‘It can eat you up’: How the world’s best golfers recover from a slump

Graeme McDowell, Thomas Bjorn, Tom Lewis and Marcel Siem, four established professionals at different stages of their careers, describe the depths of golf’s lesser-seen mental battle

Tom Kershaw
Thursday 23 September 2021 10:58
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Europe practice at Whistling Straits ahead of the Ryder Cup

“It’s one part embarrassment,” Graeme McDowell says, taking stock of a hollowing 12 months that have eroded at the corners of such a decorated career. Speaking from his living room in Orlando, Florida, over a decade removed from his historic US Open victory, the Ryder Cup vice-captain smiles but makes no attempt to disguise the flickers of doubt, the precarious balancing act between sacrifice and satisfaction. “There have been many evenings in the last few months when I think I can’t get the job done tomorrow,” he admits. “I feel like I’m wasting my time and I’m looking at flights thinking I could just slip out of here and nobody would notice.”

McDowell winces a little at the taste of those words, as though they’re an admission of guilt. He has never made a habit of withdrawing from events, ever since his father gave him a “clip round the ear” if he walked in early as a teenager in Northern Ireland. Nor is he coveting any sympathy or being overly sentimental. But there is something disarming all the same about hearing an icon, who built his career on fortitude just as much as talent, questioning, if only briefly, what remains of his resolve. “I think when you’re younger, you’re more resilient, almost happy-go-lucky,” he says. “Then you get married, you have children, and you don’t bounce back as well. I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting my family down. It gets very hard, speaking personally, the grind and the sacrifice you make.”

In part, it’s an inevitable consequence of age, when the professional begins to pale against the personal. Priorities shift and familial milestones outweigh the significance of individual success. That is the “collateral damage”, as McDowell puts it, that is impossible to appease and is exacerbated by fallow periods. But it’s also indicative of the wider internal predicament faced by elite golfers, a constant riddle of perspective that can burrow subtly and sinisterly into the psyche. There is, perhaps, no other sport so lonely and as demanding of ceaseless introspection, when a dip in form can rapidly descend into an unforgiving crisis.

“I feel like I see myself messing up before I actually do it,” he says of the trail of cuts he’s missed this season, which have acted like a slow rot, subtly chipping away at the roots of his success. “You’re thinking so negatively you can’t see the positives. I feel like in the last 12 months, there have been a lot of moments when I’ve been waiting for something to hit me. I’ve tried my best to hang in there at all times and view every round as the one where you might get the spark, but the negativity creeps in very quickly and it’s hard to shake yourself out of that. It eats away at you.”

It can be rare for golfers to openly discuss those struggles in public, even with the fellow players they’ve come to know as friends. But it’s something almost all have experienced at some point in their careers. The periods in which fate seems determined to conspire against them and becomes almost suffocating, draining the life from the fickle sport they love. Here, in separate interviews over the past year, three players – Thomas Bjorn, Tom Lewis and Marcel Siem – discuss the mental battles which the sport has dragged them into and how they were able to fight their way to the other side.

***

Few players have publicly reckoned with the “demons” golf summons quite like Thomas Bjorn. Earlier this year, the 2018 Ryder Cup captain was driving from his home in London to Royal St George’s, the scene and starting place for so much turmoil, when the memories flooded back along the coast. It was 2003 when Bjorn took three shots out of the bunker at the short but intimidating 16th hole and his tenuous lead at the Open Championship disintegrated into the grains of sand under his feet. It took a while for the regret to take hold, the bitter cycle of shots replaying in the mind, but later it formed a negative spiral from which he couldn’t escape.

“You start questioning yourself and it’s harder to get out of the other side,” Bjorn says. “When you’re young, you can take it a little more in your stride, but as you go on in your career, those periods become a little bit longer. You question why you’re in a certain situation and not winning that major was one of those things.”

