‘What just happened?’

You were sailing along quite nicely when suddenly you launch one into the woods. Or hit a shank.

It’s like, there we were, not hurting anyone, being nice, enjoying a lovely game of golf—and suddenly, we are victimized by some atrocious shot!

After watching the ball sail into the trees, or scuttle into thigh-high fescue, we may stand there for a moment—with our hands on our head and the misbehaving club on the ground—and exclaim, “What just happened?”

My experience as a player and a coach is that the problem usually comes down to this: we’re somewhere else when we hit the shot—mentally, we were somewhere else.

What I mean is—we weren’t present.

In golf, we’re usually in the future, standing over a shot hoping ‘Please land on the green’ or ‘Don’t hit it in the water.’ Some people are still fulminating over the last missed shot, but most people are worried about the result.

When we’re not present to what’s happening in the moment, we lose connection to the target, our body, and the club.

And suddenly we can’t get a ball airborne, we’re plagued with a bout of the shanks, or whatever.

And we have no clue why. 

So what helps?

By being present. Being here now when we hit a shot.

Stay with me, OK?

I know ‘staying present’ is cliché that you hear over and over, but the reason most people struggle with it is that they don’t really know what it means, or how to do it.

Being present is not making your mind go blank. It’s not thinking positive thoughts. It’s not directing your body to move in a certain way, such as ‘turn your left hip.’

Being present is being aware of what’s happening as it is happening with a lack of judgment. It’s like we’re witnessing ourselves. We’re not trying to do anything. It’s more like we’re observing ourselves as we swing or putt.

Many golfers have never experienced this. They’re always trying something, applying a technique, whether it’s a mental tip or a swing tip.

But in trying to apply a technique, we are thinking.

This is self-interference. It impairs performance because it doesn’t allow the body and brain to move naturally in relation to the target.

Your natural swing—the one you perform on instinct—will always serve you better in a round of golf.  Any notion of the ‘right swing’ or the ‘correct move’ will handcuff you and lead to tension, which is the No. 1 cause of bad shots.

To experience what being present feels like, start by simply paying attention to your breath.

It’s been proven over and over by elite athletes and neuroscientists that paying attention to the breath enables you to be present, press pause on your thoughts and inner critic, and let go of tension.

And it’s way simpler than you think. During your next practice session or round, try this: Just as you’re getting ready to swing, gently exhale. You might just feel like you’re allowing your breath to slowly escape. You’re allowing … not trying.

(I learned this from Howard Glassman, my Swing Thoughts podcast co-host, and we’ll talk more about breathing on next week’s show.) 

That’s it. That simple act of exhaling allows you to be present. If you’re wondering why, it’s because your body is always in the present moment. It’s always now.

Most people who experiment with this find that they feel less tension, they feel like their body moves more in sync and in balance, and it’s almost like the club and body start to move on their own.

They usually hit the ball more solidly, and they spend far less time wondering what the hell just happened.

When you’re present, you know what happened.

To learn more about the benefits of being present, check out my online course Lower Your Score With Obedience Training For Your Golf Brain. This affordable course teaches you how to quiet your mind and stop interfering so that you can play the golf that you’re capable of and have far more fun.

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!