive miles down the middle that makes the game worthwhile, even if it means he has to send a couple of balls out of bounds and off the golf course that is just part of the deal in being ‘The Man’ off the tee. To Mr Exhibition the nonsense that you have to carry out with the putter is for softies. What a waste of time. You can almost hear Mr Exhibition brag about how many three putts he had after he reached yet another par five with a colossal drive and only a 9 iron. He wears the ‘gives it a ride’ tag as a badge of honour and he can get into some serious sparring on the golf course if he gets paired with a fellow exhibitionist. A lot of rounds have some really high moments but after the game has ended there is usually a good bit of quiet time spent mulling over another day of handicap increases. To Mr Exhibition golf can seem terribly unfair when he plays with someone who just trundles it down the fairway half the length of one of his big drives but time and again he ends up being on the losing side.

What about Mr Ball Striker?

I have met so many of these people over the years particularly out on the European Tour. He is such a great ball striker they chant. The awe in their voice at somebody who is perceived to strike the ball well. They have a sneering disdain for those players who are not good ball strikers, they just ‘chop it round’ is a classic phrase. The fact that they tend to chop it round in less shots than they do is an irrelevance. They want to hear that particular strike, that particular sound of the club to grant entry in to this most exclusive of clubs. A favourite topic of conversation is just how short a club it is possible to have found that green on a par 3 with. Woe betide anyone who has the audacity to score low or even win a tournament if they are not in the ball strikers club. Similar in many ways to Mr Exhibition yet perhaps Mr Ball Striker is a more terminal case as his perception of the game is so skewed towards ball striking and technique that he finds it so difficult to put a score together with anything less than a perfect striking day. In many ways he is the ultimate narcissist because he only accepts great ball striking as the epitome of a REAL golfer. Ugly but effective golf is just too ridiculous to even contemplate.

What about Mr Friends and Relatives?

Mr Friends and Relatives is out there concerned, very concerned. He so much wants to do well because he ‘knows’ then that he will get lots and lots of strokes from those around him – namely friends and relatives. The problem though for Mr F & R is that he feels really bad when he does make a poor score. He walks a tightrope of a certain score making him a good person and a certain score making him a bad person. He has blurred the boundary between what he is and what he does. Too much of his sense of ‘self’ is housed on the direction that a golf ball takes. That is far too much pressure for any human being to have on his or her shoulders. It is not what Chuck Hogan said many years ago a ‘safe place’ to play golf from. When we identify too much of our ego to any external situation we become highly vulnerable to the inevitable vagaries of results and outcomes.

Mr F and R tends to get very nervous before a game, understandably as his very self worth is on the line from the moment he pegs it up on the first tee. He is not really playing a game anymore, golf has become something far bigger than that. Most times he walks off the course feeling deflated that his own sense of self has taken another battering.

Mr Angry?

Yes, I am sure that you have played with a Mr Angry. There is at least one in every golf club and he can make the wonderful game a living hell. Five hours with him is the sporting equivalent of water torture. People shouldn’t have to deal with it but unfortunately Mr Angry is so absorbed with himself that he has absolutely no concept of just what an ugly experience it is to be paired with him on the course. Things can start well, the boat can be floating nicely along and then bang! One shot is usually all it takes to set him off. Clubs buried in the turf, external displays of fury and then a solitary internal combustion that can last anything from a couple of holes to a full round. Yet when you look at it I think Mr Angry is still playing largely for somebody else, after all, how often do you see somebody playing golf on their own and burying clubs in the ground?

What is really going on with our red-faced friend when it all kicks off and the tantrums start? In my opinion a lot of the anger is simply a demonstration to you, his playing partner, that he really is a better golfer than the player you are seeing. If he can get so angry, so livid with what he is doing then it really does show the rest of the world that his golf is usually much, much better than this. If he can get so angry about a shot it means that you will understand just how good he could be if it wasn’t for the aberration you see before you today. Like the screaming child crying for attention, Mr Angry has never fully grown up to develop a mature enough attitude to play what is a tough and challenging game. There are obviously numerous other personalities that venture out onto the course but these have been the ones that I have seen the most over the years – and certainly they have been the most destructive. We have all had a tendency to be at least one of the personalities at some stage in our golfing career but the point here is that if the personality becomes the default, the norm, the person that you always become on the course, then it is time to do something about it before the game drives you mad.

All of this is easy to recognise in others but somewhat more of challenge to fix in ourselves. Perhaps the most helpful thing that we can do for our game is to commit to being Mr Process on the course.

OK, so what does Mr Process do?

Mr Process is very involved in what he or she CAN control. They play the game knowing that the outcome can and will vary. On some days they will go out onto the course and they will not score well. They will endure some bad luck, a few bad breaks, one or two cruel bounces, but this they realise is all part of the very nature of the game – in fact, the nature of life itself. To cope with this they focus totally on the process they need to follow on each and every shot that they take. The have a principle that everything that occurs before the clubface meets the ball is 100% down to them – i.e. totally within their control – but as soon as club and ball collide the element of uncertainty enters the equation.

A characteristic of this type of player is that he or she gets very absorbed in the process and the challenge of each shot. As Tiger Woods said at his very best: ‘I get so lost in the moment, the challenge of hitting this shot, this task’ – it is as if this shot is the only thing that is occurring that their attention is on. (Just imagine how good it would feel to play golf like Mr Process – to hit every shot with that mindset.) As part of his process this type of golfer also realises that he is more than the direction of a golf ball. He himself as a person is not too heavily invested in outcome. If we can play the game and become absorbed in this task at hand we can lose ourself and create the possibility of entry into that special place called ‘the zone’. We get ‘lost in action’. In a place where the mind actually wants to be. We as human beings crave the opportunity of being so absorbed in something that we lose our sense of self. We become the game and we are genuinely playing the game of golf. As esoteric as this may sound it is possible to become so absorbed in an activity that it really challenges mind and body but we do need to be playing the game for ourselves and not for others and the potential strokes that we may receive as a result of our ability to move a golf ball to a target.

Understand that neither you nor I will get this all of the time. You and I are human, with all of the faults and egotistical frailty that comes with the territory. BUT if we can begin to catch ourselves when we are playing the game for others, and reasons other than golf, then we can bring ourselves back to the process of PLAYING golf. It is something that we can all aim at and maybe that is the ultimate prize. The reward is that we can then sit back in the clubhouse after a game and reflect – regardless of the numerical outcome – on the fact that ‘we have done our bit today’. We have carried out our process on each and every shot, we have let the club and ball meet each other, dealt with the outcome and then moved on to the next challenge. We can sit there and know we have played golf. We have played the game for the sake of the game – and that is more than enough reason for anybody.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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