As a golfer who has spent the better part of the last two years studying the fundamental mechanics of the golf swing, it's a difficult lesson to take to heart. When I practice, I'm nearly always thinking about the mechanics of my swing...am I aligned correctly? Is my grip ok? Am I transferring weight correctly to my front side? In other words, I'm driving myself nuts with thoughts as I try to swing.
Those thoughts are okay if I'm at the driving range after work hitting a bucket of balls with my 7 iron, working on that goofy new posture my golf teacher has me practicing. If you listen to Dr. Rotella and the rest of the guys who know what they're talking about, they'll say that when you hit the course, you've got to forget all those mechanical voices and just play. Have fun. Enjoy the walk. Enjoy the good shots you hit. Forget about the bad ones.
It's harder to do than it sounds.
But I am learning to do it more and more lately, learning to trust my swing, another of Rotella's mantras. Sometimes when I'm getting out of the car at the golf course or lacing up my golf shoes, I get a little nervous, worried that I may somehow have forgotten how to play, that today might be the day when I shoot 129 and forget how to hit a sand wedge, my favorite club in my bag.
I was extra nervous when, at the end of December, I got a chance to play a round with my father at the course where I'd played the first golf of my life. It's been ten years since I've played that course and my golf game has grown tenfold or more in those years. Still, I was worried that somehow my game would revert
to its old ways, that I'd be on the 7th hole and my body would remember that I was supposed to hit the ball into the water, because that's what I'd always done.
We teed off early in the morning, hyped up on coffee and granola bars. I saw the round as an end-of-the season golf test, eager to see whether the progress I've made this season could be taken from my home course, a flat open layout with little trouble, to a narrower course with smaller greens and multiple water hazards.
Well, I managed to navigate the narrow opening hole, a par 5 with out of bounds on one side and a creek crossing the fairway. As we played the second hole, I could tell my short game was solid, as usual. By the third hole, I was warmed up, though I did manage to lose one brand new golf ball on a terrible drive that ballooned into the woods; I bogeyed the hole anyhow. I cobbled together a good front nine--a few pars, a couple of scrambling bogeys, topped off by a chip-in birdie on the par 5 ninth hole. I stepped to the 10th tee feeling great.
The new 10th hole is what used to be the first hole on the course. It's where my golfing career had begun years ago when my best friend's father had handed me a 3 wood and told me not to swing it like a baseball bat. I wondered if this might be the right time for my game to fall apart. I hadn't hit a bad drive since the 3rd hole of the day. I was due.
What I remembered as a dusty, long hole with a brown ditch running the length of the right side and a stand of battered trees next to the tee had grown into a beautiful driving hole--a wide open expanse of fluffy fairway that was still bright green even in late December.
My tee shot was a beauty, a climbing line-drive that followed the left side of the fairway before settling with a fade right into the middle. It's a very long par 4, but as I approached my ball I could see no reason not to aim right at the green. Solid contact with a 5 wood would surely get me there.
I'd done a pretty good job of keeping the mechanical voices out of my head. But as I settled in over my ball with my 5 wood, something strange happened. I started thinking back to the first time I'd ever played the hole, remembering countless whacks at the ball and the amazement that I couldn't do it very well. Mechanical thoughts crept in. As a took the club back, I thought keep it low, turn, relax, turn, weight shift...
The club slammed down into the ground several inches behind the ball, taking a massive, ugly divot and sending the ball scooting down the hole only 80 yards. You're not supposed to take a big divot with a 5 wood, but I'd done just that; I hit the worst shot I would hit all day by far. A 4 iron and a good chip later and I'd bogeyed the hole, still a score I was not unhappy with.
But was it a fluke? Or had I actually reverted back to my old golf game? Judging by the rest of my round, it was an aberration, but it did happen at a peculiar moment. Were the golf gods laughing a little and offering a lesson in humility?
All I know is the next voice I heard was my own: Don't think. Just play.