The Escalator

Somewhere mid-round in the UBS Hong Kong Open this morning, I was watching Ian Poulter on the tee with his driver. He was trying to settle in to begin his swing. Just as he was getting ready to pull the trigger, a cameraman’s shutter went off and completely disrupted his focus.

He immediately backed off his shot, turned in the direction of the unknown cameraman hidden among the cameramen and scolded him in a beseeching tone of voice.

He got back to the matter at hand, settled himself…and then flared his drive out into the right rough, his right hand flying off the club. The whole thing took maybe a minute from scolding to scalding. At least that’s what it looked like to the casual observer.

When you suddenly get yanked out of the zone like that, it takes discipline to gather all the elements that went into creating that lost moment. The problem is that you ordered them all on the way down into the zone and they suddenly become a frenetic jigsaw puzzle that you need to reconstruct. Not to mention waiting for the sound of another shutter when you weren’t even thinking about it before.

Here’s an excerpt for my forthcoming book, Going For It! A Spiritual Adventure on the Champions Tour, where I describe how the same thing happened to me on my very first tee shot in my very first Q-School in San Diego:

My three-hour, tournament-morning routine, from when to get up to arriving on the first tee, swept me inexorably to the first tee…

It was a classic, Southern California, sun-drenched morning. By my 9:30 tee time, that seductive gentle warmth that ensnares most who experience it had completely replaced the early morning crispness. There wasn’t a breath of wind. I could not believe how perfect everything was…down to the smell of the fresh, perfectly cut grass.

As my name and home town was announced to the gallery and disaster fans around the first tee, I teed my ball up and imagined the same, perfect, high-arcing shot I had hit over and over again as I had played the hole in my mind. I took a gentle practice swing feeling the integration of a perfect swing, the sequence of a perfect swing, the fewest-number-of-moving-parts perfect swing, the target-riveted perfect swing.

I was ready.

With a simultaneous waggle of the club, I stepped to the ball with my right foot to begin to take my stance. Seamlessly, my left foot followed and my head rotated from the positioning of my feet up the fairway to look at…what!…my fellow competitor’s very large caddie in an electric blue jumpsuit waiting on the cart path next to the tee-shot landing area.

Shocked from the warm, fuzzy cocoon of my pre-shot routine, I immediately stepped away from the ball. To those watching, it probably looked very cool and professional. To me, it was jolting. Here I was trying to anchor my swing with a real-time vision in my mind’s eye of the middle of the lush green fairway and all I could see was blue!…on a direct line into the marsh. (Whatever you do, don’t think of pink elephants!) I raised my right arm and waved the caddie behind a tree so that I couldn’t see him.

But my pacing had been disturbed and I was struck with a schizophrenic ambivalence. On the one hand, everything up to the jolt had been so completely perfect and I was anxious to take advantage of the moment. On the other, I suddenly felt out of synch, unready and wanting to go back to the driving range to hit some more practice tee shots.

I felt trapped…like you feel as you get to the top of the first roller coaster incline; you know you want to go for the ride, but you’re wondering what piece of flawed logic got you there in the first place and you can’t wait for that first heart-stopping drop to be over. I knew I had no choice but to gather myself somehow, step up again and hit the shot.

I ended up fumbling my way back through my pre-shot routine to a great tee shot, but over the years, that wasn’t always reliable. So I came up with another idea that I like a lot.

In seeking ways to become a better player, I worked with an intuitive who used guided meditations as a way to clarify your thinking. From a relaxed state, she would slowly talk me down a short flight of stairs onto a landing. On the landing, there was a door. Walking through the door would trigger a connection with your higher consciousness and the work would begin. But you were, “in the zone,” on the landing.

So now when I have those abrupt “yanks” out of tranquility, if I find that I can’t immediately get re-centered, I imagine myself on an escalator gliding back down to the ball. I like the imagery because of the smooth, inexorable movement taking you somewhere rather than leaving you frozen in place with your thoughts. The escalator is enveloping because it’s such a hefty piece of machinery and blocks out extraneous distractions. Just like in the department store, while you may look around a little, your attention keeps being drawn to the landing.

It helps, of course, to be familiar with that state of mind of being settled over a shot just before you hit it because the escalator is taking you back to that. But even if you’re not, surrendering to the inevitability of the escalator ride will be very helpful in learning how to turn away from distractions. Have a nice ride.

Oh, and the only difference between Poulter and me is that my round blew up on the eighth hole and he went on to shoot a bogey-free 64…on top of the bogey-free 67 in the first round…on top of the spectacular, bogey-free 60 in the second round. A 60! But aside from those three things, that’s it.

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