Commentary: Golf tournament reminds of the game's challenges

As the annual Toshiba Classic approaches, let's talk golf.

As a sports psychologist who enjoys working with golfers at all levels, and one who played competitive golf from age 11 through college, and then again two decades later, I understand firsthand how difficult it can be to manage our nerves.

For all but those at the very highest professional levels, who've learned to partially manage anxiety by turning it into excitement, nervousness in the form of pressure eats away at our enjoyment. Jittery nerves and hits of adrenaline are not pleasant sensations in a game that requires regulated emotions.

A lot of practice, focus and coordination are required in simply learning the physical movements of swinging the club well enough to repeatedly make good contact with the ball. We can think of anxiety and nervousness as the result of the pressure from our own negative self-judgment and/or real or imagined critical judgments of others when we hit poor shots. Our unrealistic expectation is that we ought to be better than we are.

In the early years of the Pelican Hill driving range, I remember watching Reggie Jackson raving in anger and frustration when he couldn't hit the ball the way he wanted to. Despite his physical abilities on the field and reputation as a slugger, he felt the same exasperation common to so many others when it comes to hitting a golf ball.

Like other pro athletes, he thought he ought to be able to conquer golf the same way he conquered his primary sport. What he discovered was that he couldn't. He was just another duffer, and he couldn't stand it.

I have long been convinced that golf is the most difficult game in which to become truly proficient ever created. Even the very best in the world, as we all know, are never beyond looking like complete fools when you put them in sufficiently difficult and pressure-filled playing conditions, such as the undulating and lightening-fast U.S. Open greens.

If you want to have more fun playing and practicing golf, try to remember that it's supposed to be a game to enjoy and a refuge from the daily stresses of life — not a torture chamber in which to beat yourself up. Tune into the natural and tranquil surroundings, allowing them to slow you down. Learn how to care less about your score. Banish your cell phone — no calls or texts when on the course — no business as usual.

Finally, learn how to play a round of golf without getting angry and avoid playing partners who habitually get angry. It took me a long time to learn how to play a complete round without feeling or displaying anger even once on the course, but I now know how to do it.

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STEVEN HENDLIN is a clinical and sport psychologist in Newport Beach.

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