Golf is a game that amplifies obsessive behaviour.
We all know people with a bizarre pre-shot routine which, if interrupted, requires beginning again from the top. I once played with a left-hander who would take his stance and then start moving his feet to and fro. He looked like someone stubbing out two cigarettes simultaneously, or Chubby Checker doing the twist in slow motion.
As his feet began their dance, a grimace would form on his face and he would grind his teeth. By the time he took the golf club back, an entirely orthodox stance had transformed into something more akin to Quasimodo ringing the bells of Notre Dame. It was noticeable, however, that his practice swings were unencumbered. He swished away in carefree fashion right up until the moment that he had to address the ball. Then the creeping palsy set in.
At the peak of his career, Colin Montgomerie proffered a profound swing thought. He said, ‘The ball should get in the way of the swing.’ By which he meant that if you trust your swing, the ball, an inanimate object, will behave itself. But what if you don’t trust your swing?
Monty probably wouldn’t understand that this is exactly what ailed my southpaw companion and many others among my hacking fraternity. The ball gets in the way of the swing because your brain remembers, at the worst possible moment, everything that can go wrong. Take the ball away and we can all swing as long and loose as Fred Couples in his prime. Take aim at it and Quasimodo comes out to play.
My own obsessive behaviour is also ball-related: have I got enough of them? I am terrified of running out of ammunition while still on the course. So I squirrel away fresh supplies in those little zipped areas for which only golf bag manufacturers know the true purpose. I fill those fabric clip-on tubes with old balls, scarred and pitted ex-servicemen not good enough for the range, but there as a last resort when everything else has been lost.
Needless to say, the awful moment has never actually happened. The only time I have to ask a playing partner to lend me a ball is when I have left my bag behind to walk to a distant tee. Even then I have to lose two off the tee, since my phobia demands I always have a spare in my pocket.
Inevitably, of course, the golf ball manufacturers would go out of business if they made their product too hard to lose. I am reminded of the story of the chap who went to his local pro and asked for a hundred balls.
‘You don’t need a hundred,’ said the pro, ‘you only need one. This one. If you hit it into long grass a spring comes out and it hops up and down so you can see it. If you hit it into a tree, small grappling irons emerge and it abseils to the ground. If you hit it into a water hazard, tiny oars deploy and it rows to dry land.’
‘That’s amazing,’ said the customer. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘I found it,’ said the pro.
– This article first appeared in the July issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale!