Our golf culture is preventing us from getting better … and having fun

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 instruction industry 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 the golf culture 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:

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 – this golf culture that we see all the time on Instagram, on YouTube, 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 as a player and as a coach that this golf culture, in fact, inhibits us from playing not only good golf, but having fun and enjoying say a sense of freedom and just being fully present when we’re playing golf. Enjoying the day, enjoying our company, enjoying nature, enjoying this sense that we can do this thing. That we can play an amazing game like golf and have a day where we’re outside doing that because the cultural paradigm is that you’ve got to improve. That if you hit the ball a certain way, well, we’re going to work on that and get you to hit it better. 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, you’ll be happy when you go from a nine to a six, you’ll be happy when you finally make it through tour qualifying school. You’ll be happy when you win your first tournament on the LPGA or PGA tour. You’ll be happy when you win your first major. You’ll be happy when you win your second major.

So, there’s always this promise inherent that we’re going to be happy when. Because we’re immersed in this culture and that’s partially driven by an industry that needs to make money for one thing. Now that’s not a horrible thing. We all need the cycle of giving and receiving as students of the game and instructors, but what I’m positing, if you will, is that I think there’s a little bit more to golf than this culture that says you’ll be happy when you get better. And then it’s all about getting better. It’s all about meeting an expectation for a score or that I’ll look good on the first tee, when I have this beautiful swing or when I get my handicap to this level, or I finally do something, and it’s usually associated with score standards and that kind of thing.

And it’s my sense that this culture is not only inhibiting people from having fun, but also keeping them from playing good golf. People are always in a place of judgment. You know, how do I stack up against Jill, how do I stack up against 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. Never, if that delivery is a failed promise.

What this tends to do is put us in a state of constantly wanting and a place of judgment and 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, having less three putts, not chunking chips and balls out of bunkers. If we kind of take a step back and say, why am I really playing this game? Why am I playing? What are the things that I can gain from this game that give me perhaps a greater sense of freedom. Perhaps allow me to learn things about myself. How could I maybe leave the golf course being more aware of how I have acted in the past, and maybe what I could do to move in a way that I could act more in accordance with my values and what I really want to do with my life.

I know when we play in a state of more presence, and particularly in a place of gratitude, we not only have more fun, we connect more with the people we’re with, we’re more actually present to enjoying this amazing natural abundance. We have a golf course, beauty and trees and air, but we also 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 drawing on our own resources again, rather than always comparing ourselves to this 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?

This cultural paradigm that says we’re happy when we meet these parameters or get these results, I just say it’s an empty promise that doesn’t deliver what it says it will do.

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

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-putt. What we’re seeking through golf is in essence, self mastery, learning more about ourselves, moving forward. As human beings we’re always 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. And how do we do that? We do it by not identifying ourselves with our score. If I’m not shooting this, then I’m a piece of crap.

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. So, 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 made it replace the Triple Axel as the new standard. So, Shaun White goes into the press conference afterwards, and he was asked, “What were you thinking when you did that?” And he says, “First off, I wasn’t thinking. I was in the moment.” But the key piece is what he said next, “I slightly didn’t care.”

And 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.” And I always get a laugh from it as well. So, what that says is I care, but I’m not living and dying with every stroke. I’m embracing it with a degree of lightness and indifference. 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, that we don’t live and die with every shot or every outcome. 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.

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.

That’s my experience individually and as a coach. So what happens when we look upon ourselves as not meeting a standard? Well, we’re going to beat ourselves up. 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 again, 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. We can influence what’s going on, do our best, but you can hit a putt that appears to be perfect speed and direction. Does it always go in? No. We just can’t control results.

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

Here’s a couple of things I’m always asking players: “What are you paying attention to? And what are you feeling in your body?” Those are the two core questions I ask them all the time. So, 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 doing this and that. There goes this game. 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 it’s club back in the bag – done! Walk, get ready for the next shot. If you’re aware of what your brain 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.

And the other thing is being self-aware. Let’s say you have a shot coming up that kind of gives you fits. Maybe it’s just carrying the ball over water. Just say to yourself, “What am I feeling in my body?” “Oh my God, I got a white knuckled grip, tension.” As soon as you’re aware of that, you can say, “Okay, phew, I’ll let that go a bit.” So again, the core thing that I use in my coaching is self-awareness. And so many times whether it’s in golf or just in life, we’re not aware of what’s going on. We’re not aware how tense or jacked up we may be.

I’ll get into this in more detail another time, but in my webinar that’s largely on awareness and mindfulness, I do a body scan with people. It’s a guided 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. We’re not aware that we’re sad. We’re not aware that our mind is racing. So, 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.


Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

8 thoughts on “Our golf culture is preventing us from getting better … and having fun

  1. Good article.
    The “right words” deliveted at the “right time”
    I wonder if Mr. Ford reads Fairways.
    I hope so!

    1. Mr. Ford has been listening to somebody Dave but I don’t think it was anybody from the golf industry.

  2. Mr. Mumford: Thank you for a “Faith Affirming ” treatise of the Golfer who wants to have fun” – I’m letting go of the ideals I likely won’t live long enough to achieve – I’m focusing on enjoying a round of golf and looking forward to the next shot . regardless of the outcome of the last shot.
    Now I play for the sheer joy of the game , the exercise and being among friends of like mind. I enjoy the game much more now and brag about the few shots per round that turn out the way I planned them ! Regards.

  3. Asking students to write out “why I play golf” is so smart Tim. This truly provides the golfer the ability to be honest with themselves and identify their passion for this crazy game……and it is a game that requires self forgiveness and passion!

  4. Haven’t teed it up with Tim in ages, but I’m not surprised by the sagacity of his insights. I’d like to suggest one other way to enjoy the game more: Don’t keep score. Sure, it’s not for everyone (and in certain contexts not possible), but it works for me, I still try to hit each shot the best I can, but it’s a viable strategy for tempering the exasperation Tim notes frequently afflicts us.

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