Guts, Glory, and Plasticity of The Golf Mind

How many times have you scored a triple bogey and essentially given up on the round? I’ve even stopped keeping score I’ve been so demoralized. Keegan Bradley, after chipping into the water, had a triple on the 15th hole on the last day of the 2011 PGA Championship–the first major he’d ever played in–and came back to win the tournament. That takes guts and courage and the ability to never say die, traits any golfer could use more of. These are traits of the mind, traits of character, traits of a person who can turn adversity into the seed of an equal or greater benefit. After Bradley’s triple, he was five shots behind Jason Dufner, a 34 year old journeyman. Bradley then birdied his next two, one with a 40 foot putt, and parred the 18th, arguably the most difficult hole on tour. He tied Dufner in regulation, a gutsy feat that has to be one of the great comebacks in the history of the majors. How he did it is a lesson we can all learn from.

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Simply said, in golf, as in life, you never give up. Golf tests the resiliency of the mind to come back after disaster. The mind is conditioned generally to give up rather than come back and try again. It’s an organ of memory and we tend to remember the bad more than the good. Think PTSD which is near epidemic in this country. So instead of facing obstacles and hindrances, we often give up and go in another direction. Or we medicate ourselves with whatever opiate is at hand. The brain’s amygdala, the center of emotional response, is often so conditioned by the time we reach adulthood that it forgets its original function: to help us get through tough times, times of change, times of negativity, of disappointment, of disruption to our comfort zone. The amygdala becomes dysfunctional, and requires external booster shots to help us through the day.

When disaster hits in golf, and it will whether you are Rory McIlroy or John Doe, how you respond is critical. In 1990, unknown Mike Donald was on the verge of winning the U.S. Open. He lost in a playoff against Hale Irwin and was never heard from again until he emerged on the Champions Tour in 2005. Ben Hogan, on the other hand, almost died in a head on car crash in 1949, then came back and won 8 majors. And I shot 45 going out at Bennett Valley the other day, then came in with a 37. In golf, you never say die. You can catch fire at any point but you must be in control of your mind to do so. So how can you accomplish this in a culture that assaults the mind until it is ground into submission, that conditions the mind to kowtow to the flavor of the day?

First, you have to find your center. The Japanese consider the belly, the hara, to be the center of one’s being. They developed a meditation that focuses the breath on the hara. As the breath comes in, the belly expands: As the breath goes out, the belly contracts. This is the polar opposite of the way most Westerners breathe. Try it. You’ll see what I’m talking about. When disaster hits, like a skulled chip shot for example, the breath gets short. Anger and frustration arise. You throw the club to the ground. You curse. You look to the sky. Touring pros pull their cap down over their eyes a lot. You’ve blown a shot, and the enslaved amygdala is in irons. You go to the next tee and you’re still fuming.

Keegan Bradley went to the next tee after chipping into the water for a triple, and he proceeded to birdie the hole. He regrouped. He focused on making a good swing. This is an emotional guy, unlike some of the automatons on Tour. He breathed, reining himself in. This is important. He reined himself in. The mind tends to take off in situations like this like the runaway stagecoach in old Westerns. And how did the hero stop the stagecoach? He bravely jumped on the horses and pulled in the reins. In golf, you need to jump on your neurons and gain control of your thinking. You need to treat every hole as if it were the first hole, without memory or influence of any hole before it.

This is called plasticity of mind–the ability of the mind to break through the calcification of conditioning and bend like a willow to whatever condition that arises. It’s how human beings have survived and thrived through all these years of evolution. And it’s how golfers survive double and triple bogeys. Plasticity of mind is critical for the golfer. Conditions change rapidly during the course of a round of golf. Expectations turn sour. Our best efforts go south. Every shot has the potential to go awry. Bouncing back is integral to good scoring. And good scoring is golf’s grail. And how does one achieve plasticity of mind?

There is only one way: to dive into the maelstrom and take on golf head on. To get battered around and beaten down. To feel the fire and not back down from it. The atrophied amygdala must be thrown into that fire in order to melt the ice around its edges. The conditioning has to be broken and the only way to do that is to go into the fray, into the source of nervousness and trepidation. It will not always be smooth. It will not always work. But the amygdala will eventually get used to acting on its own, with heightened confidence in its ability to face hardship. Like a battle-toughened soldier, it will not hesitate to take on the enemy. And in golf, the enemy is clear: It is none other than one’s own mind.

