sad golfer

By Jim Corbett

There are definite stages that people go through when coping with difficult and challenging experiences in their lives. This is a process through which the human brain enables us to adjust to situations that might otherwise be too traumatizing.

The use of this complex mechanism for coping was first observed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her work with terminally ill patients. Given time to transition through all of the stages, the pattern was clear: the patients went from a stage of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally to the stage of acceptance.

These progressive stages are not limited, however, to helping us cope with the realization of our impending deaths. We use them to deal with any information or situation that would, otherwise, be difficult to accept. Did you ever wonder why teenagers engage in high risk activities and believe they are invincible and invulnerable? It’s because they live in the denial stage. What about people who purchase products they think will make them look younger or more virile or that they believe will buy them friends? It’s because they are living in the bargaining phase of their lives. You get the idea.

After terminally ill patients, the group most likely to exhibit the five stages of coping are mediocre golfers. (Of the world’s 50 million golfers about 49 million are mediocre golfers. The remaining million consist of approximately 15 good golfers and a lot of really terrible golfers.)

The similarities between terminally ill patients and mediocre golfers go well beyond their use of coping mechanisms. For instance, both groups share an impending sense of doom (especially true for mediocre golfers right before they hit the ball), and both groups know their plight will not improve unless a miracle occurs.

In order to understand, and perhaps assist the mediocre golfer, as he moves through the process, it is important to be able to recognize and distinguish the various stages. Let us explore the stages and some of the typical symptoms that accompany each.


Most mediocre golfers spend a long time in the denial stage. Some, in fact, never transition out of this phase and spend their whole lives believing that if they can just make a few small adjustments to their swing or their short game they may have a shot at the tour.

There are many telltale signs that indicate a mediocre golfer is in denial, too long a list, in fact, to catalogue in its entirety, but a few of the signs are catalogued below.

They may appear incredulous about a bad shot or a bad round. You may hear a lot of, “Now, how did that happen? I was aiming over there.” Or, “I can’t believe that I just hit my third shot in a row into the lake.” Or even, “Well, anybody could mistake a 6 iron for a 9 iron. I’ll bet that happens to the pros all the time.”

Denial may, from time to time, lead the mediocre golfer to play the wrong ball in a match — “No, no. I’m sure I was playing the 100-compression Titleist that’s on the green. That xxx’d-out Maxi-Mondo-Pro-Distance-Tour-Trajectory ball that’s in the trap must be yours.”

Mediocre golfers in denial will be inclined to take all day to actually hit their shot. They’ll squat down and line up the shot from both sides of the cup, pace off the distance to the exact inch, check the grain of the grass, and remove the slightest particles of debris out their paths — and this is for shots in the fairway. They’re even worse on the greens!

The reason for this elaborate ritual of preparation is clear. It’s because the mediocre golfer can do these things very well. He can walk around with a serious expression as well as any pro golfer, he can canvass the area for loose impediment and use his putter as a plumb bob — he just can’t use it as a putter. But by taking a long time before each shot, the mediocre golfer is delaying the inevitable — actually hitting the ball. Once he swings the club, the charade is over.

A trait that is common among mediocre golfers in denial is the tendency to stretch the truth a bit regarding his score. “I generally hit in the high 80’s, but on a good day I’ll card an 85.” What he “cards” may bear no relationship at all to the number of strokes actually taken, since he really hits about 120 if forced to take only one Mulligan per hole and to refrain from using the “shoe wedge.”

Another indication of a mediocre golfer in denial is the tendency he has to believe he is actually improving. After a round of golf you may hear him say something to the effect of, “You know, I kind of struggled out there a little today, but around the 18th hole I think I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Next time I’ll probably shave, oh… about 40 strokes off my game.”


When denial is no longer a viable option, the mediocre golfer evolves into the anger stage. Chances are, you may have personally observed someone who was demonstrating the classic signs of a mediocre golfer in the anger phase without even realizing it. The signs are very subtle.

If you’ve heard the vulgar language, seen the equipment being broken and been there when the fists started flying, don’t jump to conclusions. That may have simply been a social gathering in the clubhouse. The real action takes place out on the course.

Once I was playing golf with a friend of mine who clearly demonstrated the characteristics of a mediocre golfer in the anger phase. He is a former U.S. Marine Drill Sergeant who did several tours of duty in Viet Nam and who now works as a long-haul truck driver and part-time construction worker. After yet another disappointing shot he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Oh, golly” (or words to the effect), “that’s the fifth time today I’ve missed a 4-foot putt.” I could really sense that his frustration was building as I watched him twist the flagstick into the shape of a pretzel. After all, we were only on the second hole.

