Secret no.22 Golf

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Let me declare an interest: I play this game and I’d like to believe it’s good for your health. And so, it turns out, would some centenarians. One of these is Ireland’s Maire Godfrey, who accepts that good genes have played a role in her longevity but also puts it down to keeping active by playing golf. She has certainly done that – starting to play in 1942 at the age of 27 and still a member of Elm Park golf club near Dublin.

By an odd coincidence, another centenarian golfer (or nearly – he’s 100 on October 13th) shares her surname but plays his golf in Australia. Ralph Godfrey plays up to three rounds a week and says that the game ‘kept him alive’ after the death of his wife in 2008. ‘I like meeting people and I’ve found that hitting a little white ball around the course for two and half hours makes me forget any problems’. He scored a hole in one in 1956 and no one would begrudge him it: Ralph served four years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese and is now believed to be just one of three surviving members of his battalion of over a thousand men.

Neither Maire or Ralph reveal their handicaps or scores but it is certainly possible to keep playing golf competitively until quite a late age. Ralph won a competition at the age of 90 and this analysis of golf performance by age shows that golfers’ scores and handicaps remain fairly consistent until the age of 70 and even then may only slip a little, at least for a few years. There is even a small group of golfers who have achieved the feat of posting a golf score lower than their age. These ‘age shooters’ include one centenarian, 103-year-old Arthur Thompson, who achieved it in 1972. (If you want to join Arthur and the others, the trick is apparently to get very good in your 40s, 50s, and 60s – and stay there into your 70s.)

So it’s a fun, social and motivating sport that you can keep playing until late in life – but will it help you live to 100?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. Well, just possibly. A Swedish study based on data from 300,000 golfers found that – after adjusting for age, sex and socio-economic status – golfers on average lived five years longer than non-golfers.

Professor Anders Ahlbom, who led the study says there are several aspects of the game that are proved to be good for the health: “A round of golf means being outside for four or five hours, walking at a fast pace for six to seven kilometres, something which is known to be good for the health,” he says. “People play golf into old age, and there are also positive social and psychological aspects to the game that can be of help.”

Intriguingly, the increase in lifespan is higher for low handicap golfers than for mere hackers (like myself). The most likely reason: lower handicap golfers have to play and practice often, so are getting more exercise than us higher handicappers.

And surprisingly, some of the risks you might associate with golf turn out to be less frequent than you’d think. There were, for example, only eight US deaths from lightning while playing golf between 2006 and 2012. You’re more at risk fishing, camping or – in fact – riding a bike. And there are appear to be no statistics on the number of deaths after being struck by a golf ball, suggesting that  – a few tragic accidents apart – there is relatively little risk of serious injury from that source. (Stay out of that golf cart though – not only will you get less exercise but there are 13,000 US accidents every year requiring a visit to hospital says this report).

So: play to a decent standard, duck if you hear ‘Fore! – and walk rather than take a cart. Do all that and you might just make it to 100.

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