An innocent hobby or lesser-known form of addiction?

The sun is shining, birds are chirping, the breeze is just right. The morning has begun and your first thought is: this is a perfect day for golf. Out of all sports, golf is one of the most wholesome. There’s a reason why many top-level executives take to the green during negotiations or networking sessions. It’s gentle, slow, and reflective. It’s the perfect mix of facing your frustrations and successes and socializing with friends.

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As a sport played in picturesque scenery, golf seems harmless. However, there is a risk of its allure becoming a hindrance. The need to reduce your handicap, improve the technique of your swing, or find new courses to explore, can become intrusive. If left unchecked, it’s possible to develop a golf addiction, where enjoyment of the sport is replaced by a dependency.

The Science of Golf Addiction

man playing golf

Addiction is challenging to define scientifically. In the past, it was limited to drugs or alcohol. Now, anything from sex, the internet, gaming, gambling, or social media is recognized for its addictive potential. Psychological research separates addiction into two forms: substance addiction and behavioral addiction. The first is the commonly understood chemical dependency. The latter, however, is complex, and covers “any source which is capable of stimulating an individual.”

What’s intriguing about behavioral addiction is that it can form around behaviors that don’t seem unhealthy on the surface, from physical exercise to work. That includes hobbies, and not many hobbies match the level of dedication and enthusiasm many people have for golf. However, it’s important to separate the enjoyment of the game from a genuine addiction. The diagnostic criteria for behavioral addiction are:

  1. Salience: the activity dominates thinking, feeling, and behavior.
  2. Mood modification: the activity is used to escape difficult feelings, or cause feelings of pleasure.
  3. Tolerance: increasing amounts are needed in order to be satisfied.
  4. Conflict: the activity leads to falling out with friends and family who are affected by the addictive behavior.
  5. Relapse: falling back on old behaviors and returning to the activity, even in spells of deliberate abstinence.

Above all else, the sign that golf has become less of a hobby, and more of an addiction, is how much it interferes with your life. If you choose golf instead of seeing friends or family, spend lots of money on new equipment, feel anxious if you can’t play, or escape day-to-day activities on the green, the signs suggest golf is starting to have a negative impact.

What Makes Golf Addictive?

friends playing golf

With a market value in America alone at $26 billion, it’s clear that golf has a wide appeal. Unlike other sports, golf is less taxing physically, is an ideal excuse to enjoy the open doors for long periods of time, and the game itself has a delicate balance of challenge and reward. In the words of Arnold Palmer, one of the early pioneers of the sport’s popularity:

“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.”

Factor in the possibility of constant improvement, and continued opportunities to start afresh with each shot, and the craving for progress or escape can develop. However, underneath all behavioral addictions, there is an emotional component. The primary factor of gold addiction is a dependency on the psychological or emotional rewards from playing the game itself, from experiencing flow state to feelings of peace or achievement.

In addition, secondary factors, such as the need for validation or approval, and avoidance of difficult emotions, all contribute to excessive behavior with the game. Less than the direct rewards, golf then compensates for other difficult areas in life. For example, trying to improve your handicap in order to impress friends or business partners, to compensate for low self-esteem.

Exploring Your Inner Relationship to Golf

golf ball shadow

There’s a limited benefit to attempting to categorize whether your relationship to golf is addictive. What matters is your desire to identify whether the game has started to dominate your life in a negative way. Consider how frequently you play golf, how much time you spend each week preparing, how much money you spend, and how much the sport dominates your thinking.

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Consider journaling all the benefits you get from playing golf, including the emotional reward, and any concerns you have that the game may be taking up too much space in your life. Have you had pushback from friends or family? Have people expressed concern at how much you’re playing?

Next, explore your motivation. What triggers your desire to play golf? Is it simply due to the enjoyment of the sport? Or is your golf playing a response to certain emotions or life situations, becoming not just a hobby, but a coping mechanism? For example, do you crave playing when anxious, angry, or stressed?

Be self-compassionate as you explore, and consider talking to friends or family as you go through the process. With addiction, it’s common for those close to the addict to notice before the addict themselves, so be prepared to have conversations with people who may bring light to your blind spots.

The Steps to Overcome Golf Addiction

benefits of meditating every day

If you identify addictive qualities in your relationship with golf, the next step is to consider how you can find greater balance. Do you have addictive qualities outside of the sport? If your addiction to the game is in isolation from other areas of life, it could be a case of your love of the game becoming excessive, and some simple readjustments can do the trick.

Fortunately, these grey zone addictions are starting to be taken seriously. Psychological research notes that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), in particular, is effective in working with the underlying beliefs and thinking processes that contribute to addiction. Part of the challenge with behavioral addiction is that, more often than not, you can’t fully give up the source of addiction. An alcoholic can cut out drinks. A food addict can’t cut out food.

You don’t necessarily have to quit the game completely. With inner work, emotional intelligence, looking into root causes, and support from friends and family, you might be able to find a better balance. For example, spending less on equipment, or playing less frequently in order to prioritize family time or your marriage. Finding the pathway through is much like the game itself. It’ll require patience, skill, and repetition. But when you find the sweet spot, you’ll know the work was worth it.

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