How indifference can help you deal with golf’s ups and downs

Adapted from my most recent book, The Single Plane Golf Swing: Play Better Golf the Moe Norman Way.

Paul Casey flew the green from the bunker on the second playoff hole of the Travelers Championship. His chances to win his first PGA Tour event since 2009 also appeared to fly away.

You wouldn’t have known it from his reaction. He smiled, walked up to the volunteers earnestly trying to move people and gallery ropes away from his ball. “You need a knife? I have one in my bag,” he said, laughing. By staying cool, he gave himself a chance to hole his pitch, which would have been a miracle shot. But he had a shot.

If Moe Norman had been alive to watch that playoff, he might have said that Casey played with “an alert attitude of indifference.” That is, he played with his emotions in check.

Like most professionals, Casey has lost far more tournaments than he has won—13 European Tour titles, and one PGA Tour win—but one of the reasons for his long-term success is that he doesn’t too high from hitting a great shot, nor is he devastated when things go badly.

“There are always ifs and buts and could haves,” Casey said. “But the goal was to give myself a chance to win, and I did that.”

Most amateurs fail to control their emotions on the course, and their scores suffer for it.

“People play with hope and fear,” Moe used to say. “Losers live that way, every day in life. They are stumbling over their own emotions. Their minds are in the way.

“I play with an alert attitude of indifference.”

Being indifferent means you are not emotionally invested in an outcome. Golfers who are indifferent to a shot do their best in the present moment and observe whatever happens. (Late Canadian  professional Ben Kern used to say that once the ball left your putter, “It was up to the gods and gravity.”)

Let’s get real. Sure, you might be disappointed by a shot, and gesture or even yell. But being indifferent, you can deal with the result. You don’t go off the rails.

By alert, Moe meant that he was solidly rooted in the process of hitting every shot, and he was indifferent what the future might bring. One might argue Moe never missed full shots, so why would he worry about results? But that doesn’t diminish his wisdom around indifference.

Many amateurs soar with great joy and plummet in grave disappointment within one hole. For example, a player has great hopes that a three-foot putt will drop, but fears he’ll miss and look foolish. If he makes the putt, he’s usually just relieved. Miss, and he may explode with anger or sag dejectedly.

These types of golfers are volatile—up, down, all of over the place. This volatility causes cortisol, the stress hormone, to be released and your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Blood is routed away from the hands and face into the muscles, and your heart rate and respiration increases.

When you have strong emotional reactions on the course—usually angry or fear, or even shame— it’s like a surge of energy goes through your body. Returning to an even keel can take a number of holes, leaving a trail of bogies, doubles or worse in your wake.

Keep in mind that a disappointing shot is just one shot. Let it go. Celebrate the good and forget the bad. By keeping cool, you are giving yourself an opportunity to get that shot back.

Reacting with indifference is a skill to be learned. Becoming aware of how it can help you on the course is a first step.

Moe said that by playing with an alert attitude of indifference, he would compete against the course, not against himself. Besides, he’d say, “All you have to lose is a ball.”

Tim O’Connor is co-author with Todd Graves of The Single Plane Golf Swing: Play Better Golf the Moe Norman Way. Tim is Mental Performance Coach at the ClubLink Academy at Glen Abbey GC in Oakville, Ontario.

Photo: Nike Golf


About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!