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.
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