Golf is like… Casino Gambling?
Not too long ago on the Tour Network on Sirius/XM Radio, Matt Adams, host of the morning show “Fairways of Life,” asked listeners for a one-word description of golf. Many callers weighed in with such adjectives as maddening, frustrating, wonderful, spiritual, etc. Near the end of the segment, a caller offered that golf was “addicting.”
Adams immediately said that was by far the best description, and other callers heartily agreed. And, if you think about it, what better one-word description of golf is there?
No other sport has had so many words and books devoted to it. Golf, by far, has more literature available than does baseball, football, and basketball. What makes golf so addicting to so many people?
A psychological principle called “intermittent reinforcement” can help explain. Psychologists have long known that intermittent reinforcement is one of the reasons people become addicted to gambling. Take a slot machine, for example. You lose, you lose, you lose…you win! You lose, you lose, you lose…you win! And etc. People love to play slot machines, sometimes for hours. Why is intermittent reinforcement so powerful?
Psychiatrist Hilarie Cash says, “You have to be rewarded often enough to stay engaged but not so predictably that you get bored” for a reinforcement schedule to help create addiction. It’s the unpredictability of when the reward comes that draws many people into an activity. And, according to a Wall Street Journal article written by John Paul Newport in 2007, “Brain-imaging research has shown that rewards distributed intermittently trigger significantly higher releases of pleasure-inducing dopamine than the same rewards distributed on a more predictable basis.”
Can you think of another activity besides gambling that features intermittent reinforcement? Obviously, the answer is golf. Players are going to hit more shots that feel misstruck than well-struck, and it really doesn’t matter what level you play to. You may ask, “How can that be? Tour pros hit the ball well on almost every shot.”
Really? Ben Hogan would disagree with that view. He said that there were seldom more than five or six shots during a round that came off exactly as planned. Now, we can agree Hogan’s standards were extremely high,
but how can that also apply to other golfers?
The answer is really quite simple: The better you are, the higher your standard for what constitutes a shot that provides maximum intrinsic satisfaction, i.e., the reward. For a highly-skilled player, this probably means
a shot that is virtually perfectly struck and executed. By the same token, a player who can’t break 100 has standards for maximum intrinsic satisfaction that are much lower than the excellent golfer’s. A drive that is struck
somewhat decently and stays in the fairway for the double-bogey player is cause for celebration, even though to the rest of us the shot wasn’t all that great.
It’s not just individual shots that provide this intermittent reward. How about that round of golf where you had six birdies and shot a 67, or that tournament where you blew the field away? Even an entire golf season where you played your best might be considered an intermittent reward, because you haven’t been able to duplicate it. Can we now see how many ways golf can addict us through intermittent reward?
Another addicting aspect of golf is the many different challenges it poses. Driving and putting are about as diametrically opposed as you can get. One involves bashing the ball as far as you can, and the other requires a surgeon’s
delicate touch. Then you have long irons/hybrid shots and short-iron shots, along with chipping and pitching. There are so many facets to master in order to achieve excellence that the challenge of the game never ceases.
Fortunately for golf, as opposed to gambling, it is seen mainly as being good for mental health, because there are so many benefits to the game. These include exercise, being with friends, and enjoying nature. These other benefits canalso be quite addicting, but in a good way.