Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Front Page - BY JAIME DIAZ

Some peo­ple ex­ude hap­pi­ness.

In the case of Rickie Fowler, all his showy trap­pings of star­dom – the fast cars, the flat-brimmed or­ange crush of fans, the YouTube back­flips and mo­tocross aeri­als, the steamy vic­tory em­brace with his fash­ion-model girl­friend – might make a facile im­pres­sion, but they aren’t the truest in­di­ca­tors.The 26-year-old Cal­i­for­nian’s cen­tred­ness and seren­ity are more con­vinc­ing. Ob­serv­ing Fowler leaves one be­liev­ing that be­hind the ar­rest­ing fea­tures is a keen mind that can hold and man­age op­pos­ing qual­i­ties nec­es­sary to a ful­filled life: ad­ven­ture and cau­tion, energy and pa­tience, hu­mil­ity and con­fi­dence. He is both watch­ful in­tro­vert and charis­matic per­former, each per­sona some­how al­ways at peace. Even when he’s mak­ing the still-too-fre­quent dou­ble bo­geys, Fowler never ac­tu­ally looks un­happy. In lively prac­tice rounds with Phil Mick­el­son and Kee­gan Bradley, Fowler might wear the brash­est out­fits but typ­i­cally talks the least trash – though his on-tar­get ob­ser­va­tions al­ways draw laughs. He plays with a brisk dis­patch, show­ing no hold­back in a swing that kept its flu­id­ity af­ter some sig­nif­i­cant surgery by Butch Har­mon. When the ball leaves the club, Fowler’s eyes fol­low it with an un­mis­tak­able love for the next shot.

“I’ve been crazy about the game from day one, and I try to keep it the same as far as that early feel­ing,” says Fowler, who at 3 be­gan hit­ting balls at a mom-and-pop range in Mur­ri­eta. “I think you def­i­nitely do bet­ter when you’re happy, and I’m kind of wired to keep that out­look with golf and, re­ally, in ev­ery­thing.”

Golf ’s place in Fowler’s per­sonal hap­pi­ness is val­i­dated on off weeks from com­pe­ti­tion, when he plays al­most ev­ery day and, of­ten as not, 36 holes. With em­pha­sis on the word “play.”

“I never re­ally feel like I get burned out,” Fowler says. “It’s more like I have to pull my­self away so I don’t overdo it. I love to just go play, and if I play badly, I still get some­thing out of it.” And even though the game is his liv­ing, that doesn’t mean ev­ery round is se­ri­ous. “Maybe if I’m down in the Ba­hamas at Baker’s Bay, I’ll go mess around and hit some shots cross-handed, or grab a lefty set of clubs and play a few holes lefty,” he says. “Any way to keep it fun.”

In May, Fowler at last be­came a top player af­ter win­ning the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship. His “play like a kid” style so res­onates – cer­tainly with the young through his en­gage­ment on so­cial media and easy in-per­son con­tact at tour­na­ments, but also with old­sters open to new pos­si­bil­i­ties – that just by be­ing him­self he has be­come an im­por­tant



part of mak­ing com­pet­i­tive golf a vis­i­bly hap­pier game than it used to be.

The mes­sage has been re­in­forced by the rise of Rory McIl­roy, also 26, who at his best plays with the verve of an artist ea­ger to share his gift, a nat­u­ral gen­eros­ity that has made him the friendli­est World No 1 since Arnold Palmer. A sen­si­tive type who can get out of sorts, ad­mit he doesn’t love the game as much as he used to, and even toss the odd club, McIl­roy still has the en­dear­ing as­pect of the 8- year- old prodigy. Watch­ing video clips of the boy at this age, his life­long swing coach, Michael Ban­non, fondly re­marked, “Al­ways a happy man, Rory.”

Chas­ing McIl­roy is Jor­dan Spi­eth, an ami­able but in­tense war­rior who can be­rate him­self, but even in the rare mo­ments when he acts 22 he never gives the im­pres­sion that he isn’t hav­ing an ab­so­lute blast.

Asked why golf makes him happy, Spi­eth jokes, “Be­cause I’m good at it,” be­fore turn­ing his con­sid­er­able in­tel­li­gence to­wards an im­promptu man­i­festo. “I en­joy work­ing at some­thing that is im­pos­si­ble to con­quer. I en­joy that chal­lenge be­cause each time you get closer and closer to con­quer­ing it . . . you feel your blood go­ing, like you’re sky div­ing. I love the thrill of it. That’s the fun part, to see how you can re­act in those sit­u­a­tions, how you can con­trol your heart rate and pro­duce even bet­ter shots. We’re here to play for that thrill, for that grind. And so I’m not go­ing to sit back and smile when things aren’t go­ing my way. I’m go­ing to get up­set and fig­ure out what I’m go­ing to do to get over it. I’m go­ing to go to the next hole and try to make my­self a lit­tle hap­pier.”