Sometimes, identifying which stage is being displayed can be tricky and requires a seasoned professional to know for sure; once I witnessed an episode on the course that was both frightening and confusing. I was a guest at an exclusive club and saw a golfer in a screaming rage throw his clubs and bag into the lake. Then, in went his golf hat, golf glove and golf shoes — his caddie barely escaped. As the Emergency Medical Technicians were wheeling that distraught golfer away it was difficult to tell from his mutterings whether he was in the anger stage or so deeply in denial that he wanted to remove all traces of the game from his life.

In any event, it was a shocking display — all the more shocking for me since that was the guy who had sponsored me for the day at his private club. I was quite concerned for a while, but everything turned out okay — no one seemed to mind that I finished out my round without him.


It is pretty clear when a mediocre golfer enters the bargaining phase of his development. In the bargaining phase the mediocre golfer places a great deal of faith in the idea that some new technology will be developed to fix the exact thing that is wrong with him — even though he usually doesn’t have any idea of what that is. Consequently a great deal of money can be spent on new equipment with features that are designed to give you greater distance and greater accuracy regardless of how you swing the club.

The devil’s bargain becomes: the more money I spend, the greater the likelihood that I will hit the ball straight and far. It doesn’t always work that way but it doesn’t really matter since once the $250.00 is spent, there is a much greater perception that the ball is going straighter and farther. This syndrome could be referred to as “The Emperor’s New Golf Clubs.”

But technology is not the only area in which mediocre golfers are inclined to bargain. In fact, there is no area in which they will not bargain. If bargaining with the equipment manufacturers fails and bargaining with the instructors fails and bargaining with the other members of the foursome fails, the mediocre golfer will even seek supernatural help.

Praying, meditating, channeling — these are all quite common on the golf course. There have even been episodes of ritual sacrifice out on the links. This behavior is not to be encouraged though, since is can really slow down play.

As usual though, when one is dealing with a supernatural power, great care must be taken to be specific about your requests. I once went through a period of time when I was playing very erratically. I’d make one good shot and then a few bad ones, one bad shot and then a few good ones. So I prayed that I would play with some consistency. I guess you could say that my prayers were answered, because my shots became consistently bad.


The depression stage is certainly the most difficult for the mediocre golfer to endure. It is during this phase that the mediocre golfer first realizes the situation is probably not going to get a whole lot better than what he sees right now. (Gee, that is depressing.)

Mediocre golfers may indicate they are in this stage when they stop keeping score. They may say things like, “It’s not the score that counts, I just play for the exercise.” Perhaps you’ve heard someone say they just play golf because they enjoy the people they meet out on the course — this is someone who is deeply depressed.

The depression stage can be brought on by a wide variety of factors. There have been many instances in which mediocre golfers have been sent into the depression stage simply by watching video tapes of their own swing. It has also happened to some after they lost a round to their kids — this is quite common if the kids are still in elementary school.

I have a friend who was sadly driven over the edge when I carelessly mentioned that I had read about a national blind golfers league in which some of the better players carry handicaps under 18. That was enough to make him hang up his spikes for over two years. I felt terrible.

Someone who is in the depression phase must be handled very carefully. You never know what extreme course of action they may take. I once had a close friend who was demonstrating some of the subtle signs of being in the depression stage, but being in denial myself, I didn’t pick up on the clues at all. At one point he told me he was quitting. He had played his last game and now he was checking out.

I assumed that if he had a little time away from the game he’d soon be back in his usual high spirits. But a few days later I learned that he had tried to do himself in. He went to the local driving range and was riding back and forth in an open golf cart a little past the 150-yard markers just laughing and laughing … and laughing.


If a mediocre golfer has the stamina and enough of a support system to weather the depression stage, he may finally emerge into acceptance. The acceptance stage is not to be confused with a happy time, necessarily. It is merely the phase in which the golfer comes to terms with who he is — a mediocre golfer.

It is a time of mediocrity with dignity. Gone is the need to alter the score. Gone the need to improve one’s lie — or to lie at all. Gone, too, is the need to buy expensive equipment in the futile hope of gaining a few paltry yards.

All of that is replaced by a simple appreciation of the game. It is during the acceptance stage that the mediocre golfer begins to truly sense the beauty and joy of the game. The pressure to perform to external expectations is supplanted with a relishing of the journey rather than any particular destination.

A mediocre golfer in the acceptance stage can enjoy a lifetime of golf without the anguish that is the constant companion of golfers in other stages. For this golfer, the statement, “I play golf to relax.” has a ring of credibility. In fact, by playing a more relaxed game of golf, the mediocre golfer in acceptance may, indeed, find that his game improves. But be careful! Don’t improve too much or you’ll quickly find yourself back in the denial stage!

There is nothing you can do to change how a person progresses through the stages of coping. Nor should you try. This is a natural process that must proceed at a pace dictated by the needs of the mediocre golfers themselves. However, if we are sensitive and understanding as their journey unfolds, perhaps we can assist them in accepting their mediocrity with all of the most positive connotations of the word.

The Five Stages of Coping With Mediocre Golf