We’ve all got one, albeit to varying degrees on the golf course. A temper that is.
This isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Having a boiling point works both ways. You can’t have the intensity and desire you need to play well without having a temper too. That is certainly true in my case. If I’m not getting at least a little mad, I’m probably not “into” the round as much as I need to be.
Having said that, temper is almost always a negative. But the headspace I’m in when I get mad is still better than the headspace I’m in when I don’t get mad. That’s no good. It’s flat-line. And I am typical in that respect. Of the top-20 players I’ve ever competed alongside, 19 of them were completely crazy on the course – temper-wise.
Most players conceal that side of their personalities. Professionals are really good “temper-hiders.” But it is always there, bubbling below the surface, which is the way I think most people get “up” for playing well. If you play golf long enough, it will drive you crazy. The key is the degree of craziness you allow yourself to expose. Yes, there are outliers, the guys at the end of the bell curve. Dustin Johnson and Fred Couples don’t seem to have it in them to get mad about anything. That’s their personality. I’m sure they don’t get mad when someone cuts them off in traffic. Or stub their toe.
They are not normal though. Jack Nicklaus got as mad as anyone. Tiger Woods is the angriest golfer I’ve ever seen. By far. But the good ones use temper in a positive way. When I was playing my best and struggling on a particular day, getting mad was the only way I could start getting good again. It was almost like slapping myself on the thigh. There was something about slamming my putter into the bag after a missed putt that woke me up.
That is a “stubborn” anger, which is what I saw in Tiger when things were not going his way. I could almost see him thinking to himself, “there’s no way I’m losing this now.” Some people – most people – need that to some degree. Which is not to say it is easy to conjure up. There are days when all of us are simply going through the motions. And that is when the ability to get mad is most important. Do that and you can play again.
“Tiger was/is a master at switching it off. He can be completely crazy, then one minute later look as if he has been meditating with his Mum.”
Getting mad is not the same as staying mad, of course. There’s a limit to how angry you can be and still do well. Which, again, is common to almost everyone who strives to do well in any sport. There is a point for all of us where temper is counter-productive. Tiger was/is a master at switching it off. He can be completely crazy, then one minute later look as if he has been meditating with his Mum. He goes quiet. He walks slow. Yet two minutes before he was headless. That is an art all of the best must have – compartmentalising anger. I bet Jack was great at that too.
Which is to say that we are not talking about “real” anger. You can’t stop that, at least in the short-term.
Real anger is what Sergio Garcia displayed in Saudi Arabia a few months back. He had a negative effect on other players that day, which is not something he will be proud of. I know I wasn’t. When I was 16 or 17 I “lost it” on the course to the extent that I was distracting my playing partners. When they told me that, I was immediately calm. It was over. Done. When I heard that, I was sick to my stomach and knew I would never do it again.
So over the years I’ve become better at hiding my temper. I’ve heard it said that you have to let it all go before the next shot, which is generally true. But a bit of temper in a full-blooded drive is often not a bad thing. It can narrow focus at a time when all you need to see is fairway.
Playing with a temper can be tiring, too. You are on a knife-edge. And things can go really bad, really quickly. Again, that was true of me. When I stayed “in the hole” my scoring would be awful. I’d start working on weird things in my swing. And that was when I’d go from two-under par at the turn to shooting 80.
Then again, I never got mad in the final round of a major when I was in contention. It was like I knew there wasn’t time for any of that stuff. It was a waste of my time and energy. I transcended temper. I knew it was counter-productive. So I just didn’t go there. No matter how bad the shot I just hit. So, in the most intense situations, I was always sensible.
What always got to me was starting a final round in, say eighth place, shooting 73 and finishing 25th. That always made me mad. That always set me off. So I would “indulge” myself over the closing holes. And that was why I typically finished
25th and not 14th. For me, that was the hair-trigger, not when I was feeling the most pressure. At those times, I was always super-composed and saw things super-clearly. Getting mad was never part of the equation.
If you know where to look, the signs are there when someone gets to that stage. I would always squeeze the grip on my club really hard. Tom Watson used to pinch his leg in his pocket. He would end up with scratch marks on his thigh, all because he was big on not showing how upset he was. And I’ve heard that you could tell when Nicklaus was mad – his ears would go really red.
Whatever, we all have “tells” when we get angry. An animated conversation between player and caddie, the player dictating, is a dead giveaway. When a player gets mad he has to vent and the caddie is the only one there and the only one listening. Some players take it all out on themselves – that was me – which is counter-productive. Others take it out on the caddie, which is probably better for your golf game but isn’t very nice to be around.
I’ve broken plenty of clubs, but have always regretted it instantly. I knew that club would never quite be the same again. Tee markers have also taken some punishment from me. Looking back, I got really good at not staying mad, but could never quite get rid of the “snap” reaction. It was always there.
Embarrassment is a big cause of anger. We all want to play well so much. So playing badly sets us off. The subliminal message we are sending to others, of course, is that we are so much better than the way we are playing that day. We want everyone to know that. Trouble is, the message we are actually sending is that we are not full and mature grown-ups.
Still, as I said at the start, we are all different. Take Sergio again. He is on a roller-coaster on a good day Happy. Grumpy. Happy. Grumpy. Sad. Laughing. Sad. Neutral. That’s his life and so that gets amplified on the course. And when that happens, I must admit I enjoy it as much as anyone else. I have often laughed at another player losing the plot. It is so funny, as long as they stop short of damaging greens or bunkers. That’s crossing the line.
Just about my favourite sight is when a player buries a club into, say, a cardboard rubbish bin, something I’ve done myself multiple times. And then he/I can’t get it out. I remember one well-known player smashing his wedge through a sign in Dubai. Then he couldn’t get it out, which was hilarious. We all laugh at the guy who loses his temper without affecting anyone else’s game.
Henrik Stenson is another of my favourites. I’ve seen him throw clubs over his head into lakes. That’s his signature move. He’s a great guy but he can get crazy. The key is he knows he is. And when he gets past that moment of high fever he laughs at himself. Others don’t admit to being crazy. But he always does.
Bottom line? Everyone gets mad playing golf. The key is using it as a positive, not a negative. Make “rational rage” your target. You can’t be as good as you can be without that aspect of your character. Without it, you just don’t care enough, which is the worst situation of all. So lose your temper. Get it out. You know it makes sense.