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The difference between a professional golfer and a politician

MEDIUM, 07 / 25 / 2016

Theodore Roosevelt didn’t care for golf. In fact, he couldn’t stand it.

But for those who know the pro game very well, there’s a set of Roosevelt’s most famous words that could easily describe what it’s like trying to compete on the PGA Tour:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Ok, so my comparison might be a bit of a stretch. But stay with me for a minute. Roosevelt famously delivered these words at the Sorbonne in his 1910 speech entitled, “Citizenship In A Republic.” The war hero and American president was talking about the fact that it’s a person’s courage and efforts that matter — not all of the criticisms that get shouted from mere spectators in the cheap seats.

In that speech, Roosevelt also talked about the importance of possessing the virtues of character, discipline, perseverance, “self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense” and the “power of accepting individual responsibility.”

TR was saying that these traits are essential for citizens to have in order to play the kind of individual roles that become the collective glue that holds a republic together.

Yet that famous quote always reminds me of the professional golfers who work tirelessly to master an un-masterable game, and rarely — or never — wins a tournament during the course of their career.

Golf is frustrating enough if you suck. But there’s no pressure on the recreational golfer to make a living. There’s no pressure of tens of thousands of people watching you live, just a few feet away. There’s no pressure of making a fool of yourself in front of millions more people watching you on television; of becoming an instant rerun that will get played on TV for eternity.

An avid PGA Tour watcher will instantly recognize a handful of golf’s most historic “chokes”: Adam Scott in the 2012 British Open, Jason Dufner in the 2011 PGA Championship, Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters, Phil Mickelson at the 2006 Masters… It’s a long list.


The most painful humiliation I can think of is Dustin Johnson losing his grip on TWO PGA Major tournaments in the same season. In 2010, Johnson entered the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with a three-shot lead. He carded an 11 over par 82 and ended up tied for 8th place. Just months later, he needed to par the 18th hole at Whistling Straits to win his first ever PGA Championship. Johnson accidentally ground his club in a bunker, incurred a two-shot penalty, and it was over just like that.

Big deal, you say. That’s how it is for all professional athletes. They’re all under pressure to play at the highest level. For that matter, Olympic athletes, too.

This is true. But golf is different than any other game or sport.

First, take team sports off the board. Those athletes have teammates to depend on, and to attract some of the lightning when there is individual failure.

When you’re playing golf, you’re all alone out there. No one else is directly affecting your game. This is where Roosevelt’s emphasis on accepting individual responsibility shines brightest. When PGA pros falter, there is no one to blame but themselves. Nowhere to hide. It’s all right there. The bigger the choke, the deeper the humiliation.

That’s where TR’s “character” comes into play. Golf screws with a human being’s head in a way no other game does. The difference between how badly someone can play from one day to the next — even pros — is as wide as the Grand Canyon. And once your brain is scrambled and you can’t even figure out why you just collapsed — right when you’d fought your way into contention — you have to go back out there four days later and tee it up again. Every shot matters and every shot costs money. Any pro will tell you that without character and perseverance, none of them stand half a chance of making it through a single season on Tour.

So how about self-mastery, self-restraint and common sense? They’re all just as essential to performing at an elite level.

The balls sits idle on a tee. It’s not coming at you like a football, baseball, tennis ball or basketball. No one is coming at you. No one is racing besides you. There’s nothing to instinctively react to. It’s just you, the quiet, and a stationary ball. If this sounds easy, you have never played golf.

When everything is slowed down and it’s just you and that white pill, self-mastery might be more important than anything else. There is a calm and confidence you must tap into, while at the same time crowding out any fear of your physical movements betraying your mind. Lots can go wrong in a golf swing — even among the best of them.

Self-restraint and common sense? They go hand-in-golf glove and together they are huge. Golf can tempt a player to take big risks and try things that are beyond a person’s skill level or beyond the probability of success in a sticky situation. Playing it safe can be one of the hardest things to do, even when you know it’s likely the smartest option. To exercise common sense and restrain one’s urge to chase shots that have already been lost — it takes effort.

So, what the hell does all of this have to do with being a successful politician? Everything.

If you’re a political candidate and you don’t have character, it’ll make it awfully difficult to get through the times when the inherent unfairness of political campaigns puts you and your family in a terrible public light. A politician needs to know herself very well in order to take the slings and arrows coming at her in stride — for they are constant.

