• Author:Ben Jones
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Feeling below par isn’t good for my golf, or anything else.

Mark Twain is credited with coining the phrase “golf is a good walk spoiled”.  For those of us who love the game of golf this isn’t just wrong, it is inconceivable. 

For golfers like me, golf is not just the best sport in the world, it is a health, mental health, wellbeing and social lifeline. It provides us with hours and hours of fresh air; exercise; friendly competition; time with friends, family and the chance to make new acquaintances; provides opportunities to travel and walk amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery and landscapes in the world, and, it is great craic. 

For me, golf has played a big role in my post-breakdown reset as a activity that gives me so much pleasure and quiet, immersive me-time, where I am in nature and in my own thoughts, usually about what club to hit for my next shot, away from the stresses and strains of daily life. It is not an exaggeration to say that golf has been a salvation for me since 2015. 

I have been playing the game since around 1989 and play to a reasonable standard – being as low as a seven handicap (although now nearly ten). I play every week. When time and headspace allows I play competitively every Wednesday with friends and then try to find one or two other slots during the week to play alone. I am fortunate to be a member of a wonderful club, less than five minutes from home – Southport and Ainsdale – with a magnificent course and long and rich history, including twice hosting the Ryder Cup. It is set within the best golfing area in England – known as the England’s Golf Coast – bordering other great courses, including Open Championship venue, Royal Birkdale. 

But it’s not all good news. This week has highlighted a challenge for me in wanting to play good quality golf when I’m in the middle of a depressive or anxious period. It’s virtually impossible to do. 

My current state of mind is unsettled. Very unsettled. We recently moved house and aside from the natural stress of that process – not helped by COVID and all the various unhelpful and self-interested parties involved – there is a fair amount of work to do on the house and so I am organising lots of mini projects and different people who we need to help us. This is of course exciting and the results will be worth it but the process and the amount of change, upheaval and uncertainty in the short and medium term is triggering for me. 

I have also struggled since moving – it’s three and half weeks – to find my normal routines in these changing times. I have been exercising, reading, listening to music and podcasts, writing and working (all good healthy parts of my own wellbeing approach) but I am lacking the usual set structures and stability that I crave. I am feeing anxious most of the time – the nausea is particularly unpleasant – and my sleep is disturbed and my mind is busy and my attention span short and lumpy. 

Back to golf. Playing golf to a reasonable standard is as much a mental challenge (I would argue mostly a mental challenge) than a physical one. The importance of being present, following good, positive swing thoughts and approaching your shots and each hole with clarity of thought and purpose is vital. Here, as in so much of life, golf is the perfect metaphor for success. And that is something else about golf of which I am conscious. It provides me with an outlet for my ambitions and my desire to succeed. I redefined what success meant for me professionally, financially and materially after my breakdown and have a much more balanced, low pressure life now – thanks to my wonderful wife, who carries the vast majority of the work and financial stress for our family. But I am still ambitious. I still want to be a success and that includes on the golf course. 

I have goals. To play all the Open venues. To break 74. To get my handicap down to six. To win an individual competition at the golf club. To average less than 30 putts a round. To have a better short game. To hit more fairways. And on and on. I like having these goals and a plan to achieve them – just like in other aspects of my life – but I am conscious of not replacing work pressure with other debilitating pressure in an area of my life – my golf – which should (and mostly is) a source of enjoyable, battery recharging and sheer pleasure. 

It’s a balance. To play well and compete but also to keep it in perspective. Yesterday’s round was a great example for me – and there have been many in recent years – when I arrive on the golf course with good intentions but an inability to truly focus and concentrate on the job at hand. My mind wanders. I can’t do the simple mental things I need to play well. I am using up so much of my mental energy just to get through the day so it becomes very, very difficult to dig deeper for more concentration to watch the ball or remember to stay down on my short putts. The result. A poor score and a feeling of failure. 

It passes and I have it in perspective but it hurts. It hurts because my mind – my troubled, depressed, anxious mind – is again getting in the way of something I love and enjoy and stopping me from being the best version of myself. Golf is hard enough – especially at a championship standard course like mine – without having one hand tied behind your back because your mind is sabotaging your best efforts. 

The moral of the story? Golf is wonderful. But golf is hard. Golf is the best game in the world. But to play golf well you need everything to be working. Everything in sync, especially your mind. This week – and for quite a few weeks now – my mind has not let me play my best golf. And that is painful and annoying

You might read this and think that is the definition of a first world problem. Fair enough. But it is important to me and it can be heartbreaking to put so much effort into something and get so little in return. 

Mark Twain was right about one thing, golf is a good walk and so I can still take something positive from disappointing rounds, including yesterday. I was lucky to have great company and friendship throughout. I spent four hours in picture book surroundings and wonderful weather. I walked six miles or so and smashed my steps target for the day. I had a delicious sausage roll after nine holes! But I also want to take a few lower scores from these rounds and the satisfaction of achieving some goals. 

Living with depression doesn’t mean having to live with failure but I know that to succeed at golf I need help from my restless mind. At the moment, my mind is elsewhere.