Zen Golf & How I Got My Swagger Back

I love golf because it’s a great metaphor for life. If you’re curious and willing to put in the work, you never stop learning. Every time you peel a layer back, each time you think that you “finally have it,” you discover that there’s so much more to know.

The physical side of the game – striking the golf ball so that it travels on its intended path to the target – is certainly difficult. If the basic swing weren’t complex enough with all its moving, interconnected parts, you then need to adapt it to 14 different clubs and a never-ending variety of shot types. For some, including me, that’s the easy part.

After moving to Palm Desert over a year ago to live on a golf course, I thought, “Great! Now I can finally play regularly enough to get good.” My goal was to get my index down to single digits (i.e., average rounds from 78-82). I’ve logged several rounds of 81 in my life but could never break that elusive 80 mark. What I wouldn’t do to shoot in the 70’s!

Things were looking good for the better part of last year. My index was down to a 12 (average rounds in the low 80’s) and all aspects of my game were improving. Then, starting sometime in early November, disaster struck. Not all at once, but in that insidious way so many golfers have experienced – unexpected and slow. One bad round, then another, and soon everything had fallen apart. The more I practiced, the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I took lessons to turn it all around, but that filled my head with even more swing thoughts and confusion. For a while I thought that I couldn’t possibly get any worse, but my game kept deteriorating. I logged a few rounds where I couldn’t even break 100. In other words, I had reverted to beginner status.

The great Bobby Jones may have put it best: “Competitive golf is mainly played in a five and a half-inch course…the space between your ears.” While my playing partners and I regularly play for very low-stakes bets, I wouldn’t say that I’m playing “competitive golf.” Still, the space between my ears had become infested with negativity and anxiety I couldn’t shake. As I stood over the ball before each shot, an onrush of bad thoughts would run through my mind. What if it goes out of bounds? In the water? What if I look bad? What if my partners throw me out of the game because I stink? I could not help but to visualize disaster before each shot, a process that seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy more often than not.

Golf was no longer fun, but a terrible obsession and source of great frustration.

In the middle of it all, one of my regular golfing partners and good friend, Gerald, better known as “G,” had come to one of my music gigs in L.A., where I was fortunate to be backed by a fantastic band of young, professional quality musicians. I played very a very decent, sometimes even great set that night, and had the time of my life. The audience sure seemed to pick up on my internal confidence and the fun I was having, and the first thing he told me after the set was, “Bro, if you had the same swagger on the golf course as you do when you sing, you’d be amazing.”

Now there’s an interesting thought. Why not play golf the way I play music, give lectures to my students and provide marketing insights to my clients? My first thought was that I was objectively good at those things, but my recent scores indicated that I was anything but good at golf. I may not be a natural musician, but having performed hundreds of times, I’ve become very comfortable and confident about getting on stage. I just get up there and play the songs, feel the music and get into the zone. Was it possible to do that in golf as well? It got me thinking…

As my game continued to go south, I knew I had to change my approach. Maybe standing on the practice tee and pounding hundreds of balls wasn’t the answer. I could usually make the needed adjustments in practice, but when I got out on the course again, it was back to hacking, feeling entirely out of sorts and lots of bad scores.

But I do know how to hit a golf ball. I’ve hit so many great shots in the past. I know I have talent. My friend G was entirely right. Each time I approached the ball, I had to summon supreme confidence based on the acceptance and understanding that those great shots are already inside of me.

That thought, not so coincidentally, is also a foundation of meditation, something I’ve been practicing for many years. That we are all essentially perfect and the sun is always shining. Clouds may sometimes obscure the sunlight, but it’s always there. This thought is also at the heart of the Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent, a book I discovered when I started Googling books on the mental game out of desperation.

I’ve tried for years to bring my meditation practice into my golf game with limited success. Zen Golf not only provided a workable framework for doing so, but specific mental exercises to be practiced before, during and after each shot.

For now, at least, high scores are a thing of the past. I’m relaxing, swinging away, scoring decently, and enjoying the game more than ever. I expect that I will have a score under 80 this year or next, but that’s not my focus any longer. While it’s great to have goals, it is important to realized that to achieve these goals, one has to be in the moment. The score will take care of itself if I’m focused on a unified, systematic, mental/physical approach, one shot at a time.

Which brings me back to real life. There are times when all of us lose our swagger in work, relationships, the sports we play and so many other areas of our existence. Yes, sometimes tangible or mechanical problems are to blame, as our factors outside of our control. But the power of the mind is not to be underestimated. Visualize success rather than failure, trust your innate abilities and fearlessly commit to a course of action, you’ll be far more likely to realize good results.

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