Some years ago, a man came to talk to me about his trials and tribulations on
the golf course. He desperately wanted to play better and was convinced that
he was struggling with the mental aspects of the game.
This fellow was the epitome of a tough guy. He was just under six feet tall and
he weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds. In the past, he had worked
in two very dangerous professions. Prior to becoming a New York City narcotics
detective, he was a Green Beret who served in Viet Nam. He also had played
football and baseball quite successfully as a young man.
He told me that he was never scared or frightened while he was in combat or
while he was a detective, even though he was exposed to danger all the time in
both professions. Yet, a little while ball sitting on a thin piece of wood could
transform this otherwise brave fellow into a shadow of himself with sweaty palms,
a racing heart and weak knees.
How is this possible?
Well, golf is a very challenging and humbling game as anyone who has played for
any length of time will tell you. In addition, people who have played other sports like
baseball are often frustrated because the ball is not moving. It just sits there begging
you to hit it cleanly and to send it off down the middle of the fairway. In some ways,
this looks simple and it sounds simple, but it is anything but simple.
In fact, some golfers report being so up tight that they feel as if their arms are frozen
and they can not take the club back and release it to strike the ball. This condition is
referred to as being “ball bound.” In other words, the appearance of the ball causes you
to lock up and feel paralyzed.
Most of the time, this anxiety over the golf ball is connected to a fear of failing at
the task in front of you and a fear of embarrassing oneself. Some golfers report being
very nervous on the first tee when strangers and people from the club house might
be watching. We humans don’t like to look bad and this kind of situation can cause
a lot of stress even for golfers with low handicaps. It can make some people feel as
nervous as the are apt to feel when they have to deliver a speech in front of a large
Several years ago, an executive called me in the middle of the night because he
was very nervous about teeing off at a golf outing at Pebble Beach that was scheduled to
start the next morning. He was really worried about making a fool of himself in front
of his colleagues and employees.
I tried to give him some supportive advice and I reminded him
that no one in the resort was staying up worrying about this man’s golf game. And in
all likelihood, some of the other participants in the outing may have been having some
difficulty sleeping because they were worried about their own performance on the first
There are a number of ways to get over this kind of anxiety. First, remind yourself
that golf is just a game and that you are there to recreate and enjoy. Second, because golf
is such a difficult game every struggles at it periodically. If you don’t believe me, go to
any driving range and observe how bad many people look, at times.
Third, there are a host of mental techniques and training tips to help you relax when
you have that little white ball in front of you. These include relaxation training,
hypnosis and visualization.
In case you are wondering about the retired detective and former Green Beret,
I suggested with a slight smile that he might imagine that the golf ball is a grenade like
the ones he saw in Vietnam. This idea seemed to cause him to bring some humor to the
situation and to help him to place his fear in a healthier and more realistic perspective.
Jay P. Granat, Ph.D., is a Psychotherapist in Fort Lee, NJ