In the rough: Golf, Grief and a Grimace

Golf pro Ana Dawson opens up on bereavement in elite sport, after the death of her father threatened to derail her promising career.

The vast majority of us, at some point in our life, will lose a loved one. With most recent data suggesting that over three million people are living with bereavement in the UK, the unrelenting pain of saying goodbye to those held dear hits agonisingly close to home.

For many, sport provides a welcome escape from the inevitable turmoil – for Ana Dawson, it was an all-too-painful reminder of what she’d lost.

Now playing professionally on the Ladies European Tour, the Manxwoman recently finished an impressive one under parr at the season opener in Kenya, but golf wasn’t always the priority.

Golf wasn’t always picture perfect for Dawson

Dawson lost her dad to cancer two years ago. As his condition worsened, Ana’s performance on the course deteriorated as she wrestled with the the reality of her biggest fan leaving her to walk the fairway alone.

“I know I struggled massively in my last year before he passed away, because I had so much pressure and expectations on myself to do well because we knew it was terminal,” Dawson explained.

“Ultimately, I just ended up playing horrendously……. like, so bad,” she added.

Athletes battling the death of someone close to them, while competing at the highest level, is far from uncommon. although how this manifests under the bright lights of competition can vary wildly.

Sports psychologist Dr Richard Sille explains: “In some cases it might just give you this clear headspace where you’re just free to go out and play, and it might be the best you’ve ever played.

“In other cases it might be that you’re consumed by the grief. If you’re not tasks focussed, that undermines performance,” he added.

Cricketer Harry Brook elected not to travel for England’s tour of India after his grandmother took ill suddenly, and withdrew from his second season in the Indian Premier League following her death.

Billy Sharp, alternatively, continued to play after his infant son passed away, his grief fuelling him to score a thunderbolt which he subsequently dedicated to him.

Far more than a fine finish – Sharp stunned the Boro in memory of his son.

Dawson’s relationship with her dad only served to further complicate processing his passing – the pair shared a bond over the sport in which she was blossoming.

“My dad obviously got me into golf, so that was really tricky,” she said.

Marie, Ana’s mother, observed the two in action and says that Ana lost more than just a father.

“I would say he was a mentor. Like all relationships, they clashed at times, but that’s because he was so invested,” Marie reminisced, the memories clearly flooding back.

“He knew everything about her game, he knew it inside out. I think that’s the bit she struggled with because all that knowledge just disappeared.

“When she was struggling, he was the person that was there to get her going. I don’t just mean struggling from a game perspective, but from an emotional perspective. She just misses him.

“He was more than a parent,” she said.

Caddie, coach, comrade. Dawson and Dawson – a formidable team. Credit: Marie Dawson

Despite the prevalence of bereavement, its a battle often fought in solitude. And that hardened sporting mindset, however useful in competition, can create a reluctance to open up.

Dawson said: “I probably didn’t know that I was doing it (bottling it up). I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve never really had to experience loss before that. I didn’t really have any kind of knowledge about what to do exactly.

“Six months on I was like: ‘S***, I actually feel really bad’. Ultimately, it always catches up with you, and you can’t run away from it forever,” she conceded.

Where financial gain and global stardom are there for the taking, weaknesses, however raw, are exploited unapologetically. Although this makes for a stunning spectacle in the arena off sport, Dr Sille believes that the scars of that attack make sport a difficult place to heal.

“You’re all competing for the same purse, if its golf, so there’s this sense of: ‘I don’t want to show weakness because somebody might move in and take my spot’,” he said.

“There’s this culture of not wanting to show weakness, and not being your authentic self. You come to work behind this mask.

“You’re almost processing things away from the sporting environment, because you don’t see that as a psychologically safe place to be doing that,” Dr. Sille added.

Pictured here along with Kelvin, Anna’s family – a place to show weakness, and grieve. Credit: Marie Dawson

Can elite sporting competition and bereavement coexist? Is it possible to grieve and succeed? Dr. Sille believes that becoming comfortable in discomfort is the key.

“It’s a cultural issue. We create safe spaces now, and don’t want to feel bad,” He declared.

“I think there’s a cultural element there, to sit with these negative emotions can be helpful. The only thing certain about life is death, so are we going to use that to help us live authentically, or engage in avoidant behaviour?” he questioned.

Dawson also feels that conversation is key to escaping the oppressive, macho culture that comes with competition.

She said: “Once you get past the thing where people are checking in, then you get to a point where people are kind of mostly expecting you to be ok again.

“Obviously it’s not an overnight change, you don’t come around to it that quickly.

“It’s such a tough topic, but considering how many people go through it, it’s not really addressed,” she concluded.

Amid the tirade of publicity for mental health, both faux and genuine, bereavement often goes unnoticed. An uncomfortable topic, the emotion of the latest missed penalty or wayward putt pales by comparison.

Dawson is a bastion of hope for those in the midst of the battle, but her conflict exposes a flawed system in which the athletes supported at their peak, are often forgotten at their lowest points.