Depression in golf: Scot's study lifts lid on mental health issues facing players across sport

New mental fitness and recovery zone introduced at recent DP World Tour event

Depression. It’s a word that has rarely been uttered by top golfers over the years, but don’t be fooled into thinking that means it’s not an issue. According to a study carried out by a Scot, players have even been on the brink of suicide as reality hits once glittering careers come to an end.

Ian Peek, who hails from Duns and did his PGA training at Crieff under John Stark and David Murchie before setting up base in Germany more than 30 years ago, spoke to 16 players, including five of his compatriots, for his PhD in social-psychology at the University of Birmingham. Three of the Scots played in the Ryder Cup and four were winners on what is now known as the DP World Tour. Opening up to Peek, three of them admitted they’d experienced depression and anxiety as their careers came to an end as the combination of a loss of finance and a “loss of meaning in their life” created a downward spiral.

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“I did my Masters Degree in 2016 and that looked at why top amateurs, including four boys from Scotland who played in the Walker Cup, didn’t make it on the tour. The year after that, I thought ‘this isn’t enough for me’, so I decided to look at why guys make it on tour and told my supervisor at Birmingham, Dr Martin Toms, that I had this idea for a PHD. It was a big job as I work full time and have three kids but, my wife was fully behind me,” Peek told The Scotsman.

Ian Peek hails from Duns but is now based in Germany and works as a consultant for the Swiss Golf Federation. Picture: Ian PeekIan Peek hails from Duns but is now based in Germany and works as a consultant for the Swiss Golf Federation. Picture: Ian Peek
Ian Peek hails from Duns but is now based in Germany and works as a consultant for the Swiss Golf Federation. Picture: Ian Peek

“So I set out trying to find out the mental and social reasons that tour players have a successful career. I got lucky, so to speak, with the Covid pandemic as that put a lot of the boys at home for weeks on end. I had a core of 16 players, all just recently retired from the tour, with one still being there in 2020. Over a three-year period, they told me their stories. My supervisor suggested that it should be embargoed so that when it was finished it wouldn’t be made public. Because of that, it allowed the lads to talk more openly because they knew the tough stuff wouldn’t find its way to the public eye.

"Over the course of three years, I interviewed 14 of the players three times and two of them twice. They let me into their lives about what they went through during their careers. Some of the highs but also a lot of the lows. What I’m going to describe as psychological struggles. It was a mix of the good and also the s**** they went through during the course of their career. I split the career into five stages and the fourth stage was cameos. They’d been famous but became people who were hanging on to careers that are no longer there.

“When they came off tour, there was nothing else for them as they’d lost their purpose in life, seven of the 16 experienced prolonged depression anxiety, which meant going to the doctor, getting pills, having therapy. Four of the 16 still suffer. I thought I knew a bit about the industry, but that shocked me to hear how many had a successful career but, at the same time, had things going on in the background and how they really did suffer.

“The reason for that was obviously losing form, which means you start earning less. You’ve built up a lifestyle and that is impacted. Tour friends also went missing and then there’s that thought of ‘what do I do now as this is all I’ve done in my life?’ It’s a bit like when a boss sells a business and then the phone stops ringing. All of a sudden, you are left thinking ‘actually I wasn’t that important’.”

In a pioneering step, the DP World Tour introduced a new Mental Fitness and Recovery Zone at last month’s Hero Dubai Desert Classic as part of a bid to support players, with that initiative being driven by Dr Andrew Murray, the circuit’s chief medical and scientific officer and a consultant in Sports and Exercise for the University of Edinburgh.

“Hats off to Doc Murray as I sent him a quick summary of what I found,” added Peek, who works as a consultant for the Swiss Golf Federation. “He said the tour had done some research in the past of Challenge Tour players but, in his work, he said he was hearing bits of what some players had been going through mentally as they found themselves hanging on to a career by their fingertips. The bottom line for most of them is that there is no way back as they no longer have the game or self belief.”

Peek saw the mental wellness zone in Dubai for himself and gave it a huge thumbs up. “It was a kind of taboo,” he said of players being almost scared to talk up about anxiety or depression. “It’s still such a macho sport, an alpha male syndrome where no one is really going to admit to anyone that they are feeling bad. That’s obviously been a lot of the stuff that has held people back, but society is changing.

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“I wouldn’t say I’m an expert now but guys are coming to me to say they’d like to talk to me about their story. And no-one is saying any different. A couple of guys cried during the interviews. A couple of the guys said it was the first time they’d spoken about this. It was like ‘bloody hell’ at times as I was being told things and it showed the price there is to pay in professional sport. We see it with rugby players and football players all the time and why should golf be any different because it’s not.

“Those four days at the Desert Classic were a test drive and I think this is hopefully the start of better times. I spoke with my group of players to let them know this was happening and they said ‘thank goodness’. All these lads wanted was that if they could help someone coming along behind them not suffer so much, then it would be a job well done. That’s my drive as well. Two of the lads talked about suicide. When you hear that, you think ‘wow’. Obviously they didn’t do it, but it crossed their mind. Too many professional golfers have suffered in silence for too long. If my research can help improve the situation, it will have been worth it.”



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