Intelligence in this game is either a saving grace or causes death by over-thinking. Where you stand and what it means may surprise you.
It’s a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon and you’re enjoying your usual Nassau with your best golf buddy/nemesis. He’s one up with two to play. No worries, though; you’ve been in this spot before and you’re confident that the match is far from over.
Seventeen is a narrow, tricky par five that’s reachable with two perfect shots. When your opponent grabs his driver, you think Bingo! I’m gonna win again. And the reason? Because, you say to yourself: I am so much smarter than him.
The intelligent play would be for your opponent to hit four-iron off the tee, lay up, punch a wedge to the green, then two putt for par. All he needs to do is match you shot for shot without stumbling. But, you think, as he takes a swoopy, confident swing with his driver, he’s too stupid for that.
On the other hand, he’s also just dumb enough to swing out of his shoes and rip a 300-yarder dead center, laser a three-iron to within kicking distance of the pin, and dunk an eagle. But that has nothing to do with intelligence.
Or does it?
The answer is yes. Or no. Given the nature of golf as a non-reactive sport our research indicates that the best golfers are extremely intelligent. Or, really really dumb. Or really smart AND really dumb. Okay, we’ll explain. And we’ll speak slowly for those of you who may be long drive competitors.
Really smart golfers are able to use their well-trained analytical minds to learn essential skills and then, when appropriate, remove their thinking caps, eliminating clutter and letting a more instinctive intelligence take over– much like athletes in other sports who don’t have to think too long before blocking a jump shot or checking a right wing into the boards.
Really dumb golfers don’t have much intellectual clutter to begin with. Their minds are free of confusing thoughts; in fact, they may be free of any thoughts at all, which can be a gift in a game where many players get in their own way by thinking too much. As PGA and Champions Tour player Peter Jacobsen says, “I’ve seen guys whose IQs could freeze water win golf tournaments. I don’t know if a guy got straight As or can solve Rubik’s Cube but if he can get it in the hole in the fewest number of strokes and play in perspective, he’s an intelligent golfer.”
Brainiacs and simpletons are often fine golfers. It’s folks in the middle who have the toughest time. Those of us who are sharp enough to know a few things about swing mechanics or the physics of spin often aren’t smart enough to stop pondering these things while we’re trying to hit a touch shot to a well-bunkered green. And just because your opponent in that $2 Nassau can’t identify the capital of Vermont doesn’t exclude his possessing a more physical or kinesthetic kind of intelligence that allows him to extract some capital from your wallet.
But the question of how intelligence affects an athlete’s performance in sports in general and in golf in particular is not so simple. That’s because researchers and academics can’t agree on what intelligence even means, let alone apply it to an activity as complex as a sport, where both physical and mental abilities work in harmony to achieve the greatest results. Current debates about intelligence can be organized into two major theories:
The first, developed a century ago, suggests that we are each genetically predisposed to a general intelligence (so-called “g”), which can be measured by standardized tests and represented by a number—an intelligence quotient or IQ.
In the 1980s, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner developed an alternative theory, suggesting that there are actually a variety of intelligences of very different sorts, including linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, and bodily/kinesthetic— the last of which probably applies most closely to performance in sports. Which might explain how an athlete who can’t read anything more complex than a book of matches can consistently read the offense in a sport such as football or basketball and prove successful at picking off passes.
How the twain meet
Steve Sailer, a science journalist who has been writing about IQ for a decade says, “Both ‘g’ and multiple intelligences are true. They’re just two ways of looking at different cognitive skills being correlated more than randomly but less than perfectly.” Still, he points out that “the ‘g’ men have more data on their side.”
Using Tour players to explain these theories, Sailer says, “To help people distinguish between “g” and Gardner’s multiple intelligences, you might compare ‘g’ to general athleticism. Hale Irwin has a lot of general athleticism—he was a fine defensive back at Colorado—while Tom Kite does not. Some pro golfer said that when he saw Kite trying to play basketball, he was ashamed for his profession. But Kite has some excellent specific golf talents and golf smarts and worked hard to develop them. Another comparison might be the general athleticism of Greg Norman against John Daly’s almost freakish golf skills. A lot of people have wondered if Norman, a magnificent specimen of masculinity, might have been even better in some other sport, like Australian football. In contrast, Daly’s body (but not his brain) and its incredible flexibility combined with a weight problem, would only work in golf. Irwin and Norman would appear to have a lot of ‘general athleticism’ that could have allowed them to do well in a lot of sports. They’ve channeled their general athleticism into golf. In contrast, overweight, chain-smoking John Daly would be lousy at most sports but he is (at least physically) freakishly gifted for playing golf. Kite has little general athleticism, a reasonable amount of specific golf athleticism, and huge amounts of self-discipline.”
