So there I was, lying in my old bed in the family home a few years back and brooding magnificently. All my early morning gloom was lacking was a Smiths album playing in the background.
Actually, I was just bored. Or so I realised as I began to feel the postcard-blue haze of an unseasonably bright winter’s morning filtering through the closed curtains.
My mood lifted. The word golf dropped into my brain and I sprang up from my misery, dressed and washed quickly and was soon in the shed disentangling my old golf clubs and cart from the clutter.
It was well on its way to being one of those shimmering, airy days that make us Irish a little giddy and as I strode the half-mile to the course with trolley and clubs I realised I had forgotten how to be delighted.
There was no-one else on the course, and the whole manicured green wilderness all around me was mine!
I was playing quite well early on and mind and body were as light and unencumbered as the air. But around the fourth hole a spectacularly wayward drive followed by a fluffed recovery from the gnarling rough darkened my mood just a bit. Then a little later, I carried out a shallow-excavation job with a seven-iron that had me swearing out loud. Bloody wars had been fought over less soil than the divot I was stomping down!
Pretty soon this wretched, malevolent game had been expressly designed to frustrate me — why me? I whined, and with no-one around I was free to let loose my rage. But so far, so containable.
Near the seventh tee-box was a large, flat rock and after barely watching a brand-new Titleist 1 disappear into irretrievable oblivion to the far right, I sank down on to the rock.
My eyelids began to blink hot salted rivulets of anger and frustration. The dam of my defences had finally burst.
I hadn’t cried for a long time and it didn’t last long. But my misery was only clearing its throat. Pretty soon everything came into play as I sat on that rock, the looped tape of my self-admonishment now at maximum volume.
Here in the petty court of my mind, my failures were read out shrilly, the timid objections of my shrivelling self-regard overruled in his seat. Guilty, guilty, guilty chorused the jury of my selves, as directed by the judge, also myself, of course. Tried, sentenced and taken down in my own head.
But even negativity needs a break and with just my arid, twitching eyelids to remind me, I stood up and reached for my trolly to resume playing.
“I am not my golf game” was my calming mantra as I sifted through a ragbag of half-remembered, half-forgotten tips to find something that might rectify my errant efforts.
This life-long quest for an efficient, consistent golf swing is the alchemist’s quest of our age, with perfection always a minor grip adjustment away. Golf itself is the ideal game for obsessives, with that constant tinkering with, grip, swing, stance, equipment, mental approach … you name it.
I have often wondered about our own three-time major winner Pádraig Harrington and whether his obsessive practising and devotion to mind gurus got him to where he is or have prevented him from getting where he might. Maybe both.
Anyway, I was up and playing. An indifferent three-wood didn’t help greatly, but at least I was in the swing of it.
And then it happened: as heart-thumpingly unexpected as a great shot often is for those of us not blessed with regularly accessible talent, an effortless five-iron swish sent the ball soaring heavenwards and as its downward trajectory began, the green was already preparing itself for its arrival. The ball came to rest five feet from the pin. This putt for birdie!
The effort of striking this wondrous shot seemed to have only barely rippled the sinews of my forearms, every part of it, from takeaway to finish as natural and easy as the drawing in and letting out of breath.
Thinking about it even then, I was aware that the very idea that outside worries would not impinge on my game of golf was a fallacy. I knew also that, just as a poor seven-iron shot did not represent all that I could hope for from this pitiless game, neither did a good five-iron shot represent all thwarted promise finally fulfilled.
Actually, I was my golf game that day. Those tears and admonitions were not for scuffed golf shots, they were for myself, for all that was happening, or rather not happening for me in the world, as I perceived it.
In golf … in sport, I believe you bring everything on to the course; there is no separation of Church and State, of mind and body. You only think there is. As Freud pointed out, for reasons of conscience, of shame, of guilt, or plain fear, certain issues are pushed out of the conscious mind, or repressed into our unconscious. But they reappear, in not consciously recognised ways when the psychological guard is down. And it is very often down on the field of play … especially when we believe no-one is looking.
So, beneath the surface, we are angry, or at least ambivalent even about things we love, and the ultimate question is how can we express that anger in a safe and positive way? Johnny Rotten was right when he sang, “Anger is an energy”; anger and aggression can be channelled, or sublimated, in a positive way. Like in sport. Or in a negative way. Like in sport.
In his paper A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Anxiety in Athletes, sports psychologist Tom Ferraro looked at some of the unconscious roots to performance anxiety in high-class athletes, such as the fear of emulating, or surpassing the achievements of the father, and he also looked at what underpins the shame involved for an athlete who performs poorly in public, and he talked about the possible unconscious satisfaction a sports person may garner from defeat.
Not even successful athletes get away without anxiety, according to Ferraro, and he talks about the unconscious guilt that winning can evoke, and the fear generated sometimes by success, and the psychical conflict that competition can evoke even for those who are seemingly good at it. Reading this I could not help thinking again of Harrington, and the mental conflicts he endures, and sometimes succeeds in stilling long enough to sink a birdie putt, before often punishing his audacity with the ensuing bogey.
All of this might go some way to explaining why, after that wondrous five-iron strike, I missed that birdie putt. Par for the course, you might say.