Golf culture is preventing us from getting better … and having fun

In golf culture, it appears the only goal of the game is to 'get better.' In many ways, that dogged pursuit prevents us from getting what we want and from savouring all that golf has to offer.

The following was written by Peter Mumford, Publisher and Editor of Fairways Magazine, the Greater Toronto Area golf publication, and is based on an interview Peter conducted with me. I’ve edited it slightly for length. Geez, I can talk! 

As part of our quest to become better golfers, have more fun and enjoy the game more, Fairways talked to Golf Performance Coach Tim O’Connor. It was actually a follow-up to a point Tim had made in an earlier discussion about our golf culture and how it’s holding us back.

“The prevailing culture of golf tells us that if we get a better swing, we lower our scores or handicap, then we’ll be happy. And to do that you have to swing a certain way, match a model, or do what the experts say. I think this paradigm is what keeps people stuck in mediocrity, and I have definite views on ways that people can have more fun, enjoy greater freedom AND play good golf.”

Following is our discussion with Tim:

Tim O’Connor: One of the things that I always ask new clients to do, and I also ask members of the University of Guelph golf team, is to do a writing exercise called ‘why I play golf’. And what I’m seeking there is for people to really connect what strikes them in their soul about golf. Because it’s my experience in my own game, with my clients and what I observe, is that people often get kind of distracted by this golf culture that we see all the time on Instagram, on YouTube, and in golf publications, that says you will be happy when you play better golf. And we, as members of this golf instruction industry, will lead you to Nirvana by helping you to play better.

And it’s my experience that this golf culture, in fact, inhibits us from playing not only good golf, but also from having fun and enjoying, say, a sense of freedom and just being fully present when we’re playing golf such as enjoying the day, our company, nature, or that we even play golf. (But) the cultural paradigm of golf says you’ve got to improve. And that you’ll be happy when you break 100 or 90 or 80, you’ll be happy when you go from a 25 handicap to a 17, or you’ll be happy when you go from a nine to a six.

I think there’s more to golf than this culture that says ‘you’ll be happy when you get better.’

And it’s my sense that this culture is not only inhibiting people from having fun, but also keeping them from playing good golf. We always seem to be in a place of judgment. You know, how do I stack up against Jill or George? How does my swing compare to what I’m looking at on YouTube or what I’ve read in this book? When we’re in a place of judgment and comparison and evaluation, we’re never present. We’re always someplace else. I will be happy when I stopped slicing the ball. I’ll happy when. And we’re never happy.

What this tends to do is put us in a state of constantly wanting desiring. And as the Buddhists say, that is a recipe for suffering. And to me, I think there’s another approach that can include playing good golf, hitting the ball solid, and having less three-putts if we kind of take a step back and say, and ask, why am I really playing this game?

When we play in a state of more presence, and particularly in a place of gratitude, we not only have more fun, but we also connect more with the people we’re with. We’re more actually present to enjoying this amazing natural abundance of the golf course, the beauty and trees and air, and we become more aware of what we’re doing ourselves. And the more we’re aware of our own experience, the more we learn from ourselves. And we actually can start to play this game a little bit better by drawing on our own resources, rather than always comparing ourselves to a model. Am I swinging according to what the gurus say I should do now? Am I hitting the ball the distance I should at my age or something like that? Is my handicap where it needs to be?

I believe this cultural paradigm that says ‘we’ll be happy when’ we get certain results is an empty promise that doesn’t deliver.

Peter Mumford: Are you suggesting we shouldn’t care about the outcome?

O’Connor: No, I don’t think that anyone who plays this game will be happy if they go out and hit it sideways and three- and four-putts. What we’re seeking through golf is, in essence, self-mastery, learning more about ourselves, moving forward. Often we don’t know what it is, but we’re always looking to move forward in our lives. So no, we’re not talking about people going out, hitting it willy nilly and saying, “Oh, I’m happy just to be out here.” No, of course not. What we’re talking about is being able to accept what’s going on with a degree of lightness or indifference. One way to do that is to not identify ourselves with our score.