How they apply on the course
Let’s say that you’re willing to believe that there are both general and more specific and varied forms of intelligence (and lacks thereof), and that each might provide a potential advantage in golf. But exactly how does one or the other really apply to a person’s ability to deliver a ball of 1.68 inches in diameter into a 4.25-inch-wide cup some 500 yards away—across terrain characterized by narrow platforms of grass surrounded by trees, water, sand, and other obstacles—by whacking it with a metal stick? Which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem like all that intelligent an activity to begin with.
To answer this we turned to iconoclastic golf educator Chuck Hogan, who turns the discussion toward a distinction between intellect and intelligence. Intellect (which may correlate more closely with “g”), Hogan explains, is the analytical part of the mind necessary for first learning basic skills that must become habituated—the way walking or tying your shoes or following through is habituated—so that a person can act intelligently, i.e. instinctively, and perform without thinking about it. “Intelligence itself is spontaneous,” Hogan asserts. “It flows. It is instinct. Intelligence is where a person is operating from when he’s in the zone.”
Hogan backs up the hypothesis that deep thinking is only an advantage in sports (especially golf) if you’re smart enough to stop thinking when necessary. He agrees that intellect has its purpose, especially when learning a new skill. But he adds, “Intellect can’t do anything but figure out intellect. It’s the property of words. If you take words away you don’t have intellect. I’ve asked golf professionals all over the world what it’s like to be in the zone. When people are in the zone they perform at peak level with the greatest of ease. Everybody says: ‘I wasn’t even thinking.’ There’s an absence of internal dialogue. Intellect, which is verbally based, is arduously slow. Intelligence, which is imagery based, is fast as lightning. It’s the absence of analytical thought and verbalization. So in golf, ignorance is bliss.”
Tour player Joe Durant puts it even more simply, “Sometimes golf intelligence would mean being dumb as a rock at the right time, because sometimes you over-think on the course. Sometimes you need to be really stupid and not think at all.”
Test Your Golf IQ
Are you smart enough (or dumb enough) to be great?
1. Which would you prefer:
A. Longer drives, wherever they go—you’ll work on accuracy later
B. Shorter drives, more fairways hit
C. Fail-safe line that wins you date with cart girl every time
D. Ability to recover from trouble
D. GOLF Magazine Top 100 Instructor Dr. David Wright, who defines intelligence in golf as emotional intelligence, suggests that recovering from trees or rough, for example, or making birdies from missed fairways is an indication of high intelligence because it demonstrates calmness and control under pressure.
2. Which is a clear sign that you’re a few clubs short of a full bag?
A. Locked keys in car again. While it was running.
B. You’re short on approaches to six greens, long on ten others
C. Assessed penalty for reaching across hole with putter to tap in 6-incher.
D. All of the above.
D. Remind the guy from AAA that you’re going to need gas, too. Science writer Steve Sailer suggests that misclubbing is a mark of less intelligent life forms. And knowing the basic rules of golf is one of the most important parts of the game.
3. Who do you think is the most intelligent golfer of the following?
A. Shivas Irons
B. John Daly
C. Bruce Lietzke
D. Ben Hogan
C. Shivas Irons is a fictional character (So is the Easter Bunny. Sorry.)
As Steve Sailer says, “You can see John Daly making numerous bad decisions on the golf course, just as he makes bad decisions in his choice of wives, in the casino, and so forth. I don’t think Daly would be offended if somebody said he’d be more successful if he had higher general intelligence—he’s said much the same thing himself. On the other hand, Daly’s often excellent putting and chipping shows that he likely has a very good mental capability for 3D analysis, which is a specific mental capacity that does not correlate as closely with “g” as most others.
According to Chuck Hogan, “Bruce Lietzke is as good as it gets. Lietzke says, ‘My swing is my swing. I don’t have to practice it. I go home and do other things.’ That is the trust of intelligence.”
And in spite of all the books you’ve seen about him lately, Ben Hogan is quite dead.
4. You’ve got 240 yards into an elevated green off a flat lie on a reachable par five. You . . .
A. Hit your longest club and try to get to the green; eagles are worth the risk
B. Hit three iron to get as close as possible while minimizing risk
C. Hit nine iron to set up a comfortable wedge to the green because you’re Rambo-deadly with your wedge
D. Doesn’t matter what club you shank
C. According to Paul Azinger, “Course management is intelligence in golf.” Fellow TOUR player John Riegger agrees, adding, “Golf intelligence is a guy knowing what he’s capable of and playing within those capabilities. Tiger can hit a two-iron from 270 off a downhill lie; I can’t do that, and if I tried to, it wouldn’t be very smart.”
5. You need a double-breaking fifteen-footer to win the club championship. To help read the putt you . . .
A. Plumb bob
B. Plumb Bill
C. Walk the line of the putt in both directions—from ball to hole and from hole back to ball— and make sure that the line formed by your feet is parallel to the putter head when you set up
D. Visualize the ball rolling along the green like a streak of golden light and falling into the cup
D. Chuck Hogan says, “Using real intelligence, a golfer reads a green virtually at first glance. Intelligence knows until intellect intercedes. All golfers have a day on which they can just see the break. That’s intelligence at play vs. intellect at work, which just gets in the way.”
