The best golfers on Earth have once again found themselves in the New York metropolitan area as they play for large money in the year-ending FedEx playoffs at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City. Liberty National is the brain child of Paul Fireman with course design by Tom Kite and clubhouse design by the award-winning Lindsay Newman. It offers the golfers some of the best views on the globe. It was built along the Hudson River across from Lower Manhattan with clear views of the Statue of Liberty and the new Freedom Tower.
But with a $15 million first prize on the line who has time to enjoy the views? Sunday’s pressure-packed finals unfolded with the world’s best in contention. Patrick Reed was on top in the morning as play began with Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, John Rahm and Dustin Johnson in hot pursuit. Golf, with its slow pace and long walks between shots, is by far the most revealing study of human character ever invented. If Freud were alive today, he would have a field day analyzing the ups and downs of a big PGA event like the FedEx playoffs.
So let’s pretend we’re Freud and take a shot at what the pros reveal about their hidden secrets. There are essentially four obvious points he would see right away.
1) The most common character trait of all great golf champions is a tendency to isolate, have flat affect and be an island onto oneself. The clearest example of this trait was Ben Hogan, but more recently we see the same tendency in major champions like Brooks Kopeka, Gary Woodland, Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk and Kevin Kisner. The development of golf skills requires endless hours of solitary play and Freud might say only a person who is comfortable with this level of isolation would be able to withstand that much loneliness. Boxers have deep-rooted rage, jockeys have a deep fondness for animals and golfers love to be alone and commune with nature.
2) Oral greed: The motive to compete and win stems from a desire to fill up what is empty. This is the narcissistic character trait in action. Writers, teachers, actors, dancers, politicians and athletes all tend to seek out audiences in order to find the love that they were deprived of. Athletes strive for love in an impersonal manner through applause because more direct personal contact tends to be too much of a threat for them. A good example of this need for applause was Michael Jackson, the most famous pop star in history. He would remark that he was only at ease on stage and would have liked even to sleep on stage at night.
In golf there are notable examples of oral hunger with some of the golfer’s use of chewing tobacco or chewing gum with caffeine, CBD oil or other neuro enhancers. Freud also would have noticed that most trophies are shaped like cups, chalices or jugs, which are objects people drink from. Winning a trophy in sports is tantamount to finding the Holy Grail, that mythic object that will bring eternal happiness. But filling this oral need only provides the athlete with even greater hunger next week.
3) Freud would also notice that anger, harshness, self-criticism and despair are commonplace on tour. Self-attack is seen with cursing which was amply displayed by John Rahm, who cursed his way out of victory. Self-criticism comes from the super ego, which is the athlete’s inner critic. An overly harsh super ego will inevitably spell defeat in golf no matter how talented the golfer since mistakes are inevitable and must be accepted as part of the game. The treatment for the overly harsh super ego is one which provides a pleasant working alliance, acceptance, understanding and love. The angry golfer seeks treatment due to a demonic sense of rage and self-defeat, akin to having Charles Manson inside your head. But when treatment proceeds well, we see the harsh super ego convert into a benign conscience similar to the Jiminy Cricket character in “Pinocchio” who guides you in a benevolent softer manner.
4) Anxiety and the Big Choke: Freud would say that the final developmental challenge the golfer must overcome is anxiety. Spectators are drawn to observe sports in order to learn how an athlete manages anxiety. Golfers choke because they are unable to cope with the overwhelming emotion they feel at the end of a round. Self-attack tends to undo any real inner confidence. Inner turmoil, doubt, guilt, emptiness or shame all come out during the last few holes. Banal guidance such as ”stay in the moment” and “hit one shot at a time” prove to be ineffective under extreme pressure.
Freud would say the real issue is whether the athlete has enough ego strength, self-love, support and patience to withstand the crucible of pressure. Ego strength, true independence, a kinder self and general sense of happiness take time to develop. You either get it as a child or you get in in the analyst’s office. Freud was the first to say that the past must be conquered before the future is achieved. He also understood that psychoanalysis arouses opposition and resistance.
And on this Sunday the man who rose to the top with an astounding display of talent, focus, courage, poise, resilience and mental health was the one and only Patrick Reed. Reed was given the moniker Captain America for his ability to win Ryder Cup matches and it was fitting indeed to see him hoist the trophy with the Statue of Liberty in the background.