Is Golf at Different Courses a Mental Boost?

What effect does playing different courses, rather than just your home course, have on you and your game?

By Neil E. Wolkodoff, PhD

Golf uses a significant of mental components that can improve your thinking and brain health. The question is, does where you play golf impact the cognitive or brain effects of golf?

One mental skill used in golf is visual memory. You look at a distance and get a number, then hopefully recall the proper shot interpretation from your experience bank. There is also the element of strategizing with conditions such as the grass, the ball’s lie, weather, and pin placement and then making further shot adjustments. That moves closer to the realm of complex logic. Once you have your mental notes, you narrow down the shot to hopefully just one and execute. The rub of the green often comes into play, and even with the perfect execution of the shot, the ball bounces away from the desired landing spot. Then the choice is to let it go or replay the shot in your mind or with a practice swing with perfect results.

Golf is like a decision in school or business. You gather the information, assess options, pick a strategy, execute the action, then re-assess. While in business, you might only go through this sequence two or even three times per day; in golf, it’s more like 85 sequences. This series of mental steps contribute to cognitive function and brain health, especially as you get older. One of the reasons golf is good for the brain is all these processes rely on you, the golfer. Active thinking overall is better than just reaction.

Does playing the same course offer the same mental benefits as playing another course? What about the physical benefits of burning calories and improving health?

Using skiing as an example, ski racers must learn various turns and sequences to use on the course. They are much more likely to develop these maneuvers in free skiing in varied terrain and conditions, and then apply them to the racecourse. More variety in the turn bank means better performance on the racecourse.

Skiing the same run repeatedly dulls the cognitive benefits of skiing. Visual planning a few turns in advance, change in turn rhythm and direction, balance, and the reaction of avoiding an obstacle such as a rock or bad snow are less likely to happen on the same run over and over. And if they do, the skier has likely experienced that sequence before or at least something similar. Many skiers use apps that record vertical feet skied to gauge physiological work and potential benefit. Using vertical accumulation as your only metric does note tell the story of the mental and brain connections of skiing. And, it only has moderate relevance to physiological training effects.

Research about muscle usage and energy in alpine skiing clearly shows the energy expended and fitness benefit declines as the skier is more skilled and skis the same run over and over. Efficiency increases, and physical demand decreases. It is ability against the terrain and the choice of runs. If you ski the same run over and over to gain vertical feet, you will simply negate the physical work by adapting over time to that one run.

Applying these relationships and observations to golf, there is more than a parallel.

Playing your home course is excellent if you want to score more consistently on your home course. You know your shot tendencies, distances, projected results, your mishits, and the nuances of the terrain. What the golfer is missing from playing the same track all the time is the depth and breadth of the mental components of shot selection and execution.

Different golf courses require you to calculate all the factors, including the distance, course conditions, topography and even weather nuances with each shot. At probably twice the level of thinking on your home course. And that means the cognitive benefits of recalling past experiences, coordination patterns, and executing a swing specific to the situation are not realized from the same course over and over.

In terms of physical changes, playing the same golf course all the time means you get less fit as time goes on. Players learn to take more efficient paths to the tee boxes and greens, which lower the endurance training response. In general, efficiency increases when the body does the same thing over and over. Likely, your health benefit goes up a bit from playing a different course where the actual shots and your personal transportation around the course are different are unexpected, and the body is not adapted to those physical demands.

There is a Zen application to how you think about the courses you play. It is best to be consistent with activity and golf. However, consistent play has its best mental application through different courses mixed in occasionally. Consistently play golf yet use different courses to keep the mental processes in peak form from varied stimuli and situations.

Regular golf play improves mental health, cognitive function, and even overall health. In Colorado, and through the CGA, you have diverse course opportunities. If you play different golf courses in your golf rotation, you will improve all those cognitive dimensions over just home course play and make you a better golfer.

Neil E. Wolkodoff, PhD, performs research on golf and sports, and provides programs to improve human performance and health. He has worked successfully with PGA, collegiate and junior golfers over the last 25 years. Neil is the Medical Program Director for the Colorado Center for Health & Sports Science.