After the first round of the Olympic Men’s Golf Competition, Rory McIlroy once again proved why he represents golf’s conscience.
McIlroy was commenting on Simone Biles, the all-time great gymnast who stunned the sports world earlier this week by withdrawing from the women’s team final in Japan. Her withdrawal came not from a nagging injury but a mental struggle that held her back from competing. Because of that internal discomfort, Biles didn’t follow through on what has long been considered a core philosophy of any athlete trying to reach the zenith of their craft: push through the pain when your number is called and pick up the pieces when the spotlight fades.
Instead, Biles explained a feeling of “the twisties.” In golf, we would call them the yips, only gymnasts have to cope with this mental block while in mid-air, maneuvering their body into complicated positions.
She decided to honor her own expectations of being a human ahead of the world’s expectations of her as a performer.
“I say put mental health first, because if you don’t then you aren’t going to enjoy your sport,” Biles said in the aftermath. “It’s OK to sit out the big competitions, to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you really are rather than just battling through it.”
Gymnastics and golf are kindred spirits when it comes to vulnerability, anxiety and depression. They are competitions so reliant on judgment, on comparing yourself to everyone around you as you wait a lengthy amount of time in between the small moments that determine your success. Failure is owned completely by the individual. Lapses in concentration can be humiliating. Loneliness is experienced far more than it is openly discussed.
Of course, both sports can be equally as powerful in a positive way, but both tend to attract the type of introspective perfectionists that can view the athletic endeavors as their identity as a person. It can create the illusion they are somehow less valuable in times of loss.
McIlroy knows this. He has admitted in the past to taking golf out of context, to feeling like life flowed away from him with every missed 8-footer. Now a 32-year-old husband and father, he’s taken a different approach. At the Open Championship earlier this month, he was asked whether he was trying too hard to end his seven-year major drought. His mind went away from the recent disappointment on the course: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to do what I love for a living. I have a beautiful family. My life is absolutely perfect at the minute.”
So if anyone could speak eloquently about Biles and the mental health discussion ongoing at the Olympics and within sport as a whole, McIlroy is an ideal candidate. What he delivered was gold-medal worthy.
“There’s been a few athletes that have really spoken up: Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles,” McIlroy said, while also explaining that he was “very impressed” with Biles and Osaka putting themselves first. “It’s not taboo anymore. People can talk about it just as somebody has a knee or elbow injury. If you don’t feel right 100 percent mentally, that’s an injury, too.
“I think in sports there’s still this notion of just like powering through it and digging in and you’re not a competitor unless you get through these things. So I think that’s probably part of it. But then when you hear the most decorated Olympian ever talk about his struggles and then probably the greatest gymnast ever talk about her struggles, then it encourages more people that have felt that way to come out and share how they felt.”
“I just shared that I’ve wasted money, I’ve saved money, I’ve bought businesses, sold businesses, I’ve lost 20, 30 pounds because of struggles. I’ve done everything you’re thinking about, I’ve done it all. So I said, if you ever want advice, just call me.” – Bubba Watson
And golfers are coming out and sharing how they feel about the loneliness of playing the game for a living. Matthew Wolff spoke up about his trying transition to professional golf by saying, “I tried so hard to be perfect. … I want to please everyone, I want to make people happy, I want to play well, I want people to root for me. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure, and I think it got a little intense. It got to be too much.”
At the U.S. Open the same week Wolff showed vulnerability, Bubba Watson followed up on his long history of sharing his own anxiety. He connected with Wolff, explaining how he wasn’t alone in his fight.
“I just shared that I’ve wasted money, I’ve saved money, I’ve bought businesses, sold businesses, I’ve lost 20, 30 pounds because of struggles,” Watson said. “I’ve done everything you’re thinking about, I’ve done it all. So I said, if you ever want advice, just call me.”
A week after that exchange, LPGA Tour player Lizette Salas talked at length about dealing with identity issues when competitive golf couldn’t be used as an outlet during the early stages of the pandemic.
“Even a 31-year-old veteran out here, it’s hard for me to communicate what I’m feeling,” Salas said.
Social media is still flooding with comments from the masses saying that they would change careers with Wolff, Watson, Salas or any number of athletes who have spoken up about anxiety and depression.
Wrote one tweeter: “They can have my 9-to-5 job while I hit a ball for a living and make millions.”
This is a sadly myopic view. Professional golf can be lucrative and enjoyable, but it can also be a slog of hotel rooms, press conferences and six-hour practice rounds. For every player winning a tournament, there are hundreds of others either trying to reach golf’s grandest stages or retain their place on them. That pressure-packed journey isn’t usually glamorous, and all human experience is relative.
Golfers are allowed to feel mental pain like the rest of us.
Last Friday, PGA Tour player Grayson Murray posted a lengthy tweet that served as one of the darkest reminders that golfers are far from immune from mental struggle. Who knows whether he would have posted the following if not for previous players who have come out with honesty and transparency:
“In a very short term explanation, playing the PGA Tour is awful for me,” Murray wrote. “I’ve struggled with injuries the last five years but those seem so minor to what I struggled with internal(ly).”
Murray went on to explain that he has dealt with alcoholism, like Chris Kirk did a few years ago, and that the PGA Tour hasn’t offered enough help.
If these are the few stories we have heard in golf, imagine the ones we haven’t heard.
This open dialogue that is forming, it’s healthy and incredibly overdue. Golf is a game where so much is kept inside – players bury their emotions underneath David Duval-like sunglasses or the growing payroll of the entourage dependent on how well they perform.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The more players like McIlroy normalize these feelings, the faster golf will get to a place where there isn’t a headline every time a player shares what they are growing through.
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
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