As I’ve said many times, meditation is a useful tool in gaining plasticity of mind. But it is not the be all, end all. They call meditation The Practice, but at some point you have to leap into the abyss of life, with full faith that you will survive, and that your own mind will support you in the journey. Golf is practice for living one’s life as a fully conscious human being, for it takes both guts and plasticity of mind to come back from a triple bogey and win a major. Well done, Keegan Bradley. You’ve been a great role model for us all.

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Photo by: rioncm

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Stephen Altschuler

took up golf in 1960, having played on his championship high school team in Philadelphia and attending college on a partial golf scholarship, where he taught freshman the game. He started a junior program in New Hampshire, and was Director of Golf at a resort in southern NH, where he once taught a blind man to play. He ran an adult school golf program in Oakland, California as well. Since 1969, he’s been a freelance writer, having written the award-winning The Mindful Hiker, along with Sacred Paths and Muddy Places, and Hidden Walks in the East Bay and Marin. Stephen has a masters in counseling along with many years experience as a therapist and counselor, adding to his psychological knowledge of the game’s mental aspects. Having studied and, at times, taught Zen Buddhism and Tai Chi since 1976, he also brings a spiritual awareness of how the game relates to life. He has been writing his Mindful Golfer blog since 2009, just before the Tiger Woods scandal broke. He is married and lives in Northern California.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Jordan J. Caron

    Stephen,

    Nice post as always. You’ve called it plasticity of mind. I simply call it grinding.

    When I get off a to a bad start on the course, I bare down more and start the grinding early. During my years as a top ranked junior I would always say to myself “Ok. That’s not the start or hole I wanted but let’s not make another bogey this entire round.” Sometimes I preferred to get off a poor start because it got me engaged in the round more.

    I have a question for anyone reading this, how often have you stopped keeping score on the card because you had a few bad holes? I’ve played with many golfers who give up on rounds because of a poor start. This isn’t very productive.

    Next time that happens, accept the outcome, adapt as Stephen says, pull your socks up and grind away. This way you’ll get something out of the round. This will help immensely come tournament time because you can’t just give up in a tournament.

    1. David MacKenzie
      David MacKenzie

      Hi Jordan,

      Thanks for commenting, that’s definitely the way to approach a poor start. Way to turn a negative into a positive!

      I know many golfers who stop scoring after a poor start which is a shame because it’s amazing how rewarding and confidence boosting it is to turn things around. I agree, that pulling your socks up and grinding no matter how disappointed a player you are by a bad start. Golf is a great challenge and there’s a lot to be gained from overcoming those challenges. To begin with, it’s often having too high expectations and putting pressure on yourself to score well that brings on a poor start but we’ll shelve that for another conversation.

      I’ll make sure that Stephen sees your comment.

      Can I have your email address for an off-line chat? I checked out your blog and your teaching is very compelling.

      Mine is [email protected]

      David

      1. Stephen Altschuler

        Golf is the modern version of the old Buddhist story, David: Misfortune into fortune into misfortune into fortune, and so on…It’s the grand life lesson on fairways and greens.
        Thanks for commenting.

    2. Stephen Altschuler

      When you’re down to the last coal in the furnace, Jordan, you’ve got to blow back that flame to stay warm. Grinding is another way to put.
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Troy Vayanos

    Great post Stephen,

    It’s one of the hardest things to do in golf to come back from a disaster hole. When I play my local golf course and I’ve had a bad course I do the following:

    On the next tee I always tell myself that I have birdied this hole before and there’s no reason why I can’t do it again. In fact I have birdied every hole on the golf course. This gives me confidence and puts me in a state of I can get back in this game because I have done it before.

    Regards

    1. Stephen Altschuler

      You know, Troy, I’ve always thought about what you’re saying and how it relates to touring pros knowing they have the capacity of birdieing every hole, and using that inner knowledge to get through the disasters. But I hadn’t thought of it in relation to amateurs playing their home course. It’s a great perspective to get you through the big numbers and getting back on track.
      Thanks a lot for your comment.

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