Spiritual and Technical Golf: Beyond Performance Psychology

Bobby Jones famously said that "Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course... the space between your ears" In today’s arena, no aspiring golfer chooses to ignore the mental aspects of the game.  The field of golf performance psychology has grown considerably, and competitive players usually enlist a golf psychologist/coach on their core team.  The core mental aspects are well known and often repeated, even though the general availability of good advice does not make it any easier for most people to follow that advice.

Yet, beyond performance psychology there is something that every golfer knows something about, which is harder to quantify, but which is undeniably at the core of golf - call it the spiritual side, call it the golf gods, call it the Zen of golf.  Books that touch on this topic include Seven days in Utopia: Golf's Sacred Journey by Dr. David Lamar Cook; and Golf in the Kingdom by Michael J. Murphy. These are both well worth reading. Don’t forget what you can learn from Ty Webb in Caddyshack, when he tells young Danny “There’s a force in the universe that makes things happens.  And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen and be the ball.”  While some people just cannot relate to or understand this dimension of the game, most golfers turn to the spiritual side at some point. Hurling epithets at the supreme deity is a common golfing practice.  Silent or audible prayer seems to be part of the game.   Billy Graham (golf minister to several US Presidents) said “The only time my prayers are not answered is on the golf course.”  The spirit can be truly hard to understand and cultivate, even for an “insider.”  

What exactly is the role of the mysterious spiritual side of golf and how does that balance with the need to develop the technical aspects of the game?  An old standard golf joke gives a good perspective:  A keen but unskilled golfer plays the same course every week, and has particular trouble with the water carry on the 14th hole, losing a ball (or two) every time he plays that hole.  One round he decides that this process is too expensive and decides to use an old cut-up ball instead of a good ball.  He gets to the 14th hole, opens his bag and pulls out the old ball, tees it up and addresses it.  Just as he commences his backswing a mighty voice comes from on high. “USE THE NEW BALL.” Figuring that advice from such a good source should be worth following, he picks up the old ball and tees up the new one again.  He starts his backswing but once again is interrupted by a voice from the sky. “TAKE A PRACTICE SWING.” The man steps away from the ball and rehearses his swing.  Just as he steps forward to re-address the ball, the voice speaks again.  “USE THE OLD BALL.”

We aspire to be better people, just as we aspire to be better golfers. Sometimes, we try to copy the technique of the best professionals.  However, most people have physical limitations that keep them from having the swing of Adam Scott. Without that swing, are we forever banished from admission to the kingdom?  The challenge is better framed as how we behave given our limitations.  We all bring different backgrounds, and different physical capabilities to both golf and life.  What we can do is to find both our physical and emotional balance, and aspire to higher standards in both while accepting certain things will not be the way we want them to be.  Trying to be someone else is doomed to failure both in golf and life.  You cannot be a professional golfer without a PGA level swing, but you can be a Master of the game of Golf when through the gateway of the spiritual side of the game.    

Dr. Rich