As a schoolboy, Jim Ahern couldn't sit still. He grew bored easily. His eyes darted around the room. His mind drifted. His teacher would hand him a book to read, but he had so much trouble focusing that it may as well have been written in Sanskrit. Setbacks that might have seemed minor to other kids sent him into emotional tailspins that left him literally banging his head against the wall.
Then, at age 11, Ahern discovered golf—at long last a pursuit that kept him engaged, attentive, inspired. The jumpy kid from Yankton, S.D., spent nearly every waking hour at Hillcrest Country Club, the town's nine-holer. He never tired of the game and its myriad challenges, and he quickly improved. He excelled in junior tournaments and then in college, first at South Dakota State and then at Oklahoma State, where he studied turf management. In 1972, Ahern qualified for the PGA Tour.
The jitteriness never left him, though. He was so scattered that he would start to balance his checkbook before realizing two or three days later that he'd never completed the task. He struggled with impulse control, weaving in and out of traffic to blow by slower drivers, and he often lost his temper on the course. He rarely contended. In three full seasons on Tour, Ahern notched just one top-10 finish, tying for ninth at the 1973 John Deere Classic. Not until he was on the cusp of Champions Tour eligibility, in the late 1990s, did he learn the biological cause of his blend of skittishness and compulsiveness: He had attention-deficit disorder (ADD).
"I had never even heard of it, growing up in a little town in South Dakota," says Ahern, now 64 and a teaching pro in Scottsdale, Ariz. "But I had ADD pretty bad. Golf became my obsession. I would leave the house at sunup and come back at sundown, and I never got bored with it. I never got bored with practice."
Ahern sees himself in one of his students: Robert Garrigus, the long hitter who triple-bogeyed 18 to lose the 2010 St. Jude Classic in Memphis but bounced back to win at Disney later that year. Garrigus was an active child whose trouble in school made more sense when he was diagnosed with ADD. He tried medication but didn't like it, instead finding solace on the golf course and ultimately the PGA Tour. But he still sometimes struggles with the condition, and his feet and neck tell the story: If he's doing activities that don't interest him, like, say, shopping with his wife, his feet and neck ache. If he's playing golf or fishing, he's pain-free.
"I think we all might have a little ADD in us," Keegan Bradley, the 2011 PGA champion, said as he stood outside the scorer's hut at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral earlier this year. Nearby his mother, Kaye, nodded and smiled. "I would agree," she said.
"We can all guess I probably have it," says Bubba Watson, who hasn't sought a diagnosis or medication because of his fear of doctors and his reluctance to take prescription drugs.
Ian Poulter says he's read only one book in his life because he can't quiet his mind long enough to absorb the words on a page. He can't sit still, even on a warm beach, and like Watson is very visual and possesses an astonishing memory, plus a love of eccentric clothing, Twitter, and big-boy toys such as cars and jet skis. Is it ADD? "I don't know," Poulter says. "I would never get tested for it. OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], ADD—I'm part of all of that, but it's never been a problem for me and I don't feel it will be a problem."
"It wouldn't surprise me if I have it," says 26-year-old Australian star Jason Day. "But I've never been tested so I don't know. I couldn't keep still in school. I just wanted to be outside."
What's going on here? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 4 percent of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, now the preferred term). Might the condition be more common on the PGA Tour? And if so, why? When asked to approximate how many of the top 125 players on Tour have either diagnosed or undiagnosed ADD/ADHD, Garrigus says, "About half." Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist to several Tour pros, including a handful of major champions, believes that estimate probably isn't far off. "Certainly there's a good number," says Rotella, who has advised clients with the condition to stay away from the course the day before the start of a major so as not to get overstimulated.
Whatever the number, there's a strong link between golf and ADD/ADHD. Interviews with players and ADD experts reveal that Tour pros with ADD (or those who believe they might have it) use the game itself as their medication and excel not despite their condition, but because of it. "Golf is the ideal ADD sport," says psychologist Edward M. Hallowell, a renowned ADD expert and co-author of Driven to Distraction. "You get a fresh opportunity every time, so it's one surprise after another. The combination of structure, novelty and motivation, wherever you find that, the mind tends to focus. When you set up to a golf shot, you've got all three."
In the field of neuroscience, few topics are more controversial than ADD/ADHD, which is thought to be caused by a biochemical imbalance or a deficiency in neurotransmitters in the brain. It's divisive because there is no biological test to diagnose the condition; doctors instead rely on clinical history and observation. Critics allege that ADD is overdiagnosed among children and especially teens—nearly one in five high school boys in the United States has been diagnosed, according to the CDC—and that doctors are too quick to prescribe drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Among adults, however, Hallowell believes that the population is "tremendously underdiagnosed," and that population, he says, almost certainly extends to the PGA Tour.
The clinical characteristics of adults with ADD vary but include fidgeting, impulsivity and inattention. Those with the condition can also come off as cocky or brash, experts say, but that's because they're compensating for often feeling invisible. The ADDed Dimension, by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo, cites a 2001 study showing that people with ADD/ADHD tend to thrive in natural, outdoor and preferably green environments—yes, like golf courses. Hallowell says people with ADD crave both stimulation and structure, which is why the Navy SEALs, for example, tend to attract ADD/ADHDs.
Does that mean SEALs aficionado Tiger Woods has ADD? No. And what does it matter? Who cares whether or not Bradley, Day, Poulter, Watson and so many others on Tour have ADD/ADHD? Answer: Because a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that it can be a tremendous asset. "I always say it's bad for [school] teachers," Garrigus says, referring to the high rate of ADD among school-children, "but good for golfers."