In the women’s game, 18-year-old Ly­dia Ko is do­ing her part to set an ex­am­ple of the ben­e­fits of play­ing happy. At the end of her ca­reer, she says she’d like to be re­mem­bered as “the player who had the most fun.”


It’s nat­u­ral for so­ci­ety to choose Peter Pans as the mes­sen­gers of hap­pi­ness. Watch­ing gifted young­sters ex­cel with an un­com­pli­cated grace awak­ens the gen­er­ally in­ac­tive in­ner child in all of us. We’re youth-ob­sessed for self­ish rea­sons.

Tra­di­tion­al­ists might clam­our for Fowler to win more of­ten, but per­haps hap­pier are those who ad­mire his process more than his re­sults. He’s not iden­ti­fied with the win- at- all- costs at­ti­tude, but rather as a player who loves the chance to meet the mo­ment with his ab­so­lute best. Just as he once took daunt­ing jumps on dirt bikes for the in­her­ent chal­lenge, he now does the same with a dif­fi­cult shot. Fowler gives the sense that for him, pulling off the shot is its own re­ward. Sec­ond place doesn’t suck, but pass­ing up shots one is ca­pa­ble of does.

Purists can crit­i­cise how such a style breeds mis­takes, but Fowler’s an­swer for the near fu­ture can be the bold­ness in play­ing the fi­nal six holes of the Play­ers in six un­der par, and then in the play­off twice stiff­ing wedges to a per­ilous pin on the is­land-green 17th, the birdies com­plet­ing one of the great­est fin­ishes in the history of the PGA Tour.

Fans have al­ways liked happy cham­pi­ons, play­ers who by smil­ing in the face of dif­fi­cul­ties can make ours seem more sur­mount­able. It has long been a part of Mick­el­son’s ap­peal and gives seem­ingly al­ways-sunny Matt Kuchar a dis­tinc­tion that com­pels fans to pay

trib­ute with elon­gated cries of

“Koooch” re­gard­less of his score. “Be­ing happy and pos­i­tive and en­joy­ing what I do is not re­ally a choice I made, although there might be a cor­re­la­tion with re­sults,” Kuchar says. “I’m very lucky to play golf, be­cause I think I’ve got a good nat­u­ral makeup for the game.”


ost play­ers aren’t so lucky. Try­ing for hap­pi­ness while play­ing in a tour­na­ment is a com­plex equa­tion. Tour pros aren’t play­ing the pleas­ant but dumbed-down ver­sion of the game whose cen­tral goal is more of­ten a walk with friends on a beau­ti­ful day. Pros are in­tensely en­gaged in mis­take-avoid­ance while car­ry­ing much in­ti­mate knowl­edge of what can go wrong. It re­calls the Hem­ing­way line, “Hap­pi­ness in in­tel­li­gent peo­ple is the rarest thing I know.”

Vi­jay Singh, whose zeal to con­tinue play­ing the PGA Tour at 52 sug­gests true pas­sion for the game, ques­tions whether hap­pi­ness and tour­na­ment golf can even co­ex­ist. “Happy is the wrong term,” he says. “Hit­ting good shots, play­ing good, that gives me sat­is­fac­tion, but that’s dif­fer­ent. On the range, I work, and that makes me feel good, but not re­ally happy. Out there on the course, it’s very dif­fi­cult, so the feel­ing while I’m play­ing isn’t hap­pi­ness.”

Singh isn’t quib­bling about se­man­tics. Men­tal coach Julie Elion also avoids the loaded term as a goal for her ath­letes. “Hap­pi­ness is pretty am­bi­tious for any­body,” she says. “I try to help peo­ple at­tain a level of con­tent­ed­ness so they can put their best selves into the game.”

Hap­pi­ness would not be the first word that comes to mind when de­scrib­ing the de­meanours of most of history’s great­est play­ers. Top per­form­ers cus­tom­ar­ily don’t al­low them­selves to be sat­is­fied. The price of great­ness is of­ten ob­ses­sion, which can mean deny­ing sat­is­fac­tion to keep an edge, and by ex­ten­sion mak­ing hap­pi­ness – at least with one’s golf game – the en­emy.

