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Golf - a question of life and breath

As courses in England finally open up again, Anne-Celine Jaeger contemplates the connection between golf and mental health with renowned acupuncturist Ross J Barr and Gordon Smart, broadcaster and co-founder of Copper Dog Whisky. 

Golf - a question of life and breath

Until very recently, I was what you’d call a golf widow. I’d watch my partner walk out the door, clubs slung over his shoulder, for the best part of a Sunday or any other day of the week for that matter. It’s OK, don’t worry, I’ve got the kids, the final word “Enjoy!” always coming out slightly tight-lipped and, admittedly, perhaps a tad insincere.

And then it all changed.

Desperate for some green space, fresh air and, let’s face it – time away from the kids – between the first and second lockdown, I began thinking, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and followed my boyfriend up to Highgate Golf Club one balmy, autumn evening. There, I was introduced to James Day, the founder of indoor golf centre Urban Golf [and one of the founders of Sounder]. James gave me a short, impromptu lesson on the 13th hole with a nine iron, as the sun was majestically setting over the green.

New to the sport, I concentrated hard on getting my body into the right position, on getting my swing right. There was an intense sense of focus, but also a release. Every swing brought with it a suspended moment, a moment of emptiness, of clear mind, of peace – and I understood. My mind hadn’t been so uncluttered, so free of the clench of jumbled, at times anxious thoughts, for months. It made me see the sport in a new way – like a modern-day meditation. I thought how it likely provides huge mental health benefits, perhaps especially for men, as they don’t often allow themselves the opportunity to talk intimately and uninterrupted for long periods of time. In some ways, a round of golf could be seen like a four-hour exhalation, a letting go of all that is troubling you.

My thoughts were confirmed by the recent Syngenta Golf poll, which found that stress relief was the primary motivation behind people joining golf clubs during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last year, both Ross J. Barr, a five element acupuncturist and Gordon Smart, a TV and Radio presenter, have witnessed the mental and physical benefits of golf first-hand.

Smart, who grew up playing golf in Scotland with his brother, hickory jigger in hand, re-found his love for the game following a triple whammy of bad news in 2020: a traumatic health diagnosis, the sudden loss of his job and the grinding effects of the pandemic. Barr meanwhile, rediscovered the gift of not only time, but in particular time in nature, with his lifelong golf buddy and brother Stu.

As it has been scientifically proven that contact with nature slows down our stress response, induces calm, improves our mood, decreases the risk of depression and also increases our social wellbeing, in particular on the golf course where individuals interact with other members of the community, I was interested to hear about their thoughts on golf and mental health.

Numerous themes emerged in our conversation, in particular golf as a mindful activity, the profound connection with nature the sport provides, going deep – either into conversations or into the self and the realisation that very few places exist where you can actually disconnect yourself from the world – but golf provides just that: A stillness in the present moment. Here is our conversation:

Golf provides an opportunity for men to talk to one anotherMen don’t realise how much they need the company and the need to talk to other men until they’re there, on the golf course. Photo: Ben Ingham

What kind of mental health benefits does golf provide for you?

Ross J. Barr (Five element acupuncturist and health specialist): "I think golf is as close to a modern-day meditation as you can get. You are forced to be away from screens, phones, technology… It gives you the rare opportunity to do one thing at one time, probably for longer than you would ever do anything else – longer than a movie, or than you’d read a book. It forces you to align yourself. It calms your adrenals and cortisol levels."

Gordon Smart (TV and radio presenter): "One of the most important things golf brings me is a connection with home. The idea of finding comfort in surroundings you are familiar with, of safety and security. So much in the world feels volatile at the moment. But when I play golf now, I walk in the surroundings I grew up in. Maybe it’s linked to the time I find myself in. I turned 40 in the first lockdown. There is a bit of an existential inner monologue going on, about getting older, about being a father, and I have visibly watched the trees that were planted in the 90s grow up with me. It’s a real connection to childhood and family and playing again in the last year has brought back all these memories, and I appreciate them and am very grateful for the life I have. The seasonal aspect of golf is also incredibly grounding and moving. The first parts of spring, the colours in the autumn, the smell of wildlife…"

Do you think the nature of golf allows men to have conversations they might not otherwise, in particular, if they were in a pub for example?

Ross J. Barr: “I think men don’t realise how much they need the company and the need to talk to other men until they’re there, on the golf course. It’s only afterwards that they realise how much they needed it.

“Golf provides men with the opportunity to dip in and out of conversations between shots. It allows for time together and alone, so it means you can change up the energy. You can spend time digesting something and come back to it. As rapports build and you feel calmer, the golf course provides a safe environment and coupled with that you have the opportunity to move Qi (pronounced chi). When you move through stagnation, you are more likely to think clearly. I’ve been on a golf course and ended up talking about things I’d never dream about talking about. If the rapport feels right, you might end up broaching subjects you might have otherwise held back. It’s also the fact that you walk alongside each other. Not being forced to look at an individual might make people more inclined to open up."   

Gordon Smart: “What I love about golf is the broad church of people I play with. Every time I play with different company, the conversation is entirely different. One of the guys I played with most last year has got MS, at some point he won’t be able to play. But he beat me every time, although he is losing power in his arms. I’d play with him and he’d have this beautiful view on the world. There was I, moaning about my health, and here was a guy being kept alive by medication. He wasn’t moaning. He was giving me a different perspective. What I love, it’s not so much the golf, it’s spending really good time with really good people. I love hearing people’s stories. It’s such a democratic thing. I’ve been introduced to some of the most important people in my life playing golf."

What links are there for you between golf and meditation or mindfulness?

Gordon Smart: "I first tried an early version of Headspace, to help clear my mind, when I was stressed out working on newspapers. During lockdown last year, I tried doing a little meditation before playing and it’s probably the best I’ve ever played. I’d go on a 10-minute mind focus app and empty my head of negative thoughts. A lot of golf advice I’ve been given over the years is rooted in mindfulness. I think it’s also about the rhythm of golf, your swing, the sound of your bag as you move across the course."

Ross J. Barr: "Doing one thing at one time is so unusual for many people. It’s also one of the few places you where it’s frowned upon to get your phone out and you quite rightly get chastised. Golf is one of those games where frustration, adrenaline and anger generally never help you. So if you play a bad shot and get wound up, you are forced to clear it and process it. If you keep that type of energy going into next shot, the same thing will happen again. Golf forces you to ground yourself.  It forces you to think, “Let’s get hold of this. It doesn’t serve me well.” With frustration and stagnation your muscles get tighter. You have to realign and come to peace with a shot and move on."

Golf is the closest thing we have to modern day meditationGolf is as close to a modern-day meditation as you can get. Photo: Ben Ingham

A lot of golf advice talks about less grip pressure allowing for better play, which could be extended to thinking less to achieve more. How has this approach affected your game?

Ross J. Barr: "It’s about breathing. One thing I try and do if I’m not playing well is bring it into my centre, into my abdominals, it’s a Qi-gong technique. If you breathe there it takes you out of your head. You are a bit more likely to soften the diaphragm and if you soften the diaphragm, your swing becomes less restricted."

Gordon Smart: “When I was growing up I was always told soft hands. I think that’s really true. I think if you are uptight and angry you make mistakes. Tiger Woods used to call it the ten yards rule. Once you’ve walked 10 yards away, forget it and leave it behind.”

After a year of on-and-off lockdowns, there is much to leave behind (stress, sadness, anxiety) and so much to embrace (friendship, family, the great outdoors). May the golf courses be part of our healing. May the healing begin.


Click here to read Anne-Celine Jaeger's book recommendations to explore the connection between golf and spirituality.

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