Most golfers, far from being ashamed of our addiction to the game, actually seem to be rather proud of the fact. We brag about playing in winter storms, mock confess that we spend way too much time watching reruns of 1960s matches on the Golf Channel and claim that we want to be buried in a golf-themed casket (one popular model available online, with an early morning course scene painted on the side, is called “Fairway to Heaven”).
But I sometimes wonder whether, just maybe, we should take golf addiction a little more seriously. At one time or another, I’ll bet that most avid golfers have felt the tug of golf’s dark side: the stolen round that really wasn’t much fun because we know we should have been spending that time with our family, the black mood that didn’t lift for days after an especially egregious round.
The Golf Nut Society — yes, there is such an organization, whose tongue is supposedly in cheek — celebrates instances of obsessive behavior that in other contexts might seem pathetic. The current “Golf Nut of the Year,” for instance, played 36 holes a day on
the honeymoon of his doomed first marriage.
One clue to golf’s addictive nature is the number of celebrities who credit the game with helping them kick more serious addictions, as if it were a kind of clinically proven methadone.
Actor Dennis Quaid said several years ago that without his golf obsession he never would have been able to quit using cocaine. Rocker Alice Cooper, who used to drink a quart of whiskey and half a case of beer a day, found his salvation by cultivating a 36-holea-day golf habit. And former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor has said that golf literally saved his life by
helping him kick drugs.
Experts argue about what technically constitutes an addiction, but certainly there are some telling parallels between the way golf sinks its hooks into us and the way more serious addictions do, especially gambling.
“Anything we humans find rewarding can be addictive, for some people” says Jon E. Grant, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and editor of the Journal of Gambling Studies. For people with addiction-prone personalities, even
activities like eating, shopping and work can become problematically compulsive, he says.
But addictive types may be more vulnerable to golf than to some other activities because of a particularly insidious mechanism called intermittent reinforcement. This is the same force behind some of gambling’s addictive nature.
The social scientist B.F. Skinner discovered the power of intermittent reinforcement about 75 years ago, using pigeons. He set up a simple system whereby one set of birds was rewarded with food every time they pecked at a bar. Once the food was discontinued, they learned pretty quickly to stop pecking. With a different set of pigeons, the food was dispensed at
intermittent intervals in response to the pecks. Those birds hammered away at the bar with extra ardor and, when the
food was withdrawn altogether, it took much longer for the pecking to stop.
In the case of slot machines, not knowing when that exhilarating cascade of silver dollars might come tumbling out of the machine is precisely what drives addicts wild with anticipation — and makes it so hard to quit. Brain-imaging research has shown
that rewards distributed intermittently trigger significantly higher releases of pleasure-inducing dopamine than the
same rewards distributed on a more predictable basis.
The same happens with golf. Since most golfers hit only two or three really excellent shots per round, and they never know when those shots are coming — maybe this time! — the surge of pleasure when they do connect is, well, addictive. Those are the shots that keep us coming back.
Addicted golfers and addictive gamblers have other tendencies in common. One is the desire to be the center of attention — for winning big in the casino (think James Bond) or for shooting a great score in golf. Both can create powerful surges of endorphin in the brain.
Another is the drive for mastery and control, but this, thankfully, is where golf and gambling start to diverge. Most of the perceived control that gamblers have, such as the belief that they are “on a roll” or that red is bound to come up on the roulette wheel this time because black came up the last five times, is illusory. In golf, however, skill plays a much bigger role and can
actually be improved.
Golf’s primary counter-addictive attribute, however, is that people don’t play solely for the thrill of hitting perfect shots. They also play to be with friends, to be outdoors, to get a little exercise. Truly addicted gamblers, on the other hand, don’t usually play for enjoyment — they play because they think they can win.
“They’re looking for the big score, the life-changing jackpot,” says Alan Shapiro, a psychologist and the author of “Golf’s Mental Hazards: Overcome Them and Put an End to the Self-Destructive Round.” “As addictions go, golf is a relatively healthy one,” he says.