Michael Thompson: Learning to Be True to Himself

Michael Thompson won his first PGA Tour event at last week’s Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

And by virtue of that, he was launched into the top-50 players in the world going from 114th to 45th. And that got him into this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at the TPC Blue Monster at Doral in Miami, Florida.

One of the things that happens to you when you win is that you get invited to the media center the following week. The four choices of Wednesday’s player interviews were: Tiger, Phil, Rory and Michael Thompson. Of the four of them, I thought Thompson had the most to say from a mastery point of view. 

Here, for example, he talks about what he did on Monday, the day after his win, and how he didn’t really celebrate, his routine didn’t change very much and he remains true to his personal compass:

The last few days, obviously still probably sinking in what happened over the weekend, but have you got a lot of text messages, whatever, and have you gotten back to work right away or did you take a little time to celebrate?

Well, maybe not really to celebrate.  I took a time just to rest, just kind of get my feet back under me.  There’s a lot of adrenaline running, final round of an event, when you’re in contention, and if you win, just for me, this is the first time experiencing all the hoopla and the fans coming up to me nonstop.  I’ve never had that.

Really, I think we got down here Sunday night and went, fell asleep at 12:30, and I woke up at 6:30 just out of a habit.  So used to getting up early and I think I’ve been the first tee time twice already this year.  Just used to waking up early.

But Monday, my wife and I went to a coin laundry, did our laundry.  That goes right back to my days on the Hooters Tour.  Just got to get stuff done in order to prepare for next week.  Actually watched the coverage Monday afternoon and sat in the hotel room and relaxed a little bit, which was nice, and actually got to go out to dinner with Bubba Watson that night, which was cool [and we learn later, are two unlikely peas in a pod].

You know, just enjoying meeting new people, new players, getting to share my experience.  A lot of guys have been very happy for me and I’m thrilled to kind of be part of the guys now, part of the group, as a PGA Tour winner.  So it’s very special for me.

But at the same time, my game hasn’t changed, my attitude hasn’t changed.  The way I’m going to go out and play hopefully hasn’t changed.  I just need to go out and be Michael Thompson, and that’s all I can ever do.  And you know, if I make it to the winner’s circle again, so be it.  But if I stay true to myself, then there’s nothing I can regret

Here a conversation that begins about having fun turns into a brilliant exposition on how to find your way out of a slump. It doesn’t begin with the big things like most of us would imagine, it begins with the little things and the big things follow:

On Sunday, you talked about just getting back to playing for fun and playing for yourself.  Rory was in here a few hours ago saying exactly the same thing; that he had fallen victim to these huge expectations.  You guys have different backgrounds, but does it surprise you that you’re dealing with the same thing, and what is it about this game that causes you guys to torture yourselves like that?

Yeah, I’m not surprised at all.  I think I fell victim to that to an extent last year after the U.S. Open [where he finished T2].  I started putting the expectations on myself, started really listening to what everybody was telling me; you’re a great player, you should go out and Top‑10 every week or anything like that.

That puts way too much pressure on ourselves.  Rory is a young guy and he’s got a lot to learn.  I’m still young; I still have plenty to learn, too.  We never know it all.  And I just think that’s part of the process.  It’s part of our journey as professionals and playing this great game, but at the same time, that’s also part of life.

We all go through up‑and‑downs.  When you go through a really big low, it’s really important to just go back to the basics in whatever you do and focus on your core values and the most simple goals you can make and try to achieve those.

As soon as you start to see some accomplishment at a small level, then all the big stuff starts to happen.  And it really starts to happen without you even trying.  And so, you know, I fully expect Rory to get his feet back under him.  I mean, he’s an unbelievable player.  I don’t know, it’s just part of the journey.

Here he talks about what a small step looks like and that cascades into a discussion of the seduction of looking at other players’ swings and the risk in that. And that you are far better off honing and being true to who you are rather than trying to cram yourself into a cookie cutter golfer mold:

So for you, those small steps, was it simply to make the cut last week?  Was that what you went in thinking?

Mm‑hmm, no.  What I mean by small steps, I just wanted to hit the ball solid.  I’m going back to like, you know, I want to swing the club the way I want to.  I want to putt the way I putted my whole life.  And I’ve struggled a lot, since being out on Tour, with trying to be a robot so to speak.

