Out of My Mind: Can I play golf in a state of being rather than doing?

Out of My Mind: Can I play golf in a state of being rather than doing?

I’ve been away from Scotland and landlocked in Dallas, Texas, for less than a week now. Yet I’d swear it’s been a month. The 4,500 miles and six time zones between the two probably have something to do with this warped perception. But, I’m convinced, my separation anxiety is less about time and space and more about heart and soul.

This chasm feels especially wide in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, with the blather of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, et al currently saturating the U.S. media. Listen to the talking heads and you can’t help but conclude that America is on the verge of a psychological crack-up. And perhaps they’re right. One thing’s for certain: Something deeply dysfunctional has been unleashed. Who can say just how much havoc it will inflict?

In response, I’m counting the days until I can reenter my bubble in the Scottish Borders. In less than a year, that bucolic landscape of farms and small towns has become my home, not simply in a physical sense but more deeply within the core of my being. And while there’s far more to this transition than simply golf, the game is definitely playing a central role—just as it has at virtually every other key turning point in my life.

My last five rounds at Goswick Golf Club, where I’m now a member, have begun to bring all of this into sharper relief. It’s over that stretch that I’ve embarked on a rather radical thought experiment. Or, more accurately, an experiment in non-thinking. I’m going to need a lot more data before I make any definitive conclusions about this. But, given my forced hiatus, I do feel compelled to share the early returns and see if I can begin to capture, in words, my experiences that, ultimately, go beyond words.

If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Even for me. I probably won’t get this right on the first attempt. But I’m committed to continuing the experiment as well as using this electronic soapbox to share my findings. Hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to come along for the ride.

My ‘Back-Hit’ Backstory

First, I need to establish a bit of context. I’ve been swinging a golf club for more than 50 years. I know this because my grandfather had my first stick—a miniature 3-iron—custom made for me when I was 7. As a pre-teen, I progressed to “borrowing” one of my dad’s short irons and knocking a battered Club Special around the family yard, then eventually the neighbors’ yards, too. I didn’t set foot on an actual course until I was 13, at which point golf claimed me—hook, line and sinker. I mention all of this because my game during those formative years was almost entirely self-taught. Though I devoured golf magazine tips in search of guidance, trial and error (emphasis on the latter) was my teacher. And it worked, sort of. I made my high school’s golf team. I broke 80 with regularity. In my early 20s, I managed to whittle my handicap down to a 6. And then I promptly hit the proverbial wall. I reached the limits of my ability. If anything, my game gradually regressed as I searched for ways to improve.

Then, in 1983, I found a copy of The Inner Game of Golf at my local bookstore. This classic was written by W. Timothy Gallwey, an accomplished tennis player in his youth until he hit his particular wall. In his attempts to lift his game to a higher level, he came up with a completely different way to teach and learn tennis—then applied the same principles to golf. At the risk of oversimplifying things, he proposed that both games are physical activities that our bodies are fully capable of mastering without the assistance of our conscious brains. In fact, more often than not, the gray matter only interferes with the body’s ability to learn and perform at its best. 

His message struck a chord deep within me. So I immediately began adopting many of his concepts and exercises. Such as, Back-Hit, where you say “Back” when the club reaches the top of your backswing and “Hit” when the face strikes the ball. And, lo and behold, my game rather quickly shifted into a higher gear. It’s not so much that my best shots post-Inner Game were better than those before. Rather, it was more a matter of those quality swings becoming much more frequent.

Also important: The game became fun again! Instead of grinding away on swing thoughts, Inner Gameprinciples freed my mind and allowed me to more fully tap intowhatever athletic ability my body possessed. The sense of liberation was, quite often, palpable.

However, not long after taking the Inner Game plunge, I landed a new and more time-demanding job that necessitated a move from a small town to a major metropolitan city. Good for the career. Bad for the golf game. Instead of playing 2-3 times per week, I was lucky to get out once. Also during this time, I got married and started a family. Golf shifted further down the priority list. But I never lost my faith in Gallwey’s approach.

For example, to this day, I “read” putts in a very unconventional manner. While most people peer from behind the ball and attempt to visualize an actual line on the surface of the green, I approach the task at hand as if I’m gazing at a painting on an art gallery’s wall. I allow all of the visual information to pour in, ideally free of the inner verbal commentary that attempts to describe it (such as “two balls to the right of the cup” or “on the left lip” or even “fast” or “slow”). After all, words are only symbols we use to describe things. As such, they are imprecise and a step or two (or more) away from what’s real. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust that my body will take in the pertinent visual cues and then automatically make the necessary translation in terms of where to aim and how hard to strike the ball. More often than not, that trust is well founded.

A Conversation with Fred Shoemaker

Now, Gallwey was a tennis player, not a golfer. So I’ve naturally gravitated to those who shared my upbringing in the game yet now pursue it from the perspective of “feel” or “awareness” rather than swing planes and pronated wrists. The person I’ve found who best fits that description is Fred Shoemaker, author of Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible. Rather than “teach” golf, he “coaches” people so they can teach themselves. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Fred at length and will share that conversation in an upcoming blog post. But suffice to say, his words inspired me to recommit myself to the road less traveled—rather than continue to circle back to the dead end of conventional swing thoughts.

After all, my recent attempts to consciously reroute the path of my golf swing—that I blogged about in October—weren’t going very well. I’d have a good day on the course and be convinced that I’d cracked the code. But then I’d struggle the next time out and walk away frazzled and frustrated, uncertain what “solution” to try next. I had committed myself to working on my game. Yet, in practice, that’s usually what it felt like: work.

Also, when the wheels fell off, I couldn’t help but think back to my experiences playing in a medal competition at Panmure Golf Club last summer. That round started off horribly and it wasn’t until I surrendered and made a conscious decision to play the rest of the way without thinking about a thing that I began to find my way.

My Mind’s a Blank

All of which had me wondering: What if I were to give up this search for the magic move and simply clear my mind of all swing thoughts? What if my conscious brain were truly a blank? What if I were to put all of my faith in my body? How might that feel? What kind of golf might that produce? Did I have the courage to play without a net? Could I accept whatever happened, even if that included complete and utter disaster? Even if it meant letting my playing partners down?

My answer to these questions: Why the heck not? After all, I’d reached the point where I didn’t really have anything to lose. Golf balls in the cack? There’s more where that came from. Money in side bets? We play for such modest stakes, I’d never miss it. Besides, my competitors graciously buy me a drink in the clubhouse afterwards, so it’s always a break-even deal. Reputation? Thankfully, that doesn’t hinge on a number on a scorecard. I mean, do I think any less of my fellow Goswick members if they don’t play well? Not in the least. I can’t imagine they think any less of me.

The only thing of real value that was at stake was the possibility that, by pursuing this radical course, I’d discover a new way to play that delivered more enjoyment, satisfaction and pure joy. What if all of the above were within my grasp, if only I were willing to take this leap of faith into the unknown?

So, starting five rounds ago, that’s what I set out to do. Or not do, if you catch my drift. Because not thinking, while it sounds simple, is anything but. Especially when you realize that thinking about not thinking is still thinking. Or, to put it another way, trying to be aware of your golf swing is not the same thing as simply being aware of your golf swing. And yet, as I’m sure both Gallwey and Shoemaker would attest, without awareness there’s little hope of the face of your club finding its way back to your golf ball at the bottom of your swing.

Still, while this experiment is in its very early stages, I have reason to believe that it is possible to play golf in a state of being rather than doing. And I’m sensing that the unique properties of the linksland are especially well suited to this endeavor. In fact, my last time out, my playing partners all noted that I hit the ball better than they’d ever seen me hit it before. Very kind of them to say. And I’d have to agree. Perhaps that’s why we claimed the sweeps pot. But it’s also a tantalizing and potentially nefarious thought that, the next time I get to play, could well prevent me from returning to that blissful state of inner silence.

But, boy, do I long to go back there! Especially now that I find myself on the wrong side of the pond, immersed in a whirlwind of political negativity, traversing a soulless suburban landscape that’s much more than just thousands of miles away from a 125-year-old links course nestled against the shoreline of the North Sea.

No wonder I’m feeling homesick!

To be continued…

 Fred Shoemaker: A prophet amid the vast golf instruction wilderness

Fred Shoemaker: A prophet amid the vast golf instruction wilderness

Marketing to Millennials: Want to secure golf’s future? Reconnect to its past.

Marketing to Millennials: Want to secure golf’s future? Reconnect to its past.