6. Your most frequent swing thought is . . .
A. Sweep the club through the ball
B. Shoulder turn, load the wrists, shift weight
C. Cheeseburger, medium rare, crispy fries—no, wait, turkey club sandwich, speaking of club, what club am I hitting? Should’ve had my wedge regripped, did I turn off the stove?
D. Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa.
D. As Ty Webb has remarked, “A flute without holes, is not a flute. A donut without a hole, is a Danish.”
7. If you could be granted one golf super-power, which would you choose?
A. Megawatt drives
B. Short game wizardry
C. Magical equipment
D. X-ray vision. And tickets to an LPGA event.
B. Dr. David Wright also believes that short game prowess is a sign of intelligent life on Tour and elsewhere. Seeing lines and visualizing shots requires a quiet mind, which is a hallmark of emotional intelligence. Wright believes that chipping, pitching, and bunker shots all require a high level of intelligence.
8. Tomorrow is your last day at St. Andrews and you haven’t been chosen by the lottery for a tee time on the Old Course. You wake up at 5 a.m. to reach the course before the sun rises over the Firth of Forth and do the following:
A. Camp out at the starter’s shack, beg for a slot
B. Offer some local codger $500 for his tee time
C. Pretend you’re a caddie
D. Pretend you’re Dick Cheney
You should know there’s always a trick question on these quizzes, Copernicus. Last time we checked, the sun rose in the east. But give yourself half a point if you chose E: Sleep till 11, enjoy a deep-fried Mars bar and a pint of ale for breaky.
9. You’ve already figured yardage, wind speed and direction, turf conditions, and other factors in deciding to hit a particular club. Once you’ve got the club in your hand and are addressing the ball you . . .
A. Think about where you want the shot to land
B. Shut up and swing
C. Check in with yourself as to whether your club selection seems comfortable
D. Check wind speed again to make sure there’s been no change or gusts
B. TOUR player John Riegger says. “The more you can make golf a reaction sport the better off you are. If you’re out there thinking when you’re standing over the shot then you’re done. You do all your thinking before you even take the club out of the bag. Once you pull the club out, if you can make it a reaction, you’re halfway there.”
10. After missing a two-foot putt for par you are most likely to . . .
A. Look up at leaves glittering on trees
B. Attack a squirrel in the bunker for mocking you with his little squirrel eyes
C. Gently toss club in mock anger
D. Curse under your breath in real anger but NEVER throw a club
A. According to Dr. David Wright, when players are in the zone “there’s not a lot of elation or club throwing. There’s a monotone aura and the player is just playing well, without effort. In the zone, highs and lows don’t exist. Players who are struggling throw clubs and mutter and complain. That’s not emotional intelligence, which is seamless.”
Wright adds that “The best players cycle in and out of emotional intelligence. It requires as much practice as the golf swing, though the best players are in it most of the time. The Tour requires a combination of skill and emotional intelligence.”
How’d you do, Einstein?
0-3 correct. Congratulations, you’re dumb as a rake. We’ll take you as a two-man best ball partner any time, as long as you can figure out where the first tee is and remember to take off your club head covers before hitting. Your game is all over the place and you have no idea why. But when you get on a roll, you’re unstoppable. And you can be coached.
4-7 correct. Like most of us, you’re of average golf intelligence. Your game is probably characterized by moments of brilliance, rage-producing inconsistency, a sense every now and again that you’ve finally got things figured out, and some great rounds interrupted by some really high numbers.
8-10 correct. You are smart and dumb, which makes you even smarter. You’ve got a mind capable of performing at a high level on the golf course (which is to say you trust yourself and don’t have to intellectualize every shot) and your game is probably very consistent. You play with a Zen-like calmness, and you enjoy yourself even when you’re blowing up a little. If you have the physical skills to match your mental ones, you’re probably a stick.
Brawn vs. Brains
Physical abilities diminish with age. Conversely, intelligence (or at least learning/experience) can make us smarter as we get older. By looking at the optimum ages for performance in a variety of sports we can extrapolate that if the peak age for one sport is higher than in another, optimum performance in that sport relies less on physical than on intellectual characteristics. As Steve Sailer says, “Golf is toward the high end, suggesting physique is less important than the mental side than in, say, tennis.”
Sport Optimal Age for Peak Performance
Dr. David Wright might correlate this with emotional intelligence, which he believes is learned. He cites research with golfers, marksmen, and expert archers that shows a shift in one of the hemispheres of their brains and a decrease in heart rate 3-7 seconds before execution of a shot. These athletes have trained themselves to be smart—so smart that they can control their own autonomous motor functions to benefit their performances.