The Mysterious Game of Golf
Golf, like any sport, is multidimensional in nature, with the dimensions increasing in proportion to one’s proficiency at the game. The better you are the harder the game seems, as the margins for error diminish and opportunities for improvement move beyond swing mechanics and into the realms of socialization, inner play and expression.
One of the more obvious facts about golf is that it has become a vehicle for social interaction between people. Players gather together in weekly foursomes or leagues. Annual outings attract large numbers and all types of players. Even the weekday single can join a group and enjoy a round with new acquaintances. It is this collective recreational aspect that offers an interesting paradox – an individual sport played with a group.
It has been said that you can tell a lot about a person by playing a round of golf with him or her. Are they fun or serious? Do they get mad or take it all in stride? Are they good company? It is an interesting forum to observe human behavior while trying to manage one’s own; not to mention attempting to play this most difficult of games to a level sufficient to avoid embarrassment and ridicule from your playing partners. Go to any golf course, public or private, and you can see a wide range of players and the psyches they inhabit. At the surface, you see their athletic ability and hand/eye coordination. Beneath it you can peer into their self-confidence, their viewpoint and their personality in a surprisingly holistic way. Golf is a social game played under psychological duress. Peer pressure and the ability to hold one’s own being paramount in almost every instance.
But while the surrounding psychology can be entertaining, the game still remains the centerpiece of the experience and the activity that must be paid attention to (at least in a cursory fashion) for 18 holes. And what is the nature of that attention? As mentioned, most players it seems are concerned with the outward nature of the game. Score is the lagging indicator of the success or failure of a round, but many leading indicators and symbols of victory are equally important in the minds of many. A booming drive, a holed putt, a crisp iron shot, a birdie (!). These events- and others – remain in the mind of the average player long after the round is completed because they allow him or her to show their companions a little bit of the skill to which they aspire. Playing a round of golf with friends can be a fun and healthy exercise, but relishing those special moments in a subtly competitive round elevates the experience to a psychological high. These moments, as they say, are what bring golfers back to play another day.
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Mindfulness meditation is a practice whereby the participant focuses attention on the breath and takes in all that surrounds him or her. The object is to be fully aware of one’s surroundings while being totally aware of the present moment. The practice is designed to discard the thoughts of the past and stop concerning oneself with what might happen next. The present – what is happening at that very minute- is the only reality. In the words of meditation teacher Jack Kornfeld, “the past is history, the future is just fantasy”. And at it’s best mindfulness relieves stress and affords the practitioner a clear and focused state of mind and a positive outlook on one’s existence.
Played carefully, golf offers the player the opportunity to practice and achieve a meditative effect while still interacting with others and enjoying all of the social benefits the game brings. The very rhythm of the game encourages this. Shots are played individually with long periods in between while players maneuver to their ball for the next one. It is this juxtaposition of short periods of focus followed by longer periods of downtime that brings the mindful player into view. Consider the playing of a shot – a period of about 30-40 seconds. Many average players use that time to review their swing mechanics, think about what their playing partners are saying about him or her, or any number of infinite variations. By contrast, the mindful player uses that 30-40 second period to think only about the shot at hand. Surrounding information is absorbed – the lie, the wind, the target, etc. – and brings a relaxed focus to the only reality that is on hand, that being the playing of that particular shot. A pre-shot routine is executed and the ball is hit. Once the shot is completed, the player can soften their focus and enjoy a period of interaction and camaraderie if they so choose as they proceed to their ball. Once there the process repeats itself and the player again gets inside the shot and embraces the next present reality they face. The mindful player has broken up his or her round into a series of meditations that bring about an approach that is not about the result, but rather about the process of playing golf in a clear and focused manner.
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One of the key facets of mindful golf is the process of shot planning and selection. As the player approaches the ball, it becomes clear that each time there are circumstances and situations that have to be dealt with individually and effectively. New data is absorbed and an assessment needs to be made as to how to execute the shot that has the highest probability of success. It is this process that offers the player an opportunity for self expression and brings into focus the level of confidence one has and, as mentioned earlier, the psychology of peer pressure.
In a perfect world, he conception of a shot should be directly proportional to the skill level of the player. He or she must make a realistic assessment of their repertoire and make the choice that makes sense given the reality of the moment. While physical data must be taken into account, the astute player will also assess their inner state as a key ingredient of the successful shot – namely, are they nervous or relaxed? As an example, one of the important variables to consider under these circumstances is club selection. The player has the choice of 14 clubs and while conventional wisdom may dictate a certain club for a certain yardage, the full range of data (both physical and psychological) may point to an unconventional play and ball flight. By conceiving the correct holistic approach, the aesthetic player not only has the opportunity to hit a pleasing shot, but also can show their skill and essential nature of their personality to their playing partners, thus creating that satisfying moment that lingers like a beautiful summer evening after the round.
Golf is a beautiful game that is enhanced by its multiple dimensions; social, meditative and aesthetic. Participation in any one of these can bring satisfaction and pleasure to any player, but incorporating all 3 can provide a lasting joy and lifelong fascination to this most mysterious of games.