The questions became more frequent, like a clock chiming constantly in the back of his mind, until eventually, in 2007, Bjorn reached a breaking point. “I didn’t enjoy travelling anymore, I didn’t enjoy being on tour, I didn’t enjoy playing golf. When you’re a sportsman at the highest level, you sometimes take things for granted and I fell out of love with the grind. I had to have conversations with myself and find the truth.”

Thomas Bjorn spoke in 2007 of falling out of love with the game

What comes first: a loss of form or a lack of love? It’s a question both Bjorn and McDowell have mulled over without finding a clear answer. The life of a professional golfer can be extremely lucrative and luxurious. It’s an immense privilege, earned through years of hard work, and few players would dispute the fortune of the position they find themselves in. But those facts don’t correlate directly to contentment. It’s why, for all the titles won and prize money earned, the Ryder Cup remains the distinct highlight for both. A sense of unity and release that was able to pierce the individual bubble and decompress the scar tissue that builds over the course of a career. “It was the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done,” Bjorn says of his captaincy. “If I’d been able to find that enjoyment in 2007, I probably have never been in such a dark place. But there’s something fulfilling about being able to drag yourself out of that.”

Fulfilment is at the root of the majority of players’ mental battles. Such is golf’s inherent nature that, even for the very best players, no aspect of their game can ever be perfect. There are always tweaks to be made, missed putts to regret, unlucky bounces to rue. It’s what makes the sport so addictive but also precludes it from total satisfaction and even the greatest players in history are destined to lose far more events than they win. It can build success up to an untouchable concept and, on those rare occasions when the stars finally align, the intensity often fails to live up to what a player imagines.

“The first time I won a tournament, I was shocked by that feeling of winning,” Bjorn says. “I came out of the press centre, stood there, the clubhouse was empty, no one was left, and I was just standing there. The last plane has gone, you’re just on your own, and you think ‘is that it? Is this what it’s all about?’ You have to learn to enjoy your moment in the sun. It’s all about what your treasure playing professional sport. Otherwise, you’re just left there with the trophy in your hand thinking what do I do now?”

***

For Tom Lewis, there was rarely time to savour his success. Ironically, that can be traced to Royal St George’s, too. At just 20 years old, already the British Boys champion, he was catapulted into stardom, shooting a 65 in the opening round to lead the 2011 Open. It was the lowest score by an amateur in the tournament’s 140-year history and commanded the sort of spotlight typically reserved only for the sport’s true superstars. His charge that week faded, but the momentum carried into his professional career, winning his first European Tour just a month after turning over. It felt as though he had the golf world in the palm of his hand. A decade later, he says a little solemnly, he’d tell that younger, fearless version of himself to “be more appreciative of where I was”.

By all ordinary measures, Lewis, 30, is still in the midst of an extremely successful career. He’s won four events, risen as high as No 46 in the world rankings, and earned a great deal of money in the process. But over the last 10 years, he’s endured many of those dark periods Bjorn struggled with, a sense that amounts almost to an eternal dissatisfaction with what he’s achieved. “It’s something you get better at but it’s never easy to deal with. I’ll always be frustrated because my talent is way higher than my performance,” he says. “My expectation levels were very high as a kid and, after The Open, they exceeded even more. Then I underachieved and you’re chasing it. It’s like a wet bar of soap in your hand, you hold onto it too much and it keeps slipping out of your hand.”

Tom Lewis lines up a putt during the Rocket Mortgage Classic in July

In the eye of that storm, balance can be impossible to find. Lewis makes no secret of the fact that he sees the years as wasted, even that he’s “failed”. “It’s not about the issues I have versus other people or who’s struggling more,” he says. “It’s not what you have, it’s the way you think and feel. We’re in the public eye, we get criticised and it can cripple people sometimes. It’s our job and I wouldn’t change it ever, but when you know you can do better, when your ability is high and your performance is low, it can eat you up.”

