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A horse without a rider

Golf is a sport that forces us to look in the mirror, even if we don't always like what we see staring back at us. In his first piece for Sounder, Jack Fairey takes a trip into his golfing subconscious.

A horse without a rider

It’s the last day of our annual golf tour. I’m in the final group. The whole weekend - which I’ve been looking forward to all year - comes down to these final two pairings. If my team wins both, we win. Anything less, and the trophy is going to the other team.

I’m one up down 17, but a bad pull into the trees leaves me up against it. I give myself a chance of par, but it slips past. All square. One to play.

The eighteenth at Bowood is a great risk reward par four. It doglegs round to the right, with water at about two hundred and thirty yards away. Take a driver and cut the dogleg and you’ll have a flick wedge in. Lay up to avoid the water, and you’re risking a long iron approach, even if you get it between two perilously deep bunkers.

I pulled hybrid, and hit a horrible low necky shot which mercifully found the fairway. But that’s where things started to go wrong. As I walked to my ball, I couldn’t get settled. Thoughts rattled through my head - that putt I missed on 14. What if I lost this hole as well and threw away the whole match?

What happened next is no surprise. My body froze completely, and it was like I’d never held a golf club in my life before. I tried to nudge a five iron onto the green, but horrifically pull-chunked it into a water hazard that shouldn’t even have been in play - the same water hazard I’d laid up to avoid.

The match was lost. And I had to spend the whole two hour drive home thinking: why?

I’ve always been quite a neurotic person. I struggle to live in the moment. A good way to describe it would be to fall back on that old cliche: he’s at war with himself. For me, that conflict has been a cold war that’s hummed on quietly in the back of my brain for as long as I can remember.

Occasionally, that cold war runs hot. Battles leap up in my brain between my artistic, liberal impulses and the awful fear I have at lack of control. When those battles get too bad, I fall into bouts of anxiety or depression, never feeling settled, always feeling scared. Sound familiar?

In trying to understand myself a little better, I turned to psychology. The old idea of ‘left brain and right brain’ stood out to me, even though it’s been rather debunked. But it made sense to me. My left brain (logic) was fighting for control. My right brain (impulse) was fighting for release.

But then - during an assignment for a writing course at uni - I stumbled onto Freud, and the idea of ego, superego, and id. I’m by no means an expert, but for readers more familiar with golf than early twentieth-century psychology, here’s the basic concept:

The Id is the impulsive, unconscious part of ourselves. It strives to fulfil our basic urges and achieve our basic needs. It is primitive and instinctual, containing our sexual and aggressive drives.

The Superego looks to control the Id. It is the moralistic part of our personality, very aware of the views of the society around us. It pushes for perfection over realism.

Finally, there is the Ego. The Ego attempts to moderate the Id, driven by reason and rationale over chaos. Similarly to the Id, it is driven by an attempt to find pleasure, but unlike the Id it tries to find the most logical way to get there.

This idea really stuck with me. I could identify with the feeling of a constant battle undergoing in my head, and I could recognise places where my Ego was overwhelmed from both sides. My anxieties came from an external feeling of failure, of wanting to impress others, of wanting to be, as Freud puts it, my ‘ideal self’ - classic Superego. At other times, in the midsts of bouts of depression, I had acted impulsively and chaotically in an attempt to feel pleasure of any kind - my Id taking too much control.

I know what you’re thinking. How on earth does this relate to golf? Bear with me, I’ll get there.

Because what is a golf swing but a battle between those parts of ourselves? The Superego strives for the perfect technique, remembering the tips we got in lessons, the video we watched on YouTube - grip, posture, club parallel to spine angle at parallel, rotate not sway, etc, etc. The Id meanwhile, is subconscious, impulsive. What feels good? What golf swing is pleasurable to make? Hit it hard, rip through it, no consequences.

Freud used the analogy of the Ego being the rider trying to control the horse, the Id. Jonathan Haidt extended that to include the Superego as the rider’s father sitting behind him pointing out everywhere he goes wrong. I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty accurate mental description of my golf swing.

So life is a constant battle, and golf mimics that. And in that lies the peculiar pleasure and misery of this fantastic game.

Many times during my life I’ve failed to control the warring parts of my psyche, and the consequences have been harsh. Lost friends, lost opportunities, lost relationships. But on the golf course, you can live out that battle with no consequences other than a couple of higher numbers on the scorecard. Every time we step onto the links, we get a chance to practice controlling our own minds.

Sometimes we win, and we get the satisfaction of that. The feeling of a proper brain workout at the end of a brilliant round, tired but jubilant. And sometimes we lose. On the eighteenth at Bowood, I lost. But it didn’t matter. We finished the round, got a pint, and laughed about the mistakes we’d made.

Life is hard, and golf can be harder. But at least with clubs in our hand, we’ve always got another chance to succeed - the next shot, the next round, the next yearly golf trip. Indeed, this September, once again in the final pairing, I got round to the eighteenth at Bowood and got to try again.

I still bogeyed it. Such is life. Such, in fact, is golf.

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