When we’re finished debating the many nuances of equipment rollback for elite golfers, we will all return to the game in its simplest form. We will wake up on a Saturday morning and plan our day around golf, starting with the anticipation of the first tee shot and ending with a shot-by-shot recap just before slipping into the ether of sleep.
We do it because there is a gravitational pull beyond the basic act of hitting a ball with a club. Something else is there, however you want to describe it. Maybe it’s the accumulation of kinship, exercise, nature, minor miracles of success and taking part in the game’s comforting rituals. Whatever it is, there is an alchemy to golf that keeps us obsessed in a near-spiritual way. That is why I play, and I’m sure it’s why many of you play.
But that meaning – the essence of why I am a golfer – sank in for me only recently. I wanted to share a short piece about my journey to reach that space.
Golf started as my search for belonging. I was 8 years old when I started to play, and I know this because my first round was a few weeks after the 2000 PGA Championship when Tiger Woods beat Bob May in a playoff. Amidst our being enamored with the thrilling final round, my dad asked if I would be interested in playing.
I wanted to play, but what I really wanted was to be with my dad, grandfather and others close to me who played golf regularly. Golf felt like this grand, mysterious gathering of adults, and I wanted to be one of them. The game represented that shared bond in which some of my most cherished memories would take place. Golf has always provided that, whether with family, friends, coworkers or otherwise.
But not long after I started, my relationship with the game became complicated.
On one side, I built a life around it. I played competitive junior golf at a modest level, getting down to a low-single-digit handicap and making my high school team. I formed lifelong relationships from it. I went to a PGA Golf Management university to start a career in it. I became a PGA professional and taught the game to children for a few years. Through it all, I wrote and spoke about the game in all forms. That expression became my biggest passion.
But golf also was consistently laced with shame, anger and sadness. My score dictated my mood, and my scores weren’t nearly low enough to prevent the snapping of several clubs. For years, I went without a 7-iron that had been gruesomely mutilated across my golf bag. I threw a 12-year-old Scotty Cameron Newport 2 in the garbage bin near the seventh tee at my local muni a few moments after I tomahawked a pitching wedge through the shaft. (A few days later, I went back hoping it would still be there. It was not.) Once at a junior tournament, I pull-hooked a drive and instinctively sailed my club backward in disgust. It broke in half on the corner of a starter’s tent, the pole saving a bewildered tournament official from certain injury. My personal favorite was when, during a foursomes match for college club golf, I became irate enough to extract a hockey puck-sized chunk out of the green just inches away from the hole. There are only a few cardinal sins greater in the golf world. The match went to a playoff and we replayed that same hole; I conceded a 10-foot putt that had to go directly through the remains of my madness.
There were always attempts to fix it, like quitting the game “forever” (for a few weeks) or practicing harder to avoid mistakes altogether or, as an adult, drinking enough to render it a “fun round” without consequences. For the better part of two decades, none of it worked.
Why was I doing it all? Because bad golf was not just bad golf; in my mind, poor performance reflected negatively on me as a human being. It sounds ridiculous saying it out loud. When family or friends came to tournaments, I would spend much of the round apologizing to them. All of them were nothing but supportive – and I badly wanted to impress them – but I was, for the most part, terribly unhappy. Before events, I would get searing stomach pain and wouldn’t be able to eat; after events, I cried in my room and didn’t want to talk to anyone.
I didn’t understand why all of this was happening. There were always attempts to fix it, like quitting the game “forever” (for a few weeks) or practicing harder to avoid mistakes altogether or, as an adult, drinking enough to render it a “fun round” without consequences. For the better part of two decades, none of it worked.
I still felt a pull toward golf, as if it were teaching me a lesson that I needed to learn. Even so, I thought the game might be holding a vendetta against me.
There were two realizations that lifted me out of the golf abyss. They are deeply personal to my life, but golf itself is deeply personal to me. I want to share them because I believe it’s important to normalize conversations around health, both physical and mental, as it relates to golf at all levels.