There are times when Lewis has felt like giving up. That no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never be able to make up for the years he’s lost. “I’m very honest and open about it because I think that’s important,” he says. “Those moments come a lot and then you get up the next day and try and make it work. I’m not going to quit, I’ve had those doubts, I do have those doubts, but maybe my time will come if I keep chipping away. There are people in the top-30 who are going through the same thing. All golfers struggle with these thoughts. It’s something people need to witness and understand that things aren’t always as they appear on the outside.”

***

At the Porsche Open in 2019, those external defences broke like a dam, and Marcel Siem couldn’t stop the pain from spilling into public view. One of the most gregarious and dry-witted characters on the European Tour, in the space of five years he had plummeted from No 48 in the world rankings to the forgotten tundra below the top-1000. His posture wilted and he berated himself after every bad shot. “I was embarrassed even being on tour,” he says. “Shooting 76s, kicking the bag or throwing my club. I’m not that person, I don’t want to do that, but when you’re so depressed these things happen. If you start calling yourself bad names on the golf course, off the golf course even, then it’s getting dangerous and your subconscious feeds on that and the demons get darker and darker.”

Siem missed the cut, as he would in over half his events that season. “I’d work so hard and nothing would change. I’d play well and then screw up the last few holes and miss the cut by a shot. I got nothing out of the game anymore and people would ask me all the time: ‘What’s going on with you Marcel? Why is it happening? The pressure gets bigger and bigger and you start thinking about what else can make you happy,” he says. “I don’t want to be upset all the time or depressed. I had these demons and I didn’t know how to get out of the spiral anymore. You feel uncomfortable to travel, to go to the range, to be confident standing over a putt.”

A few weeks after the event, Siem received a call from one of the tournament’s stakeholders. “He said he saw me and that I wasn’t enjoying myself or smiling at all and asked if he could give me the number of a life coach,” Siem explains. “I called them five minutes later and I felt such relief, my shoulders started dropping. They had been so stiff it had felt like they were up to my ears. All these things had been bottled up. I talked with other players about my feelings like Nicolas Colsaerts and Thomas Bjorn, good old friends, but it’s not only golf stuff, everyone makes mistakes and I made a lot. I needed to forgive myself and other players can’t help you with that. [My life coach] had to break me and build me up again.”

Marcel Siem celebrates at The Open in July

It’s easy to see the spring in Siem’s step now. Earlier this year, he ended a seven-year winning drought and became a cult hero with a 15th placed finish at The Open a few weeks later, beating his chest wildly on the 18th green in cathartic celebration. Players end up restoring their sense of different ways, some through a trained professional, others simply by opening up to their families and friends.

“I realise now how many great years I had and how good the life was because I took everything for granted and I appreciate things much more,” Siem says. “I’ve got kids that are seven and 10, they’re getting a little older, they understand what life is about more, they’re proud of their daddy, and I get so much support. When I go out on the golf course now, I love it, I just want to play the best I can and play the best round I can and if it doesn’t work out I gave it my best.”

For Lewis, the key has been to take a step backwards and see the world in more shades than his own performance. “I think, getting a bit older, I’ve realised I’m not going to change the world, I’m not going to be a hall-of-famer and achieve everything I wanted,” he says. “But I can be a good husband, a good dad, and those things will probably come into my life over the next few years. I used to focus too much on my career and it can overpower your life. Everyone can always do better, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be satisfied with what they’ve achieved. In the future, I’ll think, you know what, golf was great and I wish I could’ve done better but all I want to be is a good person.”

At the crux of it, for all three players, it has been a process of rediscovering the sense of joy they once derived from golf, before all the pressures or unhealthy fixation, that was able to propel them out of their slump. “I wanted to be a child again,” Bjorn says. “To just enjoy playing golf. Results weren’t important, it was playing the game and loving just being out there and hitting balls. All those things I’d lost came back to me.

“My dream was to be a professional golfer and make a living playing golf. I am content and I’m not content with what I achieved, but it’s a road of life that develops in front of you, but I’m happy. If you’re asking me that, I’m very happy.”

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