Why do I play? For professional golfers, it’s the question that can unlock the keys to strong mental health and long-term success
It was the spring of 1989, and Sally Quinlan headed to Sedona, Arizona, after a missed cut at the Nabisco Dinah Shore to spend time with her coach and friend, Lynn Marriott.
“I thought she was coming out to practice,” recalled Marriott. “I couldn’t get her out of the hammock.”
After three days of lounging, Marriott dumped two buckets of balls on the range, turned the baskets upside down and said to Quinlan, let’s talk.
“If you win the U.S. Women’s Open, are you happy?” asked Marriott. “What about two majors?”
Quinlan, a winner on tour who was inside the top 15 on the money list and miserable, said no. No matter what accolade Marriott threw out, Quinlan knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Her dream at the time was to own a home with someone she loved and to know where was going to be every Sunday. Maybe join a club.
“I’m going to cry just thinking about it,” said Quinlan more than 30 years later. “Just because you can juggle, doesn’t mean you have to join the circus.”
Quinlan had been afraid to say any of that out loud for fear of letting down her family, her team, and all of New England. Marriott was the first person she told who understood the tour, understood the grind and, in a way, made Quinlan feel like she had permission to leave.
The next year, at age 29, a fully exempt Quinlan walked away.
“She would later tell the story that it was the best thing that ever happened to her,” said Marriott, who along with Pia Nilsson co-founded Vision 54.
Marriott and Nilsson are, of course, in the business of helping players reach their potential, having worked with numerous World No. 1s. But first and foremost, they’re interested in what’s best for players as human beings.
Many professional golfers aren’t taught how to grapple with the big questions. This game of inches can be fine-tuned to death, and there’s no shortage of areas to improve.
But why do you play? What’s the intrinsic motivation for choosing this life?
Nilsson and Marriott ask participants of their golf schools to fill out a sheet of paper titled “Spirt of Your Game.” They believe the spiritual component wraps around the physical, technical and emotional parts of the game. It’s the glue that holds everything together.
The Vision54 coaches want players to ask themselves “Why do I play?” And after each answer, ask “why?” again.
“There’s no bad answers to any of the questions,” said Nilsson. “But if you stop asking the question, things get hidden.”
And, as life changes, the answer to those fundamental questions change, too. Players will ultimately find, said Marriott, that it’s only the intrinsic motivation that’s sustainable.
For Stacy Lewis, the foundational love of the game and curiosity of how good she can be has never changed. But now, there are so many more answers to her why.
The ability to answer that question with something beyond trophies and paychecks, Lewis said, “determines how you play and how long you play.”
“You have to have a reason for why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Lewis said, “because it’s going to make you get out of bed each day and practice and take care of yourself and watch what you eat, stay in shape. Especially in women’s professional golf. There’s not a whole lot of people around to pull you out of the gutter.”
Brittany Altomare, the soft-spoken newlywed who acquired the nickname “Jesus” in her Solheim Cup debut because her putting was so divine, is an adrenaline junkie. While she may look meek, the rush of competition is what put her on track to the LPGA.
When Altomare first started dating her now husband Steven Stanislawzyk, she apologetically told him: “Golf comes first.”
As her destination wedding in Italy last fall drew near, however, 31-year-old Altomare could feel the priorities in her life begin to shift. She’d never felt more stressed as a result and started going to therapy with Stanislawzyk because she had trouble expressing it all.
“I don’t think I’ve ever actually shared that with anybody,” said a teary-eyed Altomare on the eve of the Pelican Women’s Championship last November.
With the desire to start a family looming, Altomare suddenly felt like her career was being rushed to the finish line. She wanted to be a wife and a mom, but she also wanted to win, something she has yet to do on the LPGA.
“You don’t know if you’ll ever get to come back,” she said of having kids, “or if you’ll ever be the same player.”
Altomare’s therapist helped her to slow down her racing mind. At last summer’s AIG Women’s British Open, Altomare had an epiphany, telling herself that she’d go back to making golf No. 1 for two years, give it her all and then reassess.
“I feel like I had my first experience of not being totally healthy in my mind this year,” said Altomare, who now, admittedly, looks at the phrase “mental health” differently these days.
When Sandra Gal turned pro, she said there was no “why” that she could articulate. She had the talent, and the tour seemed like the next logical step.
It wasn’t until Gal experienced her first tough season in 2010, three years in, that she first began asking herself the big questions.
It was then Gal realized that she’d been 100 percent focused on results. She called it a spiritual awakening.
“I realized if I myself moved around with a certain energy,” said Gal, “it would influence everyone around me. If I could play with more joy, and if I could make that the most important thing, then I knew I could actually inspire other people, or in some way lift up other people.”
