The elusive art of putting: giving up control to gain freedom

The coolest picture of someone putting I’ve ever taken. You could say it’s the warmest as well.

A few years ago, I was searching for a name for my putting clinics that would communicate clearly what they offered. I was trying out various words and phrases, but most struck me as hackneyed.

Then, I wrote that “golfers could discover they can putt without thinking about their stroke—that they could play with a quiet mind.”

Hmm, ‘quiet mind.’ Maybe there was something there?

A few weeks later, I was starting the Quiet Mind Putting Clinic on a beautiful sunny morning at RattleSnake Point Golf Club with Nate Robinson, the club’s Director of Golf at the time. The clinic attracted about 10 members of the club on the western edge of Toronto.

We gathered in a circle beside a giant practice putting green and I asked: “What do you want from today’s clinic?”

Like an eager school kid, a man with silvery hair immediately thrust his arm in the air: “As soon as I read ‘quiet mind,’ I decided to come. When I play golf, my head is full … of all kinds of stuff!

“I’m always telling myself what to do. ‘Don’t leave it short.  Why this putt won’t go in. What will go wrong.’

“I have so much noise in my head. I just want to learn how to quiet everything. And I want to putt better.”

Another fellow nodded his head, and said, “Exactly. What he said. I’d love to play with a quiet mind.”

As more participants checked in, we also heard that they wanted to stop leaving putts short, become better at lagging putts, reduce the number of their three-putts, and especially, stop missing short putts.

Nate and I said we would assist them in meeting their objectives for the day, but we would not be giving them a single instructional tip.

A man said, “I came here to learn from you.” (It’s a familiar response.)

I said, “If you’ll trust me on this one, I believe that you are your greatest teacher. We’ll lead you through some exercises that will allow you to learn from your own experiences.”

I also explained that I learned most of these exercises from legendary coach Fred Shoemaker, and that if they enjoy the workshop, they should purchase his book, Extraordinary Putting: Transforming the Whole Game.

During one exercise, we ask the participants to pair up. One person putts. The other person crouches behind a hole and flashes three numbers with their fingers. The putter looks at the partner’s fingers and says the numbers out loud and then the total—while putting. (For example, “Three, one, four … eight.”)

When I explained the exercise, a women quipped, “Isn’t putting hard enough?”

While they were doing the exercise, I heard laughter and delightful expletives. (“Holy !@#$%^&!”) One fellow announced: “I haven’t made a 12-footer all year, and I just made 12 … in a row!”

Like similar exercises described by Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Golf, these putting exercises brilliantly distract your conscious mind. If you are focused on the task—such as adding numbers—it’s impossible to think about mechanics while putting. You are not thinking about the future result either.

You press pause on your thoughts and inner critic. You are in the present moment. Your mind is quiet.

This is when you get out of your own way. Your stroke is simple, flowing, and free.

Lest you think that the clinics provide instant cures and quick fixes, they do not. They are a starting point for people. If you just go back to your old ways, you’ll get the results you always have. But if you explore your own experiences further, you can move forward.

Often it’s the people who struggle with the exercises at first who make the most progress. At a clinic last season, a man was doing the adding exercise, but he soon became flustered, and balls were going everywhere. I asked him to stop for a moment, and just breathe. We’ll call him Paul.

I inquired what was happening. Paul said, “I can’t stop myself from trying to take the putter straight back. But when I think about that, I can’t add the numbers. And I’m an accountant.”

Thankfully, he laughed.

I asked, “Would it be accurate to say you don’t want to give up control?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Would it be fair to suggest you don’t like giving up control in most of your life?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“How about you try again, but focus only on adding the numbers and let whatever happens with the putter happen?”

Paul looked at his partner about 12 feet away. He swung the putter back and through each ball while firmly saying the numbers and the total. Nearly every ball was dead weight and on-line. He sunk three in a row and looked up with a big smile.

To add the numbers meant Paul had to give up control of the stroke. For participants such as Paul, this is can be enormously difficult. It’s counter-intuitive in a culture that obsesses about achievement and chasing external results. This exercise marks the first time that many of the participants have allowed the stroke to happen, as if by itself.

A year later, Paul says he still talks about that adding numbers experience, and that it has played a role in his own personal development. “In my life I’m trying to trust more. I’m working on letting go of control. Golf is a good place for that. I can practice letting go of control. There’s an ease that goes with it. The tension falls away. It’s freeing.”

In his book, Shoemaker writes about discovering what freedom feels like, both in putting and the full swing.

“What showed up was me, the real me. This awareness began to bolster my trust in my innate ability .… The awareness that mishits on the course are due not to a lack of technique but rather to interference and a lack of freedom was a breakthrough.”

Like Shoemaker and Paul, most of the participants in these clinics are delightfully surprised at how well they putt, and how much more relaxed and freer they feel when their minds are quiet.

As these clinics wind up, I usually feel a sort of a blessing; that I get to witness people have an experience that challenges their negative stories about themselves. I get to see people discovering their own innate brilliance and seeing new possibilities for themselves. That is brilliant.

For more information on Quiet Mind Golf and Tim’s clinics, click HERE.

To read more of Tim’s columns, click HERE.

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, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band!

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