When you hear someone say “golf saved my life,” you pay attention.
From the age of 9 until he turned 14, Sam Gerry had a passion for the game. Suddenly, severe depression hit, to the point where he considered suicide. Then he was fortunate enough to be invited on a surprise trip with his grandfather to the Masters. The experience caused a gradual reawakening of his love for the game and, far more importantly, life.
“I could escape to the golf course and the only thing I was focused on was the game. Because I played regularly, it definitely built up to create a longer-term effect on my recovery. That combination of the game itself and spending time with my friends or my dad or my grandfather—that really helps me get through it. You really could say golf saved my life and that’s not an exaggeration.”
Sam’s story is one of many. There is even a book titled How Golf Saved My Life and, although it deals mainly with golfers with physical disabilities, it demonstrates how the game has indisputable benefits for our overall wellbeing.
Mental health benefits of playing golf
Jenny Roe is an environmental psychologist at the University of Virginia who explores how our interactions with the world shape our health, wellbeing and behaviours. She has been involved in several studies looking at the mental health benefits associated with playing golf.
She elaborated in a study by the R&A on this topic in 2020: “Contact with nature slows down our stress response and induces calm. There is evidence to show this is happening in our biological system. It is promoting stress resilience, it is improving our mood, it is decreasing our risk of depression and increasing our social wellbeing, particularly on a golf course where you are interacting with other members of that community. So there are a host of mental and social wellbeing benefits.”
Never was this more important than now, when the world is trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and its crushing impact on physical and mental health.
The impact of COVID-19 on mental health
A more recent R&A study, “Post COVID Opportunity,” found that 36 per cent of respondents said they experienced some negative impact on their mental health as a result of the pandemic. Of these, 83 per cent identified that playing golf had a positive impact on their mental health. Thirty-one per cent said they had increased feelings of loneliness and isolation as a result of the pandemic. Of these, 79 per cent said playing golf had a positive impact.
Those feelings are not limited to any one demographic.
In May, during Mental Health Week, a survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association and the University of British Columbia found that 77 per cent of adult respondents reported feeling negative emotions as a result of the pandemic.
In a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, during the province’s lockdown of outdoor activities, the Canadian Pediatric Association said: “We cannot overstate the extent of the mental health crisis facing our children and youth. Seventy per cent of Ontario school-aged children reported deterioration in their mental health. Social isolation is by far the biggest predictor of poor mental health for children.”
Is playing golf a panacea for all that ails us, mentally and physically? Of course not but there are undeniable benefits.
Dr. Adrienne Leslie-Toogood is a psychologist who has worked with many athletes, including the Team Canada men’s golf squad. She is also the chair of the Canadian Sport Psychology Association.
“The pandemic turned our lives upside-down. We lost a lot: a sense of control, of normalcy, routine, contact with family and friends, work colleagues. Golf gives us some of that back. We are in control for a change. We get away from the bad news, social media. We get outside, we reconnect with others in a social setting, in nature.
“Another wonderful thing is that golf is a perfect setting for players of any age to golf together, whether that’s mom and dad and the kids and maybe even grandma and grandpa or with someone you meet for the first time on the first tee. It is a game that brings us all together and that is vital for good mental health.”
People need golf now more than ever
In a Toronto Sun column titled “People need golf now more than ever,” golf writer Jon McCarthy talks about sneaking in a quick round before Ford shut things down once again in late April.
“One of the beauties of golf is that it’s full of breezy conversation. There’s lots to talk about but rarely is a serious topic broached. I’ll come home from a round with friends and my wife will ask what we talked about. The honest answer is, well, nothing. And it’s wonderful.
“To partake in this, a golfer doesn’t have to belong to a club or have a regular foursome. Once you get to a course, there will be people to talk to, people to share the day with, even if you show up alone. The golf course is a place where strangers can become friends for a day.
“Now more than ever, people need that.”