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In Good Company

Alex Nicolson, founder of Premium Golf and pro at Worplesdon GC, looks at the game through the lens of enjoyment, rather than performance and explains why your choice of playing partners can make all the difference. (First published in Golf Monthly, 2014)

I am fascinated by the reasons golfers play the game, not least because the biggest improvements come when WHAT you do compliments WHY you play. In an ongoing survey we run on we find out if there is a difference between the experience golfers seek...and the reality.

The most commonly used word in people’s descriptions of how they want to feel on the course is “relaxed”. Given that 99% of our respondents play golf in their leisure time, this seems a reasonable desire.

The Reality

Unsurprisingly, when viewing the game as a whole, most golfers express a strong liking for the game. However a mismatch appears in their experience over the ball.

88% of golfers experience fear or anxiety on at least a quarter of their shots
59% experience fear or anxiety on the majority of their shots

This information is usually received with relief (“it’s not just me then?”). Is this not ridiculous, given this is supposed to be fun? So why is this the case, and what can be done about it? In both in our coaching and our surveys, we find that so often “feeling relaxed” is the source of good play.

One of the most cited obstacles to feeling relaxed we play with. There are a number of ways in which your playing partners can affect your enjoyment of the game, but the real biggy is:

Looking Good

Not wanting to look like an idiot in front of other people is arguably a bigger cause of high scores than any swing fault, and it’s a weight that most golfers carry with them to the first tee. Your attention wanders from what you want, towards what you don’t.

Tension affects your swing, and shots suffer. Consequently, golfers’ aims become very un-leisurely: “not topping it” or “not three putting”. This leads to defensive, inhibited swings, and often the fear of embarrassing results is self-fulfilling.

Golfers who are genuinely unbothered by what other people think enjoy a rare sense of freedom. They are more likely to play in order to hit good shots, rather than to avoid bad ones. The first step towards enjoying this sense of freedom is to consider the probable truth that other people care much less about your shots (good or bad) than you think.

  • Good company Let’s face it, 4 hours is a long time to spend with anyone. Consider how often you play with people whose company you really enjoy. One of the first golf enjoyment assessments I did revealed that a young scratch handicapper played at least 3 shots better with people “he could have a laugh with”. He found that in competitions often his playing partners were “a bit dull” and he lost his taste for the whole round.

  • Tip giving How many times have you been offered unsolicited advice from a playing partner that worked a treat? Can you count them on one hand? Normally what happens is that you suddenly become aware of something else and play even worse. A second pair of eyes can be helpful, but make a pact with your playing partner only to offer advice if asked, and then only on simple things like alignment or tempo. On-course, unqualified swing diagnoses rarely lead to “relaxed”.

  • Competitiveness Your favourite playing partners often have a similar attitude to competition to yours. One golf enjoyment interview revealed that a key ingredient of enjoyable golf was playing against “someone who cared if they lost”. Our golfer had lost motivation because his normal playing partners weren’t as competitive as he was, and the game lost meaning for him. Conversely, if you’re not fussed about winning or losing, playing against a super competitive player can be quite irritating.

  • Level of ability I coach a single figure handicapper who realised that the only time he played with people better than him was in open competitions. If you are rarely exposed to the level of play you aspire to, it will be harder to reach. Conversely, if you find better golfers tend to take it all a bit too seriously, then you may have more fun playing with some hackers who know some great jokes and think you're a golfing god.


Who you play golf with can easily become as much of a habit as how you swing the club, and can have as much bearing on whether you have fun (and play well) or not. If you are clear on WHY you play, then choosing WHO to play with becomes clear also. Seek out playing partners who you think are on the same wave-length, expand your social circle if necessary. If you’re going through a rough patch, seek out golfers with whom you feel at ease - free of judgements, with nothing to prove to one another.

Obviously the trick to having lots of choices is to be someone others enjoy playing with. Given the introspective nature of the game, it might be a while since you’ve considered whether or not you are a good playing partner to others. If in each round you re-directed a little of the effort you were using to play well, to being enjoyable company for others, the results might surprise you. You might play with more freedom and get more invitations. Give it a try.

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