Be a Player
INTRODUCTION: A NEW WAY TO IMPROVE
NEARLY EVERY WEEK, a new group of golfers arrives for one of our VISION54 programs at Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. The students include top amateurs, aspiring tour players, and recreational golfers—among them lawyers, filmmakers, bankers, opera singers, corporate executives, and teachers. All of them love golf. All of them want to improve and enjoy the game. But more often than not, they admit to being frustrated with golf—and with themselves. Sadly, some are just about ready to quit.
Listen to a few of our students. We always begin by asking them to introduce themselves and to say a few words about why they’ve come.
Janice, from Vancouver, British Columbia: “I love golf when I play well, but I really struggle when I’m playing poorly. I wonder if it’s possible to have fun even when I’m having a bad day.”
Joe, from Minneapolis, Minnesota: “I feel frustrated most of the time I’m on the course. I’d like to learn how to be more relaxed and spend less time thinking about the mechanics of my swing.”
Beth, from Boston, Massachusetts, a retired finance executive: “I’m very analytical and goal-oriented. I want to get out of my head and feel more joy when I play.”
Mia, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who is a college golfer: “The biggest thing I’m looking for is to improve my consistency. After rounds when I played well I think, That was so easy. But
after a bad round I’m thinking, That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Bob, from Portland, Oregon: “My main objective and desire is to get the most out of myself. I want to feel I can improve and continue to grow my golf game.”
Lana, who lives in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and Palm Desert, California: “I love golf, but I never feel like I’m improving. And I fight the feeling that not improving reflects on me as a person.”
Mike, from Scottsdale, Arizona, a businessman: “I want to be able to manage myself better when I play with my weekend foursome. They talk so much: I can’t even concentrate. I play like Jekyll and Hyde when I’m with them.”
Ida, from Kansas City, Missouri: “I so want to enjoy golf. When I don’t play well, I beat myself up and have a terrible rest of the day.”
Zach, from New York City, a 1-handicap player: “Instead of always thinking about my swing, I want to learn to let myself play the game.”
Julie, from Indiana, a nationally ranked amateur: “I don’t want to be so scared when I’m playing.”
Jane, from New York: “I want to figure out why I get so tight when I’m hitting over water. I moan and groan a lot on the course. I don’t want to be that kind of golfer.”
Patrick, from New Jersey, who works in venture capital: “I practice and take lessons, but I never seem to get any better. Most days, I come off the course completely deflated. I don’t want to start all over. I’d like to take my game—the one I have now—to the next level.”
The sentiments of the comments capture the mood we see in today’s golfers—whether they are American, European, or
Asian. Though club technology, fitness training, and the science of the swing have improved exponentially over the past decade, many golfers have not improved and have been leaving the game. The numbers have declined for several reasons, from a shortage of playing time and budget considerations, to difficulty in learning the game and courses that are too challenging. In short, golfers are stuck—and their lack of improvement might be a more alarming development for the game. According to the National Golf Foundation, nearly six million people in the U.S. quit the sport between 2003 and 2015.
We think we know another big reason why players are frustrated. Many golfers struggle to transfer their games from the range to the course. We see players making good contact in practice, but when we’re watching them on the course, they take three times longer to hit the ball—with a completely different technical swing. All of a sudden, they can’t hit the ball. Their physical, mental, and emotional states have changed because performing on the golf course means something. There are actual consequences to what they do.
Consider this: What if you arrive at a tennis court or a basketball court and see a sign that reads: NO PRACTICING ON THE COURT. Or at a swimming pool, the lifeguard tells you, “Sorry, no practicing your breast stroke in the pool.” Many golf courses and clubs have similar rules, ostensibly to protect pace of play and the conditions of the course.
Here’s what we believe: Practicing golf shots and playing golf on the course are not incompatible. To learn a sport, you need to learn in the context of the sport with all its constraints. Only in this state can you learn the skills that are required in the real environment of the game.
In addition to teaching the mechanics of a pitch shot on the range, golfers need to learn to hit that shot on the course, and then how to hit it a little higher to get over a bunker or a bush (and with only one try!). Let’s say there’s a tree in front of you. You need to get the ball around the tree. The first time you try, you’ll probably stick the ball in the trunk of the tree. But with exploration and practice, you’ll figure out how to navigate around the tree. All of a sudden, you’ve learned to curve the ball. You’ve learned to play.
