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How did I become so bad at golf?

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

Nine years of playing the sport I love for a living with relative ease. A successful amateur career. A smooth transition into professional life. A host of top 10 finishes every season. Three wins. Two Solheim Cups. A European Order of Merit title.

It’s no wonder I had no idea what to do when I woke up one day and it was like somebody had removed my ability to play the game. That ability left me for nearly as many years as I’d had it. And the road back seemed like an impossible journey of misery and self doubt.

Even when things were going well I used to get these little voices in my head telling me I didn’t belong, convincing me I was some sort of imposter that would be exposed one day. I had always felt trapped in my own mind, thinking if I shared what was really happening in my brain people would think I was weird. The results kept coming so I just thought this is what it has to be like. Looking back it's hard to figure out how I sustained such a high level of results despite feeling quite inadequate about my game. I had a process of practising lots, thinking if I hit more balls than anyone else that would work, having a calendar I marked with a highlighter to see how many days out of every year I could play golf, ignoring any ‘weird’ thoughts I might have.

The reality is I’d been setting myself up for failure even during the time I was playing well. The constant thoughts of ‘I don’t belong here’ ‘I don’t fit in here’, being so uncomfortable with compliments I often had to walk away. Things were going well despite what I was doing, not because of it.

In January 2012, I had a pretty bad bike accident. A badly bruised hip, a gash on my head and half of the skin on my right hand ripped off - the pain was excruciating but I travelled to Australia to start the season just a week later. I had to tell myself I was ok, because if I wasn’t playing golf, what was I? It was a race against time to be physically fit after I arrived, but the far more damaging aspect was my mental recovery… that took years.

I missed all three cuts during that Australia trip. As it was the first time that had ever happened to me, it was easy to brush it off as a short term physical injury. But as that season went on the little gremlins in my brain became more vocal - far louder than any of the logical or conscious parts of my brain.

I started to get these strange sensations in my body, like I had no control over my legs, or arms during my golf swing. I couldn’t feel them at all. My mind and body were totally disconnected. I remember thinking ‘I wonder if this is what it’s like when people get the yips on putting’. My limbs wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. It would happen for a few holes and then go away, or sometimes for a whole round in a tournament week. It started creeping into my practice, or even if I played a practice round with a friend.

It was barely a few months and I was struggling to even walk to the first tee without feeling like my heart was going to explode out of my chest, terrified of even attempting to try and get that little white ball to go somewhere near where I wanted it to go. I kept arriving at events petrified of being there - knowing that as soon as Thursday came I’d be fighting panic attacks. Knowing that I’d be hitting a provisional after every 1st tee shot. Knowing that I had the yips off the tee and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was scared to give myself a single second to think about what was happening to me. At tournaments and at home, I would make myself endlessly busy - anything to avoid looking into the scrambled mess of my brain.

During that period I tried a few times to stop playing completely, but it felt like there was nothing I could do to fix what was happening. I’d have a few months off here and there from tournament golf, maintaining practicing and come back hoping that anxiety had left me. But every time I made that walk to the first tee there it was, like a train that runs off the tracks and just chases you to run you down no matter how hard you try and run away from it.

Obviously, not earning money in your job takes its toll. Back home I delivered parcels for Amazon, worked in an office checking expenses and doing stock takes, delivered takeaways for people through Deliveroo, and more recently during lockdown worked in the pro shop of a golf club doing some teaching in my spare time. There’s no doubt I had completely and utterly given up on myself as a professional golfer. The fight was draining out of me with every minute that passed.

What helped me turn the corner and start to see the tiny glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel were the phenomenal human beings I’d been lucky enough to meet during my life. None of the people I cared about or whose opinions I valued gave up on me. Not even when I shot 88 in the 1st round of the ladies European open in Germany where an official had to tell me I wasn’t allowed to play the 2nd round as my 1st round score was too high. Not even when I would phone them in floods of tears because I couldn’t even go out and play 9 holes on my own without losing a bag full of golf balls. Not even when I would sit on the floor of the hotel room crying so hard I could barely breathe.

Those people led me to make a conscious decision - even though I thought I was done, they must see something that I couldn’t. I started following their advice, even though deep down I didn’t believe anything would work. I started keeping a journal of my practice and playing activities. I would write down every single thought I had. I took a prolonged break away from tournament golf and started to accept the fact I had a severe case of burnout, and the yips on top of that. I had to hit rock bottom, with no car, no money and nowhere to live, to truly turn things around.

A great friend of mine who had also been my physical trainer for many years gave me a place to live - Steve Bond and his family. They welcomed me into their home, though I think they thought I might stay a couple of months… 2 and a half years later I left when I was fully back on my feet. A performance coach that I met through a trusted friend worked with me free of charge for a very long time. He slowly but surely started to change my mindset, giving my these tiny grains of hope that I could hang onto.

Following his guidance was hard sometimes. He shipped me off to America for 8 weeks under strict instructions I was to hit no long shots at all during the entire trip, only chipping and putting were allowed along with long periods of reading and journaling. I broke that rule on day 1 when I snuck off to the range to hit a few 7 irons. After that I never went against his word again.

Even though my actual golf game was very slow to improve, my state of mind was starting to make me feel like there was some hope that I could at least be happy again. Even if I never played on tour again I just wanted to actually be able to enjoy a round of golf at least one more time. It’s amazing how long the desire to do that kept me going when the game seemed impossibly hard to get better at.

Another friend, Martin Park, gave me more time than I can remember mentoring me to become a better coach, and to become a lot more self sufficient with my own game. We spent countless hours on the driving range talking through my swing, watching videos and doing analysis on other peoples swings, and he gave me a general education in life.

I’ve changed my thought process dramatically, but it’s taken a long time, and it’s hard to narrow down the things that have really made a difference to how I now see the world. The little things don’t seem enough at the time, but with consistency they all add up. Journaling, meditating, training with Steve, early morning sessions on the golf course with Allan followed by a couple of hours talking through it all, quizzing Martin about my forearm rotation and straight arms. Practising less with better quality, not feeling guilty about practising less, changing my focus on the golf course, eating better, drinking more water and less alcohol, listening more intently to the voices in my head and reasoning with them. In more recent times having EMDR therapy before tournaments. Really coming to terms with things I had ignored for too long.

My priorities now are far removed from those I had when I was younger. Instead of thinking hitting endless balls is the only way to feel worthy of success, I now spend the bulk of my time looking after my mind to keep it healthy. It took me a long time to realise it can be the strongest part of my game - and my life.

As seems to be the norm in these situations had I been brave enough to face my fears earlier or listen to my instincts for even a second, it may have saved a lot of pain. When you are trapped inside your own mind surrounded by voices that don’t belong to you its hard to have any kind of objective perspective. Luckily for me I have some astonishing people in my life who saved me from myself, and from those voices.

I had success for the first 9 years of my career. But if you look at my seasons on the LET for the 9 years after that you could easily think I’d sent someone who had never played the game before to take my place. I hadn’t realised myself it had been such a long period of struggling… I’m not sure sometimes how I hung on for so long.

I’m now in my 19th year on tour. And it has taken that long to finally feel like the real me is playing on tour. It’s the first time the real me has ever been outside the confines of a room in my mind. It’s the first time I feel like I’m playing the golf that belongs to me, that I feel comfortable with. It’s the first time I feel like I’m genuinely just being myself without any fear of what others will think.

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