Over the years, she’d fall back into chasing results. Gal realized that she needed to take it a step further and really let go of what happens inside the ropes.
“I love the game,” said Gal, “but I also think that it doesn’t really matter what you do – it’s how you do what you do, with what energy you do what you do.”
As Gal began to dive deeper into the discussion of mental health, she came across this definition of “spiritual health” from the Australian National University: “Not referring to any particular religious or spiritual practice or ideology but to the human need for meaning, purpose and connection to something greater than ourselves. It is a very diverse and often individualized aspect to health, giving context and meaning to all other parts of ourselves and our life experiences.”
The term mental health, Gal said, only skims the surface.
Betsy King dedicated her life to Christ on a retreat in January 1980. In a sense, she said, it felt like starting over. She had her worst year on tour that year, and an aunt said King had lost her edge because of her newfound faith.
When in fact, King had simply found her self-worth in something other than golf. At the start of the 1989 season in Jamaica, King asked God if she should go to Africa rather than play the tour. There wasn’t really a specific reason that Africa popped into her mind, but after 14 wins on tour, King was willing to walk away if she felt led to.
King began to realize that the more money she made and the bigger platform she built, the more she could do for the causes that mattered most to her. King shot 64 to win that first tournament in Jamaica and went on to win six times that season, including a U.S. Women’s Open.
The LPGA Hall of Famer ultimately won 34 titles on the LPGA and has now been to Africa more than two dozen times. Her Golf Fore Africa foundation, raises money to provide clean water to remote African villages. To date, King’s charity has raised close to $14 million.
Several players have traveled to Africa with King, including Lewis in 2010.
“Betsy kind of came along at a good time in my career,” said Lewis, “and helped me realize that with good golf, you can help a lot of people.”
Amy Olson, who has the Golf Fore Africa logo on her hat and bag, quotes runner Eric Liddell from the movie “Chariots of Fire” when talking about her why.
“I believe God made me for a purpose,” Liddell’s character says, “but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
That’s how Olson feels about golf. Pursuing a career on the LPGA, she said, is about being a good steward of the gift she’s been given.
At some point, Olson said, she’ll move to on to something else, but her why will never change. Everything she does points back to God.
“I think it’s fundamental,” said Olson. “I don’t think that you can play with joy or freedom if you don’t have a why. I would even say if you have the wrong why, you’ll play out of fear or the desire to make other people happy.”
Eventually, in the valley, most players will face a time of critical self-evaluation and ask themselves, “Why am I doing this?”
For Sophia Popov, there came a point when she lost a lot of the love of the game and found herself competing because she had to make money.
“I think I lost some of that connection to the game,” said Popov.
Players of all ages struggle with tying their worth as an individual to golf scores. King did in the 70s and Cheyenne Woods only recently broke herself out of that mindset – and the putting yips – after seeking personal therapy for the first time. She’d been to sports psychologists in the past, but this time knew that she needed something more.
“It busted open the bubble I was living in,” she said.
Players don’t often speak about the loneliness that accompanies tour life, but it can impact even extroverted players like Maria Fassi, who had plenty of experience on a big stage prior to turning professional.
It took time for Fassi to find a group of friends on tour. Expectations, both internal and external began to mount for the powerful and engaging NCAA champ.
There were times early on that she asked herself: Is this really what I want to do?
“I didn’t have anybody on tour I trusted to go and talk to or go and cry with,” she said.
In time, a handful of players reached out to help, including veterans Angela Stanford and Lewis, a fellow Razorback, and the questions they asked Fassi and the time spent helped turn things around.
Last September, the 23-year-old Mexican launched the Maria Fassi Foundation and Fassi’s Friends, a series of inclusive and adaptable clinics that bring disabled and full-bodied kids together to learn the game of golf.
Fassi, inspired by a disabled cousin who took up golf around six years ago, knew that she needed a deeper “why” than the quest to win titles.
“I know personally,” said Fassi, “I needed just something bigger than myself to play for.”
Ariya Jutanugarn had that same conversation with herself after rising to No. 1 in the world. Did she want to stay there? She knew it would take more than the lure of trophies to make it worthwhile.
It was on a Monday at the 2017 CME Group Tour Championship that Jutanugarn told Nilsson and Marriott that it cost $350 to educate a child for an entire year at the schools she helps to fund. They gave her $350 on the spot.
Jutanugarn went on to win the CME and the U.S. Women’s Open the following year.
Nilsson and Marriott like to do an exercise with college golfers in which they ask, after you win, and you buy a house and a watch and a car and another watch, do you still want to play golf?
“We’re not wanting to burst a bubble,” said Marriott.
But there’s got to be more to it than that.