I remember Rory McIlroy saying after he won the Players Championship a couple of years ago, “You know, I’m still a good person if I shoot 74, as when I shoot 65.” What we’re looking at is how can we embrace all of the stuff that this game has to offer and not put our identity on the line, and what it says about us as human beings. We’re always much greater than our golf score. One thing that I work on with my players is something I learned from Shaun White after he won the gold medal in snowboarding at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. He did this unbelievable maneuver – a Double McTwist 1260, which he called The Tomahawk – that had never been done before in competition.

When he did that maneuver, it set a new standard, like when Elvis Stojko landed a Quad in figure skating and it replaced the Triple Axel as the new standard. Afterwards, White was asked, “What were you thinking when you did that?” And he said, “At that point, you’re not really thinking. You’re just letting it happen. It’s a mixture of being completely focused, and then slightly not caring.”

When I read that, I went, BAMMO, that’s brilliant. I took that and made it part of our routine with my University of Guelph golf team. Before each tournament, we put our hands in together and say, “I slightly don’t care.” It always get a laugh, which is great, but what that also says to me is ‘I care, but I’m not living and dying with every stroke.’ We’ve seen some amazing examples of that lately on the PGA Tour. Lee Westwood at Bay Hill and the Players. There he is competing with guys who are 20 years his junior. He’s right there, missing putts. Yeah. Shrug it off. Ball lands in a divot on the 72nd hole. He didn’t like it, but he moved along with it.

Jordan Spieth provides another good example when he won the Valero Texas Open. What did he say was a big difference for him finally breaking through after being so close? “I embraced golf with a degree of lightness.” And I think that is something to keep in mind. Then we can hold things in balance. But if we fall into the trap of thinking we have to do this or that, we have to swing this way, I just don’t see how that’s a recipe for freedom or good golf.

Mumford: So, if I understand you correctly, if you have that attitude, it frees you up to perform without being hampered by a lot of preconceived notions and standards.

O’Connor: What happens when we look at ourselves as not meeting a standard? Well, most of us are going to beat ourselves up. For some people, that’s what they need to get better. The Zach Hyman’s of the world, they just work harder, and they go harder. But how do we go into the field of battle in a way that we’re aware of what’s going on, but we’re not in a state of, “I have to do this. I’m going to prove today to the world that I can do this, and I’m going to meet this score.” Well, to me, whenever we’re focused on something external like that, that’s a recipe for riding an emotional roller coaster because we’re trying to meet a result and we don’t have control over results, especially in golf.

Mumford: How do you help people get into this frame of mind, where they clear all the other stuff out?

O’Connor: Here’s a couple of things I’m always asking players: “What are you paying attention to?” Let’s say they pull a drive into the woods. As they’re walking down there, what are they thinking about? Are they thinking, “X#%&. I pulled it again. I’m not transferring my weight. I’m three over after two holes.” If you ask them what they’re paying attention to, they’re in the past, and they’re not going to be ready to hit the next shot. So what could you do? Well, after you hit the shot, you could just say, “Oh, I pulled it. Okay, let’s have a little rehearsal swing. Okay, that’s better.” Then put the club back in the bag – and done! No more thinking about that shot. It’s in the past. Now we can be ready for the next shot. If you’re aware of what your mind is doing now, you can respond to it rather than be caught in reactive, habitual patterns. And we all have them, we all have these patterns.

In one of my webinars, I lead people through a guided body scan meditation. When I take them through the jaw or their shoulders, I’ll ask them, “What did you become aware of?” And they tell me they became aware that they had their shoulders up. “And what happened when you became aware that your shoulders were tense?” They just went down. You see—awareness is curative, but most times we’re not aware. We’re not aware that we’re pissed off or sad, or that our mind is racing. Once you become aware of it, you can say to yourself, “Oh, geez. I’m doing that thing. I’m tromping down the fairway thinking about how I pulled my drive and giving myself shit.” And we just know that if you want to play good golf, you need to arrive at that next shot in a place where that’s in the past and you’re fully present. Then you can go through your process to hit a good shot.

Mumford: Thanks Tim.

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf and mental performance coach, an award-winning writer, and Head Coach of the University of Guelph golf team. He is the recipient of the 2020 Lorne Rubenstein Media Award, given by Golf Ontario. He is author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story, and co-host of the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman. And he plays bass in CID—a punk band!