Why is golf so hard?

I can think of very few sports in the world, especially those that I have tried myself, in which an amateur player’s form can fluctuate so greatly as much as golf. Whereas in other sports form will vary season by season, or game by game, in golf form can be lost in the space of a few minutes between shots. What seemed so simple a minute ago, when you stood on the tee box and sent an imperious drive 280 yards down the centre of the fairway, now seems impossible as you thin your approach shot 50 yards through the green and out of bounds.

So what are some of the factors that makes golf so fickle – your friend one day, your foe the next.

Well first, golf is an individual sport. While you might be playing the course with your friends, you’re actually out there on your own – you versus the course and conditions. So unlike in a team sport such as football, there’s no “hiding” in golf. If you’re feeling a bit jaded, you can’t slink into the background and let your teammates do the work until you’ve regained your energy. In golf, when you reach your ball, no matter what your emotional or physical state, you’ve got to pull the club and play. And this is where golf can expose the mental fragilities of even the best players. Think about those times when you’ve 3 putted from 5ft and walk off the green feeling like the world has collapsed around you…only to arrive almost immediately at the next tee to face a near-impossible drive down a narrow fairway in howling wind. There’s no choice at that moment – you have to compose yourself as best you can and get on with it, but as we all know, that’s easier said than done.

Secondly, and perhaps this is the beauty of this great game, no two golf shots are ever the same. Never. Even if you play the same hole 100 times in a row, something will be different every time – the wind, the hole location, the position of the sun, the length of the grass. So while it’s certainly true that practice is a fundamental (and annoying) part of golf, all we can really do on the range is try to get some consistency in our swings. The grass (or mat) on a range is generally pretty flat, the range is wide…it’s all very relaxed. But out there, on the course, it’s very different. The lie is uneven, the target is small... and whereas you can duff 100 shots on the range without any consequences, on the course, every shot maters. And even if you happen to have found a nice lie in the middle of the fairway, your “straight-forward” 125 yard approach shot is far from straight-forward. What’s the wind doing? Do I go at the pin, or the centre of the green? If I miss, is it best to be short, or long…or left, or right? Big pitching wedge, or small 9? Throw it long and spin it back, or bump-and-run? Uh-oh, it’s my turn. Everyone is watching me. I need to decide….DECIDE!

Thirdly, the combined technical and emotional stability is takes to execute a golf shot is huge. Huge. Sure, they are a lot of other sports that are technically and emotionally demanding, but a lot of them can be learned, and perfected. Playing a snooker shot, throwing a dart. I’m not saying they’re easy, but compared to golf, those movements are relatively straight-forward. There are dozens of factors involved in a golf swing, and it only takes one of those factors to be a few percentage out to turn a flush iron shot into a shank. Or a hook. Or a thin. And therein lies the problem. As amateurs, if we only ever experienced a single fault, then eliminating it would be easy. Like if you have a slice – it’s probably your grip, or your alignment, or your shoulder turn, or your release, or the length of your club, or the ball position, or your backswing, or your transition, or your downswing. But amateurs have multiple problems, which create a variety of results, and any one of them could be related to your grip, or your alignment, or your shoulder turn, or your release, or the length of your club, or the ball position, or your backswing, or your transition, or your downswing!

As social players, without the time and money it takes to become a great, we simply do our best to get round the golf course. We improvise and adapt, and in the most part, we’re very inconsistent. We try to copy the professionals, but the reality is that the version of the game they play is vastly, wildly different from the social game we play on the weekend. Watch the professionals the next time they’re in town. How high they hit it, how far they hit it, how they shape the ball with such ease. But most importantly, how consistent they are. A miss for a professional means 5-10 yards left or right – and even then they’ll be disappointed with that amount of error. These guys have (virtually!) eliminated shanks, duffs, mishits from their games. They hit the water not because they’re bad players, but because they’re trying to attack. They believe that anything is possible, and they’ll generally back up that conviction in the shots they play. But they have only gained this consistency and ability by practicing the game every day for years, and year and years. They’ve hit millions of balls, on hundreds of courses. They have access to an entire team of support staff, who are hand-picked and dedicated to manage each part of a player’s technical, physical and emotional wellbeing.

Professional golfers generally “lose form” because of injury or because they are making fundamental changes to their game. They don’t become “bad players”. For example, Martin Kaymer won a major and became world number 1 by playing a fade, but lost a lot of form and consistency by trying to work a draw into his game. It was said he did so in order to increase his chances of winning the Masters, and if that’s the case then he’s not the first to do so. But even though his “loss of form”, Martin Kaymer remained a phenomenal golfer, finished high in a lot of tournaments, and made millions of dollars.

Golf is tough, there’s no doubt about that. But if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be fun. It’s only by mishitting shots into strange, unexplored parts of the course that we get to play the sort of unbelievable recovery shots that make you feel every inch like a golfing legend. That’s the up and down of golf. That’s the beauty and mystery of the game.

99% of the shots we play out there aren’t quite right. But at least one shot on every round will come straight out of the screws and land exactly on the spot you were targeting. You’ll grin like a cat as you high-five your playing partners. You’ll 3-putt for double bogey, but that doesn’t matter.

That’s the only shot you’ll remember that day. The one you’ll tell your friends about. The one that means you’ll definitely be teeing-up again next weekend.