Why Pro Athletes Struggle at Golf

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David Leadbetter, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

In most sports that involve hitting a ball, forward motion is king. Think about tennis or baseball. But golf is a different animal: The wrinkle lies in the complex backswing, which is just as important as the downswing, if not more. In golf, you have to go backward to go forward.

Over my 40 years as a golf instructor, I’ve coached many professional athletes — from Mario Lemieux to Ivan Lendl to, recently, Derek Jeter — and they all say the same thing: “This is the hardest damn game.” (I’ll wait while golfers around the globe nod in unison.)

But think about that for a moment.

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Here are the world’s most elite athletes, for whom excelling in their sport is like walking. And they step onto the fresh-cut grass of a golf course, and … utter frustration sets in. For many of these athletes, swinging a golf club is the first time in a long time that their body won’t readily do what they want it to.

It’s a common misconception that athletes can easily transition to the links. The truth is a little more complicated. While athletes have a leg up on some of the mental and physical aspects of the game, golf remains a fundamentally different sport from any other. In fact, sometimes the very athleticism that makes a pro athlete so good at their own sport is a hindrance on the golf course.

For many of these athletes, swinging a golf club is the first time in a long time that their body won’t readily do what they want it to.

Look at how baseball and golf are different.

First, in golf you’ve got a stationary object rather than a moving object. You’d think it’d be easier to hit a golf ball on the ground than a baseball hurtling through the air at 90 m.p.h., but the two are hard to compare. (I’ll admit I’ve considered pitching Derek a golf ball just to see what happens.) When you’re batting, you never know where the pitch will be until right before you hit it. Hitting it therefore requires a lightning-fast instinct (an instinct that, sadly, I don’t possess). On the other hand, in golf the athlete controls both the “pitch” and the “hit.” And it’s this unique combination — the long, solo journey from the backswing to the strike of the ball — that many golfers find at once so enticing and maddening.

That difference is also reflected in the way one practices golf. The first time I met Derek, who took up golf a mere six months ago, I joked with him that he practices like he’s in the batting cage: hitting one ball after the other. Over and over, just nonstop. He’s very disciplined and he’s willing to put in the work. You can see why he’s been so successful in baseball. But in golf, the success of your shot is determined largely by preparation and form. Most of the work is done before the club even touches the ball. While repetition is important, it’s more important to take the time to learn why something is or isn’t working. Hitting ball after ball, in a repetitive manner, can obscure this lesson: you hit one good one and three bad ones, and then you don’t know why you hit the bad ones. Golf is a case of taking the stuff that’s right and chipping away at it. Every slice is a chance to learn how to be more consistent.

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Another challenge for athletes playing golf is the wide range of shots a golfer must hit during a game. It’s not only a power game; you can’t go all-out on every shot. Rather, it involves a lot of variation. One minute you could be trying to hit a ball 300 yards down the fairway, and the next you could be trying to hit a finesse shot over a bunker to a tight pin. That’d be like a baseball player saying, I’m just going to lob this next hit over the second baseman so it lands near the sprinkler.

In golf, finesse is as vital as power. Have you seen these longest drive contests? They feature countless athletic guys who can drive the ball 450 yards. It’s impressive — but you don’t see one of those guys playing on Tour. Why is that? Well, they don’t have the other parts of the game. It’s not just about having a power swing. Sure, they can smash it out there, and they’ll drive a few par 4s. But when they have to finesse it — say, draw the ball into a left hand pin or knock it down into a headwind — they can’t do it.

They say the longest fairway in golf is the five inches between your ears.

Among baseball players, generally speaking, the best golfers have been pitchers. There are reasons for this. The first is technique: pitchers, like golfers, must perfect a consistent wind-up. The second is the variety of pitches pitchers have to throw: this makes them more conscious of ball flight, and of what the ball is doing. (Or maybe the secret is that they have five days off each week to work on their golf game.)

That brings me to the mental aspect of the game. They say the longest fairway in golf is the five inches between your ears. In my career as a golf instructor, I’ve seen how pro athletes are drawn to the mental challenge of the sport. Golf is far less physically strenuous than many sports, but in many ways it is more demanding mentally. In golf, your mistakes are visible for everyone to see — you don’t have teammates covering up for you. In a sense it is an individual sport of the truest kind: you against yourself. You get it for a while, then you lose it for a while. When you hit a drive straight down the fairway or a solidly struck iron shot close to the hole, it’s a feeling like no other. It’s why we love (yet at times, loathe) the game.

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Athletes are inherently competitive and they want to master golf. Well, you never really master golf. You have to be patient. When your tee shots are good, your short game might go missing; when your short game comes back, you might forget how to hit the fairway again. And then when on the rare occasions a player shoots a 59, they say they should have shot 58! Staying consistent is a mental game, too. Elite athletes, I’ve found, are often some of the most patient golfers because they’re willing to confront their own mistakes and learn from them. Two things great golfers and other top athletes have in common: they accept adversity and they have short memories. Easier said than done, especially for beginners who are still learning the game.

It doesn’t matter whether you play tennis, baseball, ice hockey, or even throw the javelin, sports are about getting into a rhythm — finding what’s known as the fluid motion factor. In the end, golf should feel effortless, the way hitting a home run feels easy for a Major Leaguer. My new book, The A Swing — “A” standing for Alternative — shows the golfer how to simplify his or her technique in order to put the emphasis on the downswing — where you actually hit the ball! Golfers should be focused on the where rather than the how — where the ball is going, instead of how you’re striking it. But to do that, the swing needs to be simple and repetitive.

Recently, I asked Derek what advice his batting coaches used to give him.

“They reminded me to keep doing the things that worked. And to practice.”

The two sports may be different. But as his golf instructor, I’ll be doing much the same.

David Leadbetter, regarded as one of the world’s leading golf instructors, is the author of the new book, The A Swing: The Alternative Approach to Great Golf (St. Martin’s Press).