Meghan MacLaren: "Success in golf is about more than a victory"

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Ladies European Tour star Meghan MacLaren asks: 'What really constitutes success for a golfer?'

Sometimes I wonder what non-golfers’ perspectives are on golf. How do they view our game through the lens of other sports? The people who have never really tried golf, apart from a one-off foray to the driving range where they’re just as likely to try to tee up a putter as hit with the club the right way round. Or the “I’ve played crazy golf” group. (No, there really is no correlation). The people who definitely never watch golf.

Golf exists as a sport that barely qualifies as such; the recognition perhaps only in its use as a landmark around various towns and counties. “Oh yeah, the hospital is just past the golf club” etc.

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Yet these same people will probably appreciate the technical skill of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. They will marvel at the graceful power of Emma Raducanu and the extraordinary grit of Andy Murray. They will applaud Lewis Hamilton’s relentless dominance. Tiger’s name will always transcend golf, but I often think golf’s difficulties – both immense and intricate – bypass the casual sports observers.

Tiger's name transcends golf but he is a rare, maybe lone example.

A recent quote from NBA legend Michael Jordan struck me. He said, when asked about golf during the Ryder Cup, “To me, it’s the hardest sport to play. It’s like playing in a mirror, and you’re battling yourself consistently to try to get perfection.” This from one of the greatest athletes of all time, a man for whom superhuman feats of athleticism and heroicism became the absolute norm.

That element of perfection is, I think, what makes golf so captivating. Perfection in golf is entirely dependent on your definition of it. Is shooting 59 perfection? What if there were bad shots in it? Is hitting every shot exactly where you want to perfection? What if you misjudged the wind? Is making the most of your round on the day perfection? Why did you feel worse that day than yesterday?

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Each mini-victory we have in golf, and each mini-defeat, brings with it its own set of questions. If we play well, we want to understand why we played well, so that we can channel that again. How many of us have had a swing thought that simply stops working one day? If we play badly, we also want to understand why it happened, so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

The maddening thing about golf, to me at least, is the not knowing. In most other sports (and I don’t pretend to be proficient in a single one of them) there seem to be more measurables, more metrics, more blueprints. It is easier to recognise necessary skills and how one factor affects another, even if we have no hope of replicating them ourselves. 

Golf has offered us champions in extraordinary physical condition, such as Tiger and Bryson, but other brilliant champions that are less so, such as Inbee Park and John Daly.

It is difficult to quantify what measure of X, Y and Z are required to be successful. Yes, you need to be great at most, if not all, facets of the game. The advent of strokes gained has helped to explain which skills have more weight in scoring well, and how different players formulate their particular measures of greatness. But it doesn’t tell us how, or why, those things come together.

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If Inbee Park, or myself, trained like Bryson has done every day for an entire year, would either of us lead the LPGA in driving statistics? Possibly. But would we be ‘successful’? As in, would we win tournaments, Majors, accolades? Who knows? Because if Inbee trained like Bryson for a year, would she be happy? If she wasn’t happy, would she be capable of her best golf? And would she have as much time to spend on her putting – which has long been her superpower?

Inbee Park's definition of success differs to mine – and yours.

All these are unknowns, as are so many things in golf performance. The combination of mental, physical and technical skills – and how they can differ so extremely from person to person – is incredibly fascinating to me, even if it is less visible than a Messi 40-yard dribble and lob over the keeper, or a Ronaldo bullet header from a standing jump that means you think it must have been Photoshopped. 

Sometimes asking questions in this game is a spiralling descent that makes you forget all the things that make you successful. But it is also where ‘better’ lives. And isn’t that what we’re all searching for?

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