The two games couldn't be any more different and yet so similar in so many ways. The elements of golf and poker go hand in hand (no pun intended) and it's no surprise that golf is a popular betting activity among poker pros. It's no more of a surprise that those who excel on the golf course also tend to do well at the card table. There are many similarities between the games that extend beyond the green felt (or grass) on which they're played.
The first piece of common ground between poker and golf is the need to control your emotions and stick to the game plan. In poker it's called "tilt," or straying from your normal strategy when things aren't going well because you either feel like the game owes you one (it doesn't) or because you feel you have to make a risky, heroic play to make up ground.
This happens in golf all the time. One bad shot or bad hole is often followed by hitting an over-aggressive shot in an effort to make up for the last one. Or we think because the last shot was executed poorly that the next one must be good because the game "owes you one." (It doesn't.)
In both poker and golf, there is a game within the game. Poker involves bluffing, reading your opponent to determine his cards and trying not to let on what cards you're holding yourself. Certain bets or raises happen because you're either trying to psyche your opponent out or bait him into a trap.
In golf, especially in match play, you can beat your opponent simply by getting into their head. You might concede a longer putt on one hole only to make them putt a shorter one on the next hole. Jason Day, recognized as one of the better match play competitors in professional golf, admitted to playing some mind games at the 2011 Match Play Championship, a tournament he won this year.
Poker, obviously, is centered around betting. Professional golf is, essentially, organized gambling. Players put up large entry fees for tournaments and the money is pooled together to make the purse. Then you're playing to first win back your own money and then someone else's.
Betting is also a part of the culture of golf. Most regular games involve some sort of wager and even practice rounds among PGA TOUR players often have thousands of dollars on the line. Phil Mickelson is notorious for playing high-stakes practice rounds and getting into the wallets of other pros.
The professional circuits in both poker and golf consist of traveling almost every week. That could mean all around the world in private jets for the more elite players or on a more domestic scale in small cars for the less accomplished.
Poker and golf each require a certain degree of physical and mental endurance. Golfers walk around six miles in each round and will do it for four days straight. They need to have the ability to maintain focus for up to five hours at a time, hitting somewhere around 70 shots during that time.
While poker tournaments don't involve the physical nature of golf, you need the endurance to stay focused for sometimes 10 or 12 hours straight. When you get tired, your decision making suffers and at the poker table, that can be costly. Jared Tendler is a poker mental game coach who transitioned into poker after coming up short as a professional golfer and he writes books and blog posts about the mental side of poker.
Poker is often differentiated from other forms of gambling because it is widely recognized as a game of skill first and foremost, with a little luck involved. In the court of law, judges have ruled poker to be a game of skill and not of chance.
Golf is also a game of skill but there is always an element of luck involved, such as a bad shot that careens off a tree and back into the middle of the fairway.
Both games are played by millions of people all over the world and there are terrific players everywhere. Yet only a very small percentage will ever get to play on the biggest stages of their respective games such as the World Series of Poker or the Open Championship.
There is a fickle nature present in both poker and golf. You could win a tournament one week and not even finish in the money the next week—"busting out" in poker or missing the cut in golf. There is a certain level of streakiness in each game where a player could get hot and ride it out for days, weeks or even months at a time. Conversely, a player can catch a cold streak and have it last for just as long.