The bottom line is that you have to be in the pool to learn how to swim, you have to be on a tennis court to learn to play tennis, and you have to be on the golf course to learn the game. You need to dedicate time on the course when you’re not focused on keeping score. You need to be on the course to discover what works. (And we promise, doing so will not hold up play or leave hundreds of divots.) Only on the course will you truly develop your skills, your game—and yourself.
A related issue we’ve observed is that when golfers (of any level) struggle on the course, they tend to blame their technique. Players today have become entirely too focused on the swing, with its angles and planes, speeds and smash factors. Tour pros now spend hours analyzing their swings with video cameras and TrackMan-style launch-monitor devices. (These instruments measure everything from clubhead speed to ball speed and flight apex to the forces and pressures of the feet during the swing.) Amateur golfers are convinced they’ll shoot lower scores once they’ve figured out whether they’re one-plane or two-plane swingers. They debate swing theories—X-factor, Stack-and-Tilt, A-Swing—as if one is the right answer. They read magazine articles that promise to teach the correct swing method that will fix everything. Meanwhile, they pursue the
elusive secret of the swing via instructional apps and the wide array of analytical resources, such as K-VESTs, FocusBands, and clip-on metronomes. As one of our students put it, “I’ve taken in so much information, I feel like my head is exploding.”
We want to make it clear that we’re not dismissing the benefit of modern technology or the importance of a sound golf swing. It’s imperative that you have a reliable swing that fits your body. You need to practice it enough, so you are confident and can execute it proficiently. You also need to know which situations call for a certain shot. Even so, we believe there’s an important distinction. It’s not just about the swing. It’s about the golfer who makes the swing on the course.
There’s a book we like called The Dude and the Zen Master. It’s a series of conversations between the actor Jeff Bridges and a Zen master named Bernie Glassman. Glassman was an aeronautical engineer who became a teacher of Buddhism in Los Angeles. In the book, Bernie and Jeff discuss a variety of subjects, from movies to family to learning to, well, simply, being human. Bernie tells Jeff that he knows a little ditty that contains one of the secrets to life:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
He asks Jeff to imagine getting into a boat for the first time and trying to figure out how to row. Should he put the right oar into the water first or the left? What should he be doing with his shoulders during the stroke? What about his arms? How
can he get the oars to work together? What if he wants to row to the opposite shore? If he fixates on the destination, he might forget to pay attention to his rowing mechanics. But if he fixates on his rowing, he could lose focus on where he wants to go.
Bernie explains that, according to Zen philosophy, the opposite shore is actually right under your feet. So the question isn’t, How do you get from here to there? The question is, How do you get from here to here? How do you become fully present in the moment, in your environment, and in the activity in which you’re engaged?
Bernie advises Jeff, “Don’t get down on yourself because you’re not an expert rower right away. Don’t go learn to row in a performance tank. Just ease your boat into the water and begin to row—very gently—down the stream.”
IN OUR PREVIOUS BOOKS, Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, The Game Before the Game, and Play Your Best Golf Now, we introduced the elements of our teaching: Shot-making with purpose and commitment, practice that reflects the real game, and skills that enable you to access physical, mental, and emotional states that lead to better play. But we believe the place you can really improve your game is on the golf course, so in this book, we’ll teach you what we call “human skills,” which you’ll rely on in the actual context of the game. As you learn these skills, you will learn more about yourself. You will be able to rely on yourself. You will be able to adjust. You will become your own best coach. Which means, you’ll be a player.
In our opinion, there are four pillars that support a golfer’s game: 1) your fitness level, 2) your technical skills (that is,
your swing and stroke), 3) your equipment, and 4) your human skills. Unfortunately, the human skills are rarely taught—and to us, these are essential to playing good golf.
We look at it this way: Once you step onto the golf course, can you change your fitness level, your technical skills, or your equipment? No. The only one of these pillars you have control over on the course is your human skills. Developing these skills—especially self-awareness and self-management—will help you play your best. Human skills will also help you manage emotions that invariably arise on the course, such as anxiety, frustration, fear, discouragement, and anger. They can also help you create positive states such as focus, confidence, equanimity, courage, and joy—all of which help you enjoy the game more.
During our collective 64 years of teaching and coaching, we’ve become super-interested in the conditions that facilitate peak performance—that is, when people are performing at the highest level of their abilities. Whether the performers are dancers, musicians, surgeons, or golfers, one common denominator is that, in the moment of performance, they are fully present through their senses—particularly sight, sound, and feel. When this happens, we are capable of far more than we’ve ever imagined.
