While reading John Feinstein’s story about the increasingly famous temper of Jon Rahm, I couldn’t help remembering one of the simplest and most reliable truths I learned while following the PGA Tour: Golfers are never more than one shot away from rage.
It’s an angry sport full of angry people, and for every moment of triumph and joy, there are hundreds of temper tantrums, big and small, to tilt the emotional balance in favor of fury. The old PGA Tour slogan, “These guys are good,” is a lie by omission. Sure, they can play, but that’s missing the real point. Spend any time on the scene, and you’ll come away with a very different message: These guys are mad.
Depending on the player, the anger takes different forms. With someone like Bubba Watson, it seems to come out of nowhere, and either engenders itself in a self-pitying quality or shoots out at the nearest target—occasionally his caddie. Patrick Reed’s anger is more predictable. If he has a bad round, red blotches appear on his cheeks, he grits his teeth, and he retreats with his wife after rounds, declining to talk with the media after his round.
Others, such as Tiger Woods or Rahm, keep it together in front of the reporters, but can’t help themselves from shouting obscenities after bad drives that are inevitably caught on camera and result in lectures from the TV commentators and undisclosed fines from the tour. Other players throw things. Others sulk.
Ernie Els and Ian Poulter represent yet another variety—players who look mildly irritated on the course, but save their true bile for the reporters waiting to ask about their struggles. It’s a recurring theme; they’re already angry, and we make an easy target.
Anger is so prevalent on tour that it’s practically a way of life. In 2014, the year in which I traveled on tour on an almost weekly basis, I can think of at least one incident from almost every player I encountered. Graham DeLaet kicked his bag in Akron. Billy Horschel kicked a trash can by the scorer’s tent at the Wyndham. On the more subtle side, Hunter Mahan gave a deep sigh and shook his head the two times in 2014 when I asked for a minute of his time, though I think this might be a strategy he employs with all media in an effort to A) keep the interview brief, and B) dissuade us from ever asking again.
Nobody is immune to the anger—not even the good guys. Jim Furyk soon became one of my favorite athletes because no matter how poorly he played, he never resorted to peevishness or silence after a bad round. But even he could get pissed off. After his final-round 70 at the 2014 Barclays, when he finished eighth after being in contention early on, the New York Post’s Mark Cannizarro caught him in the flash area by the clubhouse to ask about his close calls.
Q. These things build, these runners‑up and things like that, and you’re getting so close. I know you said yesterday you kind of learn from each thing. Is there a common denominator for these things where you just can’t punch it in on Sundays, you know what I mean, where you just haven’t had that really low round‑‑
JIM FURYK: I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s kind of a shitty thing to say. And the reason I say that is I had three seconds this year with a 65 and a 66 on Sunday—
Furyk only lost his cool for a second, and he finished the conversation by shaking Cannizarro’s hand, but it shows that even the coolest customers succumb to the culture of anger now and again.
The list goes on—Steve Stricker, often considered the nicest man on tour, can get snippy with reporters after a bad round, or dodge them altogether. Adam Scott and Justin Rose, two champions who carry themselves with the type of grace, dignity, and kindness that tour executives and agents dream about, will, on rare occasions, make a noise that sounds vaguely like a curse. Rory McIlroy, one of the smartest golfers in the game and someone with an excellent perspective on life in general, will throw clubs at his bag and let off steam with a terse f-bomb. Jordan Spieth, golf’s golden boy, had to fight his penchant for the kind of self-directed anger that can spoil an entire round—and that arguably cost him a Players Championship and a Masters title early in his career.
Why Does It Happen?
What makes golf such an angry sport? If you’ve ever played, even for a week, you can probably make an educated guess. Every amateur understands the psychological pitfalls of golf—it will drive you to madness 10 times, at a minimum, for each time it delivers a brief moment of satisfaction. It’s a game for addicts, and it inspires varying levels of misery among the masochists who play.
The difference between you and the professional is that you can walk away—your life will be judged by other metrics. For a professional golfer, the only escape is failure. What preserves them, aside from the natural gifts that are never enough on their own, is perfectionism. It’s the quality that delivered them to the lofty heights in the first place, the thing that drives them to sharpen their skills in the face of intense competition. It’s also, paradoxically, the thing they have to fight in order to retain even a shred of sanity.
That was my theory, at least. To see if an actual expert agreed, I reached out to Dr. Greg Dale, the Director of the Sport Psychology and Leadership program at Duke University. Dale has worked with athletes of almost every kind in the last 20 years, from juniors to D-I college talents to pros. In his time spent with competitive golfers, both at the collegiate and professional levels, he identified the same general trait shared by many who excel at the sport.
“Golfers tend to be more perfectionistic in their tendencies,” he told me, “and that can be a great quality. But you also have to be able to recognize when that quality is kicking you in the butt.”