…Don’t worry. This isn’t a blog about periods.
But what I said half-jokingly in my tweet (you won’t regret reading the replies) – which isn’t really a joke – I’ve pulled out of two pro-ams from feeling like that and could see no way out of withdrawing from this tournament (a tournament which represented a chance I’ll probably never have again to join a ridiculously illustrious group of players) other than sleeping for as long as I could (one hour before my 1.15 tee time) — it is actually something that needs some illuminating, if not by me. And really, if the words ‘period pains’ are “too much information” for you…. Where are the females in your life?!
But the broader issue it ignited for me is one that golf in particular seems to specialise in. Sweeping under the carpet anything that isn’t “PC”… or off-white, as Koepka might say, with an arched eyebrow of contempt that seems to be as much for himself at excelling at a sport that his alter-ego probably never considered a sport.
It’s not ok.
It lessens what golf is. It lessens the stories it provides, it lessens the humans that provide those stories and it lessens the ability of those humans to be role models. To be real.
I read Iain Carter’s blog for BBC Sport on Patrick Reed (here) and he nails golf’s contradicting inability to deal with such a character. Reed is a classy golfer with an inarguable resume putting him amongst the world’s best. That ability is celebrated by those providing him the platform to demonstrate it. Reed is also, depending on your interpretation or willingness to reach logical conclusions, a cheat. That is neither celebrated (well actually… “perfect gentleman”) nor condemned by those providing that same platform.
Dustin Johnson failed three drugs tests, two for cocaine, (as well as some other pretty unacceptable behaviour) but all we heard was of a “leave of absence” to deal with his personal life. Compare that to Rio Ferdinand missing (not failing) a drugs test and having his entire career threatened as the FA sought to make an example of him. Then there’s the incessant fan-girling over the PGA Tour from its broadcasters at the expense of real analysts with real knowledge of the game, and of the actual viewer experience. Of anything resembling criticism. There’s also Saudi, which I won’t go into, but it’s there.
The irony of it all is that if it’s about money (whether I or you agree with it or not), it’s about entertainment. And what’s entertainment without drama? Without gossip? Without indiscretions and weaknesses and vulnerabilities? We watch for the awe, yes; we play for the unachievably intoxicating mastery of technical and psychological perfection – but maybe above all we watch and we play for understanding. The understanding of the dynamic in not wanting either Reed or Dechambeau to win but knowing it had to be one of them, the understanding of Rory breaking down on the course and off it at Portrush, the lack of understanding as we wonder whether the Jordan Spieth we watched getting a yardage from the fringes of the driving range of Birkdale was a figment of our collective imagination. The understanding of Tiger that we never thought was possible.
And yet, still golf does not like to talk about its demons.
Is it for shame of weakness? Is it for competitive edge? Is it for image protection? Is it simply not for public consumption? Maybe.
But both the studios and the twitter crowd – professional golfers included in each – will engage in debates about swing tendencies and 976 different methods of returning the clubface to square at impact, and argue about rolling the ball back and bifurcation and the merits of thick rough versus contoured greens, and whether the need for public golf courses outweighs the need for an exclusive world tour (anyone thought about the novelty of inviting women to that by the way? Tell me who went the longest without making a bogey in 2019), and whether playing aggressive golf is actually committing to conservative targets rather than going at every pin, and whether one PGA Tour win equates to five European Tour wins (it doesn’t) and whether Bernhard Langer, while relentlessly competitive, still anchors his putter (that might fall into the former category, on second thought). Even, remarkably – say it quietly – whether female golfers deserve a little more respect.
But we still hang back on talking about the things that make professional golfers people.
Talking about the things that are less to do with the glossy efficiency of elite level performance and everything to do with the flawed human tendencies that make the fan able to appreciate the person who makes the golfer. The thing I’ll never understand about it, is that one makes the other. There is no golfer without the person. So why deny that? Why drown it in meaningless platitudes or suffocating silence?
Why don’t we talk about the genuine effect of the human element on performance? Of having food posioning, or sleeping terribly, or having a fight with a loved one? Or stupid things that trigger a change of mood, a change of mindset? I locked myself out of my Airbnb in Adelaide after going back to practice on the Thursday evening of the Australian Open, and didn’t get dinner till 9.30. Two weeks later, I swung on my balance discs in my Airbnb in Dubbo, just before going to bed on the Saturday evening of the NSW Open, and clean smashed a glass lampshade, sending pieces of it absolutely everywhere.
Golf impulses combined with a lack of awareness that create one percents you might not be able to get back.
It’s like when you get to a certain level of performance, you’re not allowed to have ‘normal weaknesses’ anymore.
And being vulnerable is not a weakness.
“To grow up is to accept vulnerability”.
We don’t talk about the doubt that rookie professionals feel – not how they really feel. Not how shooting 80 when they’re in the last few groups on the weekend makes them question if they’ve really got what it takes. Not how they can go from feeling so full one day to so empty the next. Not how you can be back in the exact same place a couple of years later, with an entirely different set of circumstances but exactly the same set of doubts.
We don’t talk about how practice weeks makes you long for tournaments so you can prove to yourself that you’re on the right path, and how tournaments make you long for practice weeks so you can remind yourself progress doesn’t always show up immediately in the results.
We don’t talk about the spiralling black hole of failure and fear that inevitably precedes form.
We don’t talk about what the yips really are, or how it makes you feel. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that myself just yet, but god knows enough professional golfers experience it during their careers. “Focal dystonia”. Whether it stems from technical flaws I don’t know, but telling people it’s all “in their head” or simply a mental barrier they need to work through isn’t going to help them.
Scientifically, physiologically, when you do too much repetition of one movement, individual neurons in the area can lose their specificity and sensitivity, causing involuntary movements. Or as I tried to describe it to the people around me, “it feels like something between what my brain knows and what my hand does is broken”. And that’s fucking terrifying if you don’t know what’s happening. You know when you get cramp in the middle of the night, and you can feel it coming but you can’t do anything about it? You know the moment your muscle twitches in a certain way, you’re going to experience unpreventable agony, and all you can do is lie there and wait for it to happen? And endure it? It’s a bit like that. Except it can undermine everything you believe about yourself.
And the only reason we don’t know what’s happening is because we don’t talk about it.
We don’t talk about any of it, and yet we sit and smile and share videos of players getting emotional after wins or performances that change things. Because we understand.
The inexplicable, inescapable reality of professional sport and the humans who engage in it. We should really talk a little more about it.