The first is chronic illness. I had been relatively healthy from a physical standpoint throughout most of my life until 2016 when my body started to break down with random aches, pains and fatigue. It didn’t prevent me from continuing to live – and no one could see the immense pain from the outside – but it did make life abundantly uncomfortable. I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease and, a few years later, chronic immune response syndrome. It’s kind of like having a low-grade flu and sinus infection at all times. You can live through it just fine, but everything is a little less enjoyable.
While I’ve made meaningful strides forward with my health this past year, golf may never be the same. I’m sure many of you reading this have suffered from something physical – a back injury, an autoimmune disorder, recovering from a surgery, etc. – and can relate to how golf fundamentally changes after these challenges. I don’t want to pretend like I was ever a great player, but my golf game has deteriorated in my illness. I have nerve damage in my fingers and can’t fully sense where the clubface is through impact. I still have my moments, but I usually get tired after nine holes of wildly inconsistent golf. I used to break 80 regularly; I’m hoping my health improves enough to get back there but those days realistically may be over for good.
In a strange way, I became more grateful for golf because of what I could no longer do. The anger of a chunked chip was more easily swept aside in favor of the fulfillment from anything positive – because there was so little of that positive golf left.
My new rule is not to write anything on the scorecard. To me, there is no score. I track “swings that felt good,” even if the result doesn’t live up to the feeling. Before I reach the course, I mentally go through a few non-golf goals for the day. Usually, one of them is wanting to get immersed in a captivating conversation with my playing partners.
The second realization that pulled me out of the void was Madelene Sagström. I don’t know Madelene, although she seems like a real gem. I’m referring to something she opened up about in February of 2021: Madelene publicly talked about how she was sexually abused as a young child, and that the effects of the traumatizing incident led to a deep discontent on the golf course until she confronted the lingering wound.
That moment mattered to me. Shortly after I started playing golf as a kid, I was molested by a classmate. It’s generally accepted that young boys are always running around doing strange things, but this was not something that could be excused as that. As an 8-year-old child, I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t know my body was being violated, and I didn’t know what we were doing was an inappropriate sexual act. But after it was over, he told me not to tell anyone about it.
Subconsciously, a seed of shame had been planted.
Like minimizing a window on a computer screen, I tried to push that experience away from me for about two decades. But it continued to stick in my brain. When I made a mistake, the voice in my head came back.
“Remember that one time? Remember that you are not a good person for doing that?”
I can’t say my internal strife on the golf course solely connects back to that trauma, but I do think it played a massive role. I took my abuser’s advice and stayed quiet; as I got older, I isolated myself in fear. When it came to golf, the swell of shame was a permanent infection that had me believing there must be something inherently wrong with me – something much worse than a pull-hook out-of-bounds.
There are various facts and figures around childhood sexual abuse, and it appears that girls experience it more than boys. In some ways, that makes it “safer” for girls to talk about their experiences and how it affected them, although I use that as an extremely relative term. We’ve been privileged to share some of those experiences here at GGP Plus.
I hope men feel empowered to also share, whether privately or publicly. In researching the topic and going to therapy to process it all, I learned that children who abuse other children are almost always victims themselves; it’s regularly a male parent or relative who has started the abuse. And boys are often coerced into never sharing what happened to them because they are taught that strength is gritting their teeth and relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms. They learn that being vulnerable is a sign of weakness.
As golfers, we should all be welcoming to stories of physical and mental trauma. We have all been scarred by something. Golf can be a sanctuary of healing rather than a chamber of self-punishment.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve dismantled a club in anger. I honestly haven’t felt the urge to do it. My game is much worse, but my enjoyment has never been higher.
Golf is now a safe space – a place to embrace the full alchemy of the experience.
Top photo: Tony Marshall, Getty Images. Other photos: Courtesy Sean Fairholm
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