It’s so easy watching guys practice on the driving range and seeing them repeat the same swing over and over and over again, and you know, we don’t really know what’s going through each other’s heads.  But it looks like, you know, some of the greatest ball‑striker’s out here, sometimes they look like robots.  It’s like, well, he’s really good.  If he’s doing that, then I should be doing that.

I realize, and I’ve struggled with this all my career, that I just need to continue to believe in what I do and the way I play golf.  It’s not pretty.  My swing is not the most beautiful swing in the world.  I hit it all over the place.  But I’m a darned good putter, and that’s the one thing I really do believe in myself.  It’s a matter of just going back to what I believe and what has got me to this point.

You know, I think for a guy like Rory, that’s kind of what he has to do, as well.  You know, he’s obviously in a different place than I am, at a different level.  He’s a much better player than I am right now.  But at the same time, I’m not trying to be like Rory McIlroy.  I want to be like Michael Thompson, and if I can find that, then I’m going to really enjoy my career.

Without seeing him in workout attire, it’s hard to know just how fit Thompson is. He certainly isn’t cut like Tiger is, but then he doesn’t think he needs to be. Here he lays out his workout philosophy and it’s short on golf-specific exercise and long on knowing himself and his body.

Can you talk about what workout regimen you do before or after a round, how long?

Well, workouts, I try to work out every day, at least an hour a day, even on tournament rounds.  This past weekend, this past week, it was a little different on the weekend; I haven’t teed off in the afternoon in a long time.

So I typically like to work out after I play, just because I don’t want to fatigue myself before and go out sore and just tired.  And I think it worked; that seemed to pay off.  I didn’t work out Saturday and Sunday.

But tried to just, I don’t know, do something every day, whether it’s cardio or even lifting weights.  For me it’s all general fitness.  I believe that there’s some stuff that you can do golf‑specific, but I think if you have a strong body and can control your body weight so to speak doing pull‑ups and push‑ups and general fitness stuff, you’re going to be well rounded.  That’s kind of what I’ve always believed in.

In this discussion of his coach of 14 years, Susie Meyers, he delves into a true conversation about mastery. Her philosophy begins with learning about how students learn and has evolved into an organic understanding of the golf swing where picking on any one thing — as Rory is now obsessing about the takeaway in his backswing — disturbs the whole of it.

Could you talk a little bit about your coach, Susie Meyers?  I looked her up online and she has a different take on things, big emphasis on the brain.

Susie and I have been working together for 14 years, started working with her when I was basically 14 years old.  The way she teaches is all about feeling the club head and learning just to hit different shots.  The thing that she’s realized, and she’s told me this, over the course of years teaching at Ventana Canyon, which she teaches beginners and just resort go‑ers, that she sees the same people over and over again every year and she’s telling them the exact same thing.

I think a lot of teaching pros have experienced this and Susie realized that there’s some disconnect between what she’s saying and what her pupil is taking in.  And so therefore, if she started studying how the brain learns and how we interpret information and what we hear when we actually hear somebody speak. You know, in golf, there’s a rule for caddies that if you want a player to hit it someplace, you don’t tell them where not to hit it.  If you tell someone don’t go left, all anybody hears is left.  They don’t hear the don’t go.

And therefore, when you’re teaching the golf swing, you have to be very careful with the information you give a player.  Because if you make the golf swing more complicated than it needs to be, our brains can’t function — not function, but can’t put everything that you learn together to create a fluid swing in less than a second.

And she always gives me the analogy:  You take a pizza pie that comes right out of the oven, yeah, somebody says, is it a whole pie. Well, it’s all there.

Take the same pie and cut it up into eight different slices.  Do you still have a whole pie?  No, you have eight individual slices.

That’s what we are doing with the golf swing on camera.  We are taking the whole swing and chopping it up into eight pieces and how can the brain put those pieces together in less than a second; it’s just not possible.

When you teach the way she does, she just teaches me all different kind of shots and gets me to feel the club head and feel different movements so I can be aware of where the club is in my swing.