Ben Ho­gan took pride in keep­ing even friendly games se­ri­ous, say­ing, “I don’t play jolly golf.” Jack Nick­laus re­cently the­o­rised he kept im­prov­ing be­cause he be­lieves he ha­bit­u­ally un­der­achieved. “I al­ways feel like I’m never get­ting what I should be get­ting out of what I’m do­ing,” he said. “So you’ve got to work harder to make sure you do that.” Tiger Woods said the same thing in the in­verse when he re­vealed one of his goals was to be an over­achiever.

Which meant ba­si­cally block­ing hap­pi­ness. At the 2012 PGA Cham­pi­onship at Ki­awah, Woods was tied for the lead af­ter two rounds, and be­cause he had ex­pe­ri­enced a per­for­mance de­cline on ma­jor-cham­pi­onship week­ends, thought a more re­laxed ap­proach would help in the third round.

“I came out with prob­a­bly the wrong at­ti­tude,” Woods said af­ter a 74 dropped him out of con­tention. “I was try­ing to be, you know, a lit­tle bit happy out there and en­joy it, and that’s – un­for­tu­nately – that’s not how I play. You know how I am. I’m in­tense and fo­cused on what I’m do­ing, and noth­ing else mat­ters. . . . That’s how I won 14 of these things. . . . It was a bad move on my part.”

Even those greats who were pre­sumed to be happy while play­ing weren’t re­ally. Bobby Jones pos­sessed a pleas­ant equa­nim­ity, but his in­ter­nal tor­ture dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion was such that he re­tired at 28. Lee Trevino got la­belled the Merry Mex be­cause his one­lin­ers were funny, but he de­liv­ered them to re­lieve an edgy ten­sion that could fre­quently give way to im­pa­tience and anger.

Some play­ers, like Kuchar, seem to achieve hap­pi­ness easily in com­pe­ti­tion. Wal­ter Ha­gen gen­uinely seemed to smell the roses along the way. And Palmer, who re­garded tour­na­ment golf as a haven, was loved for what Dan Jenk­ins called “the pure, un­mixed joy he has brought to try­ing.”

That de­scrip­tion – which im­plies em­brac­ing strug­gle – could serve as the model for a tour pro seek­ing hap­pi­ness from golf.

“The beau­ti­ful lo­tus flower grows only in mud,” says swing coach Sean Fo­ley, who en­cour­ages such philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sions with his play­ers. “When a bad shot gets you down, that im­me­di­ate un­happy feel­ing can’t be de­nied, but if you’re do­ing your job, you ac­cept that feel­ing for a mo­ment, and then it’s gone as you en­ter to­tal im­mer­sion in the next shot. It’s not easy; it’s a highly fo­cused strug­gle. But the best stuff, the most im­prove­ment, and ul­ti­mately the most hap­pi­ness, comes from that strug­gle.”


Golf is of­ten cited as a near-ideal ac­tiv­ity in which to at­tain the psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal state of “flow,” which is get­ting im­mersed in an ac­tiv­ity so com­pletely that self-con­scious­ness is lost and the only fo­cus is the task at hand. The ac­tiv­ity has to have an at­tain­able goal, and too much or too lit­tle chal­lenge can kill the flow.

Stud­ies on the sub­ject started with Mi­haly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, a psy­chol­o­gist then at the Univer­sity of Chicago. He in­ter­viewed artists, sur­geons, rock climbers and chess play­ers and learned that they would get so lost in their en­deav­our that they would be­come obliv­i­ous to hunger, thirst and fa­tigue. Sev­eral land­mark stud­ies since then in­di­cate that peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­ence flow regularly are also the hap­pi­est.

Which might leave tour pros ex­pect­ing to play well all the time chron­i­cally un­happy.

“The big­gest myth in golf is that con­sis­tency ex­ists – it doesn’t,” says golf in­struc­tor Michael He­bron. “The play­ers who are try­ing to be con­sis­tent prob­a­bly aren’t as happy as play­ers who con­sider their games flex­i­ble and por­ta­ble. The great play­ers aren’t con­sis­tent. The great play­ers are great at han­dling in­con­sis­tency.”

Re­lat­ing his favourite part of golf, it seems Fowler has al­ready in­tu­itively fig­ured that out.

“It could be al­most any shot, but hit­ting it ex­actly as you en­vi­sioned,” he says. “Hit­ting the ball flush, start­ing it where you want to, with the right tra­jec­tory and shape and ac­tu­ally land­ing in the right spot. Might hap­pen once a round, maybe.”

Doesn’t seem like much, es­pe­cially for one of the best play­ers in the world. But for a happy golfer who be­came one by fully ac­cept­ing and – es­pe­cially – lov­ing the na­ture of the game and its strug­gle, it’s more than enough.



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