The solitary thing is also a common theme. When you’re the candidate, you are all alone. You may have staff working for you who are writing speeches, raising money, recruiting volunteers, scheduling every hour and doing a dozen other things. But once a candidate opens her mouth, it’s all her. Once performing, only she can deliver. When she screws up, she’s the only one who can save it. A candidate can be advised, but it’s what that person actually does that matters. At the end of the day, one mirror shoots back one very clear reflection.

As big as a politician’s ego can be — and they can be enormous — candidates and officeholders must have self-restraint and self-mastery to be successful. Taking risks must be carefully calculated. Going cowboy can have disastrous results. Just read the daily news to see example after example.

Finally, TR’s emphasis on discipline may be the common trait that players and politicians’ both need most. Just as pros must practice until they’re blistered and must follow their game-plan to the letter, so must a candidate be relentlessly disciplined when running for office. Strategies must be executed. Succumbing to distractions dilutes effectiveness. Budgets must be followed to the dollar. Waste costs votes. So many candidates are interested in talking about things that voters aren’t interested in hearing. But it is wise to respect the customer’s wants and needs. The age old imperative of “staying on message” still gets repeated for a good reason. And doing it well takes discipline.

If you’re buyin’ my whole set of similarities between golf and politics, you might be thinking: Ok, so what’s the difference that you advertised in the heading of this article?

Here it is: Whether a pro wins or loses a golf tournament, it only affects the player. To some degree, his family, too.

When a political candidate loses a race, a whole lot of volunteers and donors feel the loss. More importantly, when a candidate does win office, now their decisions will affect thousands or millions of people.

The impact that politicians have on our daily lives and those of our families is something that can be easy for us to get apathetic or cyncial about. Our negative view of politics is understandable with the distrust and disgust that so many of us have been feeling about our government.

But at the same time, we would all be well served to keep in mind how hard it is for a political candidate to be successful in running for office. It takes grit, discipline, character and self-mastery. It also takes guts. You’re all alone out there; your life and your character on display for the world. And if you do win, your daily work is going to influence a ton of lives.

The words above from Theodore Roosevelt came to be known as his “Man in the Arena” speech. He’s talking about the importance of man’s striving. About having the balls to put yourself on the line and risk failure in the service of ambitious goals. And let’s not forget that this passage includes the following: “…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.”

On that score, Greg Norman went on to win two British Open Championships. Adam Scott went on to win The Masters. Jason Dufner went on to win the PGA Championship. Phil Mickelson went on to win The Masters, British Open and PGA Championship.

And Dustin Johnson? After that loss, rumors flew for years about his failing multiple drug tests. Johnson never admitted to using drugs, but did acknowledge he had an alcohol problem. He left the Tour for six months in 2014. Golf Magazine reported that the break was a forced suspension by the PGA due to cocaine use.

It was embarrassing. It was also a character builder. His father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, no stranger to being the “man in the arena,” helped Johnson to rebuild his confidence and mental health.

When he returned to the Tour, a stronger and more self-disciplined player, Johnson climbed the ladder to the №1 World Ranking.

When he finally did win his first U.S. Open on Father’s Day in 2016, the victory could have easily slipped through his fingers. On the 5th hole of the final round, there was a controversy over whether he had caused his ball to move on the green, which would have been a one-shot penalty. The U.S.G.A. said it would rule on the situation after he completed the round.

Other pros sounded off on Twitter, ripping the U.S.G.A. Among them, PGA star Rory McIlroy, who wrote: “This is ridiculous… No penalty whatsoever for DJ. Let the guy play without this crap in his head.”

After the round, Johnson was indeed assessed the penalty. But it didn’t matter. He’d won by three shots. He’d kept his cool, after all of those previous disappointments in his career. In his head.

After the round, FOX Sports announcer Joe Buck asked Johnson about the U.S.G.A.’s 5th hole shenanigans: “How were you able to put that aside, and go about doing your job to win this championship?” Johnson replied:
“It was something they said we were going to look at when I got done. So I just tried to focus on what I was doing, not worry about the penalty stroke, just playing golf from there to the house.”

Sounds pretty simple. It’s not. When a competitor is alone on the field and the stakes couldn’t be higher, that’s when their true character gets revealed. The same thing happens in a political race. As former White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod has said, campaigns are “like an MRI for the soul — whoever you are, eventually people find out.”

I grant you that Roosevelt’s description of the “Man in the Arena” can ultimately apply to a broad range of endeavors. Nevertheless, every time I read those words, I’m reminded of golf and politics. Maybe it’s because I love ’em both — even when I lose.