For me, I’m a feel player.  It works wonderfully.  She knows how to teach me and I think she’s kind of onto something in terms of changing the way we teach in America, which hopefully will be a great way to grow the game and make the game a lot more fun, because as we all know, this is a frustrating game.  We can’t be perfect at it and we can’t rely on a teammate to help us out.  But I think that’s also where a lot of the joy comes from is the personal challenge.

It is human nature to look at video with the intention of finding exceptions to a classic golf swing rather than the exceptional. So rather than nitpicking the exceptions, Susie’s thrust is to take the best of what’s there and try to get it to hit golf shots. Because the way of the ball is the way of the swing. The swing will find its way to hit a certain shot, Bubba Watson being the preemininant current example of that.

So the aversion to the video, that seeing the swing as eight slices of pizza, as opposed to the whole?

Yeah, a lot of what Susie says, when we look at video trying to analyze somebody else’s swing, human nature, we are going to find all the things that are wrong with it.  It’s going to be hard for us to find the things that are good and positive about a golf swing.  And so therefore, looking at a swing on video is more detrimental than it is positive.

But that’s where the importance is of a coach who knows how to teach and knows how to communicate to his or her students, is that they need to have the information, the knowledge to know about the swing, but they also need to know how to deliver enough information to the player to get them to understand what they need to do differently; without telling them all the angles and club positions and all that.

And the best way to do that is to teach people how to hit different kinds of shots, because the ball is the most direct piece of data that we can analyze.  If you move the ball left‑to‑right compared to right‑to‑left, the swing is going to look totally different with the same player.  That’s just the way it is.

Here he expands on Susie’s specific approach to using video and, for his part, it helps him to be less critical of himself:

So how do you know that you have a swing that is not pretty?

I’ve seen my swing on video, and over time, we have learned to look at it in a way that we just make sure that my rhythm is good, and that I’m not swinging the club too long.  One of my problems is I get real long in my swing, and that just throws off all the timing and everything.

So we basically just use it as a check‑up.  She’ll take a video of my swing and we’ll take I think like five seconds to look at it and then we’ll go back to hitting shots.  And she doesn’t draw any [computerized] lines or anything like that [on the screen].  It’s just real simple and actually most of the time, she doesn’t even show me.  She just takes video for her own personal records just to kind of see how I progress over the years.

And it’s really good for me, because then I’m not being too critical of myself.

And this last one was just too good not to include. It seems off-topic because it’s about how he is the first Eagle Scout to win a PGA Tour event. But it delves into how that experience molded him into who he is today. And since who we are is the most fundamental element of who we are as a golfer, it’s an important piece of the equation, “Who is Michael Thompson?”

Michael, as best we can determine, you’re the first Eagle Scout ever to win on the PGA Tour.  Are there any attributes that you can carry over from the amazing accomplishment of becoming an Eagle Scout into the world of professional golf?

Yeah, I think so.  I think the — what is it called, there’s the motto and the — I’ll just go through it.  There’s trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent (laughter) [presumably appreciative].

I think all of those really fall into place with golfers in general and the game of golf.  It’s a game of integrity and a game of honor and it’s a game of kindness and respect for your fellow competitors, as well as the golf course.

I think a lot of that helped train my mind to really value those personality traits and really accept them and make them my own.  Because I think they have a lot of value, not only in golf, but life in general.

You know, I remember when I was scouting, I had to be in leadership positions.  I had to learn to organize people and gear on backpacking trips and so forth.  Those are all just really good life lessons and how to interact with people as well as conduct myself and be respectful and be honest about anything that is going on and definitely carry that over to golf, because if we disrespect the golf course, it’s going to come back to get you.  If we disrespect the other players, it might come back to get you.  And if you lie or cheat, it’s never good.

So I think the Boy Scouts in general is really good for young men to go through, a lot of life lessons and a lot of really fun trips.  I can remember when I was 14, I went on an 80‑mile backpacking trip over 11 days carrying a 50‑pound backpack, I think I weighed 120 pounds.  Stuff I’ll never forget and all part of my child‑raising, growing up to be a man.

When the players get around to hanging a nickname around Thompson’s neck, “Boy Scout” might be interpreted as a veiled pejorative in today’s culture. But shortening it to “Scout” would be a great sign of respect for that accomplishment and, more important, what he stands for as a man.

If somebody asked me.

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