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Many golfers’ problems solved by behavior modification


The idea for this column came to me while re-reading the all-time 1972 classic, “Golf in the Kingdom” by Michael Murphy, a book that should be on the shelf of every serious golfer.

The story is about a fictitious Scottish golf pro named Shivas Irons. While teaching a student during a playing round, Irons insists the player let his awareness of his score recede to the “back of their minds.” He would institute a “second scoring system” for pupils who were struggling. He would give them points for certain attitudes and behaviors, to reinforce changes he wanted. It was done to “preserve (the player’s) dignity.” Murphy writes: “Experts in behavior modification and operant conditioning would have been proud of my obscure Scottish professional’s grasp of science. You might try making your own ‘second scoring system,’ giving yourself points for a calm and centered attitude or a gracious remark to your playing partner when he beats you.”

That passage startled me. I thought back to my years of Ph.D. training as a cognitive behavioral therapist and how it would apply to golf. Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the premise that maladaptive behaviors are mostly a function of thinking, or lack thereof.  So I considered what types of problems, failures and self-defeating behaviors that golfers demonstrate could be changed for the better with behavior modification. After a couple of weeks the list grew so long that I had to select the most salient ones to share here.

We can start with golfers who are continually discouraged and angry about the fact that their golf scores reflect a performance on the golf course that is unacceptable. The root of the problem, very often, is the individual’s thinking and attitudes. Examples are: “I should be playing much better;” “I never get any good breaks;” “golf is simply not fair;” “the cards are stacked against me;” “I used to play really good and now I suck.” Perfectionism, emotional volatility, chronic complaining, rudeness and constant excuses about bad play are also common problems. It’s hard to make friends by acting like a jerk.  Change your thinking – you can change your results.

Negative attitudes hold many regular golfers back. Take the reluctance to have lessons, for example. Some people think, “I’ll never get any better.” Or, “I tried lessons but they didn’t work.” The issue sometimes is the same in teaching golf as it is with clinical advice to patients: Individuals so often reject the advice and don’t follow up with what they are told to do, and unhappiness continues.

And then we have to consider behaviors on the golf course that are unacceptable by normal standards. Things like temper tantrums, frequent yelling and club throwing. A few years ago, I was playing with a temper-challenged friend who missed a short shot to the green whereupon he threw his laser rangefinder at his golf cart and it completely shattered. And tantrums aren’t just an amateur problem. In the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush, Henrik Stenson badly shanked his iron shot on the 17th hole and then proceeded to snap his club across his knee for millions to see on television. Other unappealing behaviors include phone distractions, incessant chatting, ultra- slow play, disrespect for the game (e.g. shabby attire) and excessive on-course alcohol consumption.

I believe the main difficulty with unruly behavior by golfers is lack of self-awareness: Folks don’t realize their awful annoying habits. That makes it hard to work on self-behavior modification. Corporate managers often find out their behaviors need modification after they have been fired. Golfers might benefit by asking their playing buddies if they need to improve some of their actions and habits.

Golf, cognitive behavior