Hallowell, who himself has ADD (as do his two sons, ages 17 and 20), equates the condition with having "a racecar brain but with bicycle brakes." Bubba Watson's trainer, Andrew Fischer, has likened Watson's mind to a Mac computer, and Watson himself has said his thoughts race so incessantly that on at least a couple of occasions he feared he was having a panic attack. But there's an upside for golfers with ADD tendencies: the ability to lock in and focus under extreme pressure. This would begin to explain Watson's four straight back-nine birdies and his miraculous recovery shot in sudden death to win the 2012 Masters. And it would potentially begin to explain the five straight birdies Poulter made to spark Europe's comeback at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah.
"When you get under the gun you get hyperfocused," Watson says. "Payne Stewart got hyperfocused." (Stewart, who was diagnosed with ADD, was so hyperactive that his family used to sit in the church loft so as not to disrupt the service.)
"At Augusta in 2011," Watson continues, "I was three-over on the 13th tee, and I wanted to make the cut. Who doesn't? I birdied three holes coming in and shot even par. And last year, I made those birdies. Me and my caddie and my trainer, we've tried to perfect that, because sometimes I don't focus on the front nine. Like at Doral last year, I shot three-over on the front nine when I'd been leading by three. But I grind it out on the back and have a chance to tie on the last hole, because your focus changes. If I'm tied with somebody or I'm winning by one, there's not too many times I've let that slip away. The first tournament I won, I double-bogeyed the 17th hole, but birdied 18 to get in the playoff because I was just so locked in."
That focus comes and goes for all of us, of course, but especially for those with ADD/ADHD. Garrigus says he can harness his mind as long as he's engaged in what he's doing. Poulter has zoned in better than almost anyone at match play—an ability Bradley also demonstrated at the 2012 Ryder Cup—but has sometimes struggled to do so in stroke play. Watson says his mind drifts at birdie-fests like the Humana Challenge, which Stewart said happened to him, as well. The higher the stakes and the tougher the course, the better the ADD/ADHD brain tends to operate.
Why this is, no one knows for sure. Golf rewards players who can clear their minds between shots—a deficit of attention—because those are the players who can best treat each shot as its own separate tournament, something Rotella and other sports psychologists try to teach. But might that leave the ADD/ADHD brain fresher for high-pressure golf at the end of a round?
"The short answer is we don't know," Hallowell says when asked to explain the laser-like focus in ADD/ADHDs. "But I think it's the flip side of the deficit. Because people with ADHD wander aimlessly looking for focus so much, when they find a way to lock in, they love it and keep coming back to it, which makes them better at achieving it. In a sense, their deficit makes them love to practice, because on the course they've at last found a place where they can lock in. The more they do it, the better they get at it, like building a mental muscle."
The other big asset among ADD/ADHDs: creativity. Poulter has said he has an almost photographic memory. Watson, who has never had a lesson, visualized and executed one of the most unorthodox shots a Tour pro will ever hit, his hard-hooking wedge from the pine straw on 10 to win the 2012 Masters. Hank Kuehne, a long hitter who has openly talked about his ADD, has said the condition helps him picture recovery shots when he gets out of position.
"A lot of them have a nice ability to be very visual and creative," Rotella says. "And a lot of them seem to be able to keep the game simple from a technical standpoint. They don't listen to everyone else's opinion about everything, which is a big problem out here. In today's world there's so much information about how to hit a golf shot, and I don't see them getting lost in it."
In other words, ADD/ADHDs can be just as averse to reading directions and following instructions as they are to reading a book and following a plot, which can be a good thing. Years ago, Gerry Watson approached veteran Joe Durant to ask him if he might look after Gerry's son, Bubba, in his first few years on Tour. Durant considered Bubba's unique genius and politely declined. "He had a creativity that I knew was special," Durant said later. "He didn't need a teacher."
When Jim Ahern got married, at 45, his wife, Tudy, who has a degree in health and nutrition, told him he had the most obvious case of ADD she'd ever seen and that he needed to get a medical diagnosis. Sure enough, he had ADD. He tried Ritalin, but it didn't work. Adderall did. He's been on the psychostimulant ever since. But even without it, and knowing exactly nothing of ADD/ADHD, he found comfort in golf. "I was able to super-focus," says Ahern, who won twice on the Champions Tour.
The medication, he says, has made coping with everyday life easier. "It helped me control my temper and my feelings," he says. "I would become very frustrated with things like driving."
One of the biggest dangers for people with ADD/ADHD is that they sometimes try to quiet their minds by self-medicating, as Garrigus did with marijuana when he was in his twenties. "Now I'll just go work out to burn off extra energy," he says. "Or I'll go fishing."
Prescription drugs can also be a problem for Tour pros, because many are on the Tour's banned-substances list. Although players can apply for a therapeutic-use exemption to use Ritalin or Adderall or other psychoactive medications, the Tour will not disclose who, if anyone, has done so. ADD/ADHD still has the stigma of being classified as a medical condition. Asked if one top American pro has it, his coach said, "Yes, but you didn't hear it from me." He went on to describe the player's "high energy" and his ability to "putt in the middle of an interstate once he's locked in."
Hallowell, who lives in Boston, says some of his fondest memories with his sons have come from their times on the golf course. If he could snap his fingers and suddenly be "cured" of his ADD/ADHD, he wouldn't do so, because it would strip him of so much more: "Creativity, ambition, ingenuity, tenacity, drive, the ability to dream," Hallowell says.
The same, presumably, is true for Tour pros with the condition, because whatever's going on upstairs, it's working. "When I started seeing the doctor in Phoenix," Ahern says, "she said ADD can be very good in certain situations." Garrigus has already broken the $10 million mark in career earnings. Watson will be invited back to the Masters for life. Poulter is a Ryder Cup hero many times over.
Whatever the rest of the world makes of ADD/ADHD, Poulter says, "There's absolutely nothing scary about it."