A week or so ago, I came across this video on Twitter. It was Golf Digest, Senior Editor, Peter Morrice, trying to explain the concepts behind Dustin Johnson’s pre-shot routine. It was completely unmemorable because it was an attempt at a visual exposition of an intellectual concept. It’s Morrice standing on a foggy South Carolina golf course tee, speaking, holding his driver and gesturing down range. Ho hum.
It wasn’t until last night that I learned why he tried. I was leafing through the hardcopy April 2011 issue and came across Johnson’s checklist in a little sidebar on page 20. It was so good that I immediately thought about what a great embellishment it would make on the end of yesterday’s post on Ian Baker-Finch.
On the eve of his Champions Tour debut, I had encouraged him to “just play.” He knows what that means: see the shots in the air and then hold those shots in your mind’s eye as you swing. No debilitating swing thoughts! The magic of the body will concoct a way to match reality with the vision. It’s almost miraculous.
Obviously it’s much easier to do when you have a well-grooved Tour swing, but the concept can work even with less-practiced swings. In the beginning, it merely takes trust, and most important, experiencing what that trust feels like. Divorced from ball-and-chain swing thoughts, it almost makes you giddy.
It begins first by practicing being able to hold your shot in mind while you swing. Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Going For It! A Spiritual Adventure on the Champions Tour. It describes my very first tee shot in my very first Q-School:
The club started back by itself, the ball remained very still and clear. My body wound tightly to the top of the backswing…and then seamlessly began to unwind, all sequentially hurtling back to that golf ball in an athletic ballet with the single-minded purpose of bashing it from its still indifference into an exact replica of the perfect vision I was tenuously clinging to in my mind.
I never felt the club hit the ball, but I heard its unmistakable, perfect crack and as my head was pulled up along the target line, I looked up into the gentle morning sky to see my dreams come true…not only for that shot, but for all it suggested about the possibility of the next shot, the next hole, the round and the tournament.
I have no idea how that ball got that high, that far and that straight and by the time I recognized its brilliance, I had just the briefest of moments to enjoy it before it fell back to earth in the right center of the fairway.
It was miraculous.
That’s the mind state you want to end up in. When you first try to get your mind on the shot and not the swing, the body may recoil in distrust. You may find that you’ll initially have a lot of mishit shots. It’s a good reason to practice this on the range and not the course until your body learns to trust that it can just let go. Switch targets frequently so that your mind stays engaged.
This is very subtle stuff. You have to really pay attention. You may start out with your mind on the shot, but in your follow-through pose, realize that you ended up thinking about your swing anyway. So it will take as many reps at this as it does when you’re working on your swing mechanics.
It would help to begin small on, say, 30 or 40 yard pitch shots. Imagine the trajectory and carry of the shot and see if you can hold that in your mind as you make that little swing. Since that “little swing” is a microcosm of the “big swing,” gradually work your way up to full-speed swings…and then take it to the course. It takes trust and it takes awareness of where your mind is through the swing. This is why Tour players sometimes come off the course mentally exhausted from trying to stay so focused for an entire round. This is what they’re “doing.”
The reason I re-discovered the video is because that was all that was on the website; the only place I could find the actual Johnson checklist was in the hardcