The year that changed everything

In this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, many golfers find themselves feeling a tremendous sense of guilt. You know what I mean. In the worst of times, for the lucky ones it’s been the best of times.

We’ve all talked about the quality hours and days we’ve spent with our families. Hanging out with our kids— especially grown kids who have moved back home—we took long walks, we cooked meals, we conversed like friends, we watched Netflix, we did board games, and we even played golf together. Boy, did we play golf!

Nationally, the game nose-dived at the outset of the COVID-19 shutdown March through May but has rebounded dramatically. The research firm Golf Datatech is still forecasting a 6-percent increase in rounds played in 2020. Similarly, retail sales for golf equipment sunk in the first half but grew by 30 percent in the late summer and is likely to finish the year flat—a remarkable recovery in a tough economy.

And those numbers seem under-reported based on our personal experiences. Golf at the local level appeared to boom. My club in Connecticut is up 30 percent in rounds played this season as tee times were booked solid, more families played together, and there was a casualness on the course—leaving the flagsticks in, walking and carrying fewer clubs, not raking the bunkers, playing faster—that simply exuded a big dollop of fun.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s been the greatest summer of my life,’ ” Dr. Bob Rotella says. “Not getting on planes, not traveling, working from home, spending more time with my wife and kids. Even when we play golf, we just play. There’s no 19th hole, no lingering, just four hours of clearing your mind.” It’ll be the year we look back on that changed everything.

As the pandemic forced us to quarantine and wear masks, golf became our great escape. “Men never talk about mental health or wellness,” sport psychologist Jonathan Fader told me. “Ninety percent never go to a therapist. They deal with their mental health through an activity, usually sports. Golf is the only sport you can do in groups and do it safely. We deeply need to be together. The real pandemic victims are the people who have tragically been affected by death. But for more of us, it’s been a pandemic of isolation—a loss of control. Golf helps you regain control. If you’re depressed, the two best things you can do is walk every day and be around people.” That sounds like a sport I know.

“Golf has helped reboot our mind,” says Rick Sessinghaus, a performance coach best known for his work with Collin Morikawa. “The game gives us a wider horizon to look at—simply being outdoors in nature shifts our perspective. Getting away from golf and then coming back has made us more grateful. ‘Gosh, I missed it so much.’ The message is about appreciating something taken away and given back.”

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews launched a campaign to promote the mental and physical benefits of golf. Research conducted by the University of Edinburgh found that golf as a physical activity helps prevent or treat 40 chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, breast and colon cancer, depression and dementia. According to a landmark medical study of 300,000 members of the Swedish Golf Foundation, golfers enjoy a 40-percent increase in mortality, meaning we live an average of five years longer than nongolfers.

One of the more beguiling studies was conducted by Golfsupport, a British sporting-goods retailer: Based on a survey of 6,500 sports fans worldwide in September of this year, golf was found to be the happiest sport. Golf fans scored the highest “happiness ratings,” followed in order by fans of track and field, tennis, Formula 1 racing, cricket, baseball, boxing, basketball, football and soccer. I don’t know if I actually believe the science of this study, but why not.

So what is golf’s secret sauce? The best answer I heard was from Dr. Fader (the perfect name for a golf psychologist): “There’s a mindfulness about the game,” he said. “It requires focus and a willingness to engage. What separates golf is the amount of time it takes.”

I told him it always fascinates me that the act of making a swing and striking a golf ball takes only a second and a half, which adds up to a couple of minutes a round, but 18 holes takes four hours. Golf is what happens between the shots.

He replied, “Abraham Lincoln said, ‘If you gave me six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.’ ” I thought it was Hogan who said that, but I didn’t argue.

The point is, this is the year that changed everything. For the lucky ones, golf has been our refuge.


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