Why can’t most golfers stay “in the zone”, main­tain­ing that in­ter­nal hap­pi­ness and con­cen­tra­tion, en­joy­ing a pu­rity of pur­pose?

As Craig Mor­ri­son writes, many ma­jor cham­pi­onships are won by the player who per­forms least poorly in the fi­nal round, or so it some­times seems. With so much at stake it’s hard to find that si­lent space where you can play your best.

HK Golfer - - Contents - By Craig Mor­ri­son

On the course, at our best, we are in­side our­selves, our very best selves. Things, within the lim­i­ta­tions of our abil­i­ties and know-how, go smoothly and we play al­most as well as we can. For some this lasts just a cou­ple of shots, a hole or a run of holes. Some­times the spell be­cause that’s what it is, a kind of magic - lasts for half the round, an out­ward or in­ward half. It’s why we of­ten col­lect our thoughts on the 10th tee and give our­selves a stern talk­ing to, know­ing that a new nine is a chance to be­gin again, to work some sorcery, to find our in­ner calm. For the best play­ers, as we know, this alchemy can last for a full round, even for a 72-hole tour­na­ment, though such things are rare. Typ­i­cally, a topflight golfer will have to en­dure at least one tour­na­ment round where they fall a lit­tle from grace, find­ing them­selves back on earth scrap­ing a cou­ple of birdies and fighting for pars to hold their lead.

Most golfers never get close to such glo­ries. But many of us are fa­mil­iar with the feel­ing where we are wo­ken from the reverie, typ­i­cally to­wards the end of a game as we re­alise we’re look­ing at a score of some sig­nif­i­cance. That’s of­ten the thing that shat­ters the dream. It’s why so many pro­fes­sion­als refuse to look at score­boards and, in­stead, play it one shot at a time, never look­ing up or out.

Why can’t we stay in that place, main­tain­ing that in­ter­nal hap­pi­ness and con­cen­tra­tion, en­joy­ing a pu­rity of pur­pose? It’s be­cause of hopes and am­bi­tions, re­al­ity dawn­ing. We get dis­tracted by details and de­sire.

But not all golfers who put in the hours and at­tain ex­cel­lence can at­tain tour sta­tus. A fair few reg­u­lar golfers wield their sticks seem­ingly as well as some guys on tour but, when it comes down to it, they can’t shoot re­ally low, can’t keep it to­gether for long enough to make a liv­ing from the game. On the range, working qui­etly, you might mis­take them for world beat­ers. Yet some­thing is miss­ing from their skill set. Maybe it’s the short game, prob­a­bly the putting. But of­ten it’s the abil­ity to si­lence the world and to get in the zone. And that’s where the world’s best spends a lot of their time: ‘in the zone’.

The great golfer will over­come all un­set­tling and nerve-wran­gling dif­fi­cul­ties and ar­rive in that de­light­fully tran­quil do­main of the mind. And all’s well there, at least while the putts drop and the drives soar. Then though, a lit­tle rain falls on their pa­rade - a small but costly misad­ven­ture in a bunker, a bad break, a gust of wind, a noise from the crowd - and they are un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously re­turned to earth, where, as PG Wode­house might have it, shots are lost be­cause of ‘the uproar of but­ter­flies in ad­join­ing mead­ows’. If flow is to be main­tained such small aber­ra­tions must be ig­nored or over­come.

Some golf coaches say that when their guy comes off the green they don’t want to know, from the player’s body lan­guage, if they’re walk­ing away with a birdie or a bo­gey. That’s a good ploy. It means that even if shots have been dropped you force your­self back into a pos­i­tive po­si­tion. You play a trick on your­self and act like it’s all ok.

I’ve heard that other coaches tell their charges to sim­ply walk tall be­tween shots. Per­haps it’s

about power-pos­ing, a sense of au­thor­ity and self-de­cep­tion: all use­ful stuff. But per­haps too it’s about find­ing some­thing other than the minu­tiae of the game to con­cern your­self with: eas­ier to think about keep­ing one’s shoul­ders back and head up straight than about com­plex swing for­mula. The in-depth stuff should be left for non-tour­na­ment play. When the chips are down you must sim­ply go with the ba­sics and trust your­self.

When hopes are too high or fears too press­ing it is im­pos­si­ble to find this higher state. Many ma­jor cham­pi­onships are won by the player who per­forms least poorly in the fi­nal round, or so it some­times seems. With so much at stake it’s hard to find that si­lent space where you can play your best. Nick­laus could do it of­ten, 18 times to be pre­cise. He could han­dle the pres­sure and said, with­out ar­ro­gance, that in some ways, for him, the ma­jors were the eas­i­est to win be­cause every­one else found them so hard. His game was com­plete, but more than that his mind would com­ply with his mighty will to win.

No doubt even Jack felt nerves creep up on him. But his con­cen­tra­tion took him be­yond the reaches of such stuff. Nowhere in his books and in­ter­views do we find any men­tion of the deadly hush of the tee and the watch­ing crowds. For him it was per­haps per­fect peace. For oth­ers it can be a ter­ri­fy­ing at­mos­phere, a fog of fear so thick with wor­ries that it seems im­pos­si­ble to draw the club back through it. The Ry­der Cup, where golfers sud­denly find them­selves play­ing not for per­sonal glory but for their friends and coun­try­men and more fans than they ever knew they had, seems to be one such fright­en­ing place. Many have tes­ti­fied that the first tee in the first game is an un­nerv­ing en­vi­ron­ment in which to make a smooth swing, a place where grown men can sud­denly shrink. In re­sponse to this a new tech­nique has emerged which seems to stop the hands trem­bling. First adopted by Europe’s Ian Poul­ter and Amer­ica’s Bubba Wat­son, but no longer con­fined to these ex­u­ber­ant show­men, the spec­ta­tors will roar through a golfer’s en­tire swing. The crowds en­joy it and the golfers re­spond to it, adding yards and for­get­ting fear. It’s eas­ier, it turns out, to play through that ca­coph­ony than the deaf­en­ing si­lence they nor­mally en­dure. Oh well, the old-timers say. It’s The Ry­der Cup and these things come to pass. The bar­bar­ians will cross the Danube and The Rhine. Rome will fall. The Crowns will be united. The En­light­en­ment Pe­riod will end.

A state of un­con­scious fear­less­ness is de­sir­able. Whereas its in­verse, the state of con­scious fear, is no place to be with a golf club to hand. It’s the place where even the small­est, sim­plest shots es­pe­cially the small­est, sim­plest shots - be­come al­most im­pos­si­ble. The fine mo­tor skills switch off and the eas­i­est of things be­comes a slog. We can all walk across a floor and up some stairs, but when there’s a global au­di­ence of mil­lions watch­ing us col­lect our stat­uette, then it be­comes a trick­ier propo­si­tion.

Golfers talk about the yips. Or rather, they don’t talk about the yips lest they prove to be con­ta­gious. Many a great golfer, es­pe­cially in mid­dle age, with many thou­sands of short putts al­ready safely ne­go­ti­ated, has fallen vic­tim to this dis­ease. Per­haps it’s caused by overuse, a short-cir­cuit in the sys­tem when per­form­ing a task, we be­lieve we know very well.

There’s noth­ing good about the yips. Maybe the mys­tery at the heart of them is in­ter­est­ing. Pos­si­bly the name it­self, to the non-golfer, has a happy sound, a sort of Scot­tish ca­dence, the term ap­par­ently hav­ing been coined by Tommy Ar­mour from Ed­in­burgh, an early 20th Cen­tury win­ner of the US and UK na­tional open com­pe­ti­tions as well as The PGA Cham­pi­onship. What­ever it is, there’s no cure. There are restora­tives: fat han­dles, long shafts and al­tered grips. But less than, say, the shank, the yips are not a swing fault. They’re a brain fault, a dis­rup­tion of the ideal con­di­tion where, sud­denly, the smooth putting stroke is in­flicted with an un­stop­pable twitch.

They ex­ist in many sports where to think too much about a process is to ruin its flu­id­ity. In base­ball, the name syn­ony­mous with the dis­ease is that of Steve Blatts, the great Pitts­burgh Pi­rates pitcher who sud­denly could not do the most nat­u­ral thing he had ever known and re­lease the ball at the right mo­ment in his throw. It ended his ca­reer. Crick­eters have been sim­i­larly ag­grieved; marks­men can de­velop an equally ru­inous twitch; and dar­ti­tis is the name given to the af­flic­tion when its suf­ferer can no longer ac­cu­rately di­rect his arrows at the triple 20 or bulls­eye.

In even worse news for golfers, it’s now be­come widely ap­par­ent that yips are not con­fined to the greens. Tiger Woods in­tro­duced us to the sort of golf no­body was fa­mil­iar with, the great­est, most re­mark­able shots any­one had ever seen, colos­sal dis­tances com­bined with deadly ac­cu­racy, and a put­ter which was al­ways true. Then he went and pop­u­larised the driver yips, the two-sided miss we see more and more (some­thing I blame on over­size clubs and longer shafts). And as if that wasn’t enough, Tiger only went and brought to our at­ten­tion the short game yips, the bladed chips and the fat chun­ked shots which he put on show to un­sus­pect­ing au­di­ences dur­ing a few failed come­backs.

The yips: a strange scourge on the happy sports­man. Dis­miss them. Find your flow. For­get you read this.

Never try. Or at least, try not to try. At­tempt­ing to be funny of­ten doesn’t work. Pur­su­ing hap­pi­ness is no way to find it. Try­ing to hit it a mile means mist­im­ing your swing. Seek re­sults in­di­rectly. Put ef­fort into prac­tise and put ef­fort­less­ness into your game. But don’t try to re­mem­ber all that when you step onto the tee…

Craig Mor­ri­son is the au­thor of 18 Great­est Scot­tish Golf Holes and 18 Great­est Ir­ish Golf Holes. He is a free­lance golf writer, a con­trib­u­tor to many in­ter­na­tional ti­tles, in­clud­ing HK Golfer. An An­glo-Scot, he lives in Som­er­set, Eng­land.Dis­cover the mean­ing of golf by down­load­ing a copy at: www.ama­zon. com/Mean­ing-Golf-Craig-Mor­risone­book/dp/B074C2LBRH

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