It’s why we named our company VISION54. We wanted to invoke a new frontier, the idea that a golfer will shoot a score of 54 someday. That could mean making birdies on all 18 holes, or a combination of pars, birdies, and eagles. 54 is a number. It’s also a philosophy oriented toward possibilities rather than limitations. 54 is a process of changing old habits and learning new ones. It’s a discipline of managing your physical, mental, and emotional states on a golf course—in an environment that’s always changing.
We have full confidence that a golfer will shoot 54 someday soon: To date, fewer than 20 players have carded a 59 in competition. One of the 59-shooters, Annika Sorenstam, was coached by Pia. Another, Russell Knox, is a PGA Tour professional we currently coach. (By the way, we append the number 54 to the names of all players we coach: Russell Knox is “Roo54.” He gets his nickname, Roo, because he carries a kangaroo headcover. PGA Tour winner Kevin Streelman is “Streels54,” and another of our students, Condoleezza Rice, is “Condi54.”) So, what will it take to open the door to the next performance breakthrough in golf? In our opinion, shooting 54 will require a paradigm shift from a “faults-and-fixes” approach to a “possibilities-and-excellence” approach that will additionally rely on human skills.
We think of this as a back-to-the-future concept. When the Society of St. Andrews Golfers was founded in 1754, there were no professional instructors, no practice ranges, and no swing simulators. Golfers learned to play on the course, in the context of the game. They figured out how to properly flight a shot, manage their nerves, and focus on the parts of the game they could control. Throughout history, great champions have embodied these skills: Old Tom Morris, Joyce Wethered, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Kathy Whitworth, Arnold Palmer, Nancy Lopez, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Annika Sorenstam used their human skills to become great players of the game. It’s our opinion that these skills don’t have to remain implicit, or mysterious, or the province of champions. Today, thanks to advances in science and performance research, and our years of observing and coaching golfers, we can help make implicit skills explicit.
In the following chapters, you’ll learn these human skills
on the course alongside some of our professional and amateur students: current and former LPGA Tour players Suzann Pettersen, Brittany Lang, Ariya Jutanugarn, and Annika Sorenstam; current and former PGA Tour players Russell Knox, Kevin Streelman, and Arron Oberholser; amateurs such as Condoleezza Rice and A.K. Frazier and Amy Lane, to name a few. These players acquired human skills that enabled them to play to their full potential.
Recent research in fields such as psychophysiology, neuroscience, and athletic training have changed the way we think about how we learn, what our true capacities are, and what creates peak performance. These fields incorporate medicine, psychology, physiology, brain science, nutrition, biofeedback, contextual learning, and meditation. They propose that we have a capacity to learn and perform at a higher level than most had ever imagined, enabling us to bridge the long-assumed mind/body divide. This allows us to consider golf in a new light, because it points directly to us; we are capable of more improvement, growth, and self-regulation than we thought possible. However, the work of crossing this mind/body divide, and attaining these larger goals, is up to each of us.
We’re not alone in discovering a new, forward-thinking philosophy. Many of our peers in golf and other sports are just as committed to these new ideas. In this book, we want to introduce some of the people and concepts that have influenced us over the years—innovative teachers like Chuck Hogan and Kjell Enhager; human-potential thinkers such as Michael Murphy and Ken Wilber; scientists and psychologists the likes of JoAnne Whitaker and Carol Dweck; techniques like HeartMath, and even an approach to communication and personal
growth called Neuro-Linguistic Programming. We’ve studied these disciplines, extracted the best ideas, and incorporated them into our VISION54 methodology. In doing so, we have discovered that bringing higher awareness to our bodies, minds, and emotions can release our true potential.
This journey will be interior (you, the human being) and exterior (you on the golf course). Our goal is to introduce you to the human skills in context, and help you understand how to use them. Each chapter includes Questions and On-Course Explorations. The explorations should always be done on the course. The purpose is to spur you to reflect and become more aware, so you can discover what makes you play your best. We want you to blend the explorations into your rounds—the more you use them, the more natural and organic they’ll become. And the more they’ll change your game. We hope you’ll engage them with three words we cherish: awareness, intention, and attention. Instead of beating balls to death on the range, we hope you’ll make these human skills the heart of your game.
Come with us. Let’s explore golf in a whole new way.