At country clubs and golf courses around the country, there's a joke that goes something like this: "A guy's playing golf when a funeral cortege passes the green. He stops swinging and stands at attention. His partner says, 'Why did you stop?' He answers, 'That was my wife. She gave me the best years of her life. I think she deserves a moment of respect.' "
There are more than a few golf widows who might not find this joke amusing. And they probably wouldn't appreciate this observation by Ken Hayes, a cashier at the Mount Pleasant Golf Course: "In my opinion, 75 percent of the golfers I see are $H hooked on the game."
In fact, some mental health experts compare compulsive golfing to addictions like alcohol and cocaine abuse, and believe they are similar coping mechanisms for avoiding life problems.
That doesn't mean golf addicts are checking into clinics or joining support groups to break the cycle. Dr. Neil Kirschner, director of psychology at Taylor Manor Hospital in Ellicott City, says he doesn't know of cases where golf addiction has landed people in psychiatric hospitals.
But when a golfer becomes so interested in the game that he neglects relationships and other obligations, experts say it can disrupt his life as much as other, more widely acknowledged addictions.
"Sports are very healthy when used properly, to get away from stress and strain and return with a new outlook. Golfing is problematical when it becomes excessive, a way to avoid life problems," says Dr. John Docherty, an addictions expert and medical director for Brookside Hospital in Nashua, N.H.
Steve Murfin admits to withdrawal symptoms when he can't play because of rain.
"The adrenalin flows when I'm out there," says the 36-year-old insurance executive from Olney. "I'm a very competitive person and golf allows me to play man against man, team against team."
His three-times-a-week golf habit, which he indulges mostly at Montgomery Country Club in Laytonsville, doesn't sit well with everyone. "I get a lot of grief from my bosses about how often I golf with clients," he says, adding, "but my division has grown 12 percent this year to date."
He and his wife, a school teacher, have fights at least twice a year about his golfing. But he claims he does try to maintain a balance. "I don't take up the whole weekend with golf," says Mr. Murfin, who has a 6-year-old daughter. "Weekends are family time."
Explanations of why some people become addicted to golf vary from one expert to another.
*Dr. Kirschner cites the behavioral theory of psychologist B. F. Skinner, who found that people develop strong cravings to repeat experiences that offer only occasional rewards.
In golf, for example, really good shots can be few and far between. But once the craving is established, Dr. Kirschner says, "it is very difficult to eliminate."
*The need to feel competent and in control is what causes golf addiction, says Dr. Martin Kafka, a psychiatrist and former medical director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Unit at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
"There are any number of outlets for people who are unhappy and trying to find a sense of competence
and control in their lives," he says. "Although work is a common outlet for people who have interpersonal problems or low self-esteem, golf can provide a sense of competence in controlling the ball. It stands to reason that golf would begin to take on more significance than merely a recreational outlet."
*Golf can assume a role similar to drugs or alcohol for some
people, according to experts -- and, in some cases, it may facilitate alcoholism, particularly when golfers habitually congregate at the club's "19th hole" to dissect the game.
For those who use golf as they would a drug, the sport can cause marriages to break up "after a certain sense of irresponsibility develops," says Dr. Docherty. "This one pursuit assumes an unusual and inappropriate dimension in a golfer's life. His or her entire week becomes focused on golf, and like drugs, it begins to infiltrate areas where it doesn't belong.
"The addicted person eventually moves golfing equipment into the office or bedroom. . . . The golfer can't deal anymore with business or sexual issues," Dr. Docherty explains.
In fact, says Dr. Kafka, for some golfers, going out for a game becomes the alternative to "not tonight dear, I have a headache."
David Earl says golf may have figured in his three divorces. The managing editor of Golf Journal, the official publication of the RTC U.S. Golf Association, belongs to seven different golf clubs in the United States and Europe. On what he describes as a recent binge, he played 126 holes in four days.
"I might have become more immersed in golf than most; possibly impervious to entreaties from the outside world" -- including his wives', he admits.
Once, that was the case in her marriage, says Carol Libin, a 40-year-old from Lexington, Mass. She reflects on the days when her husband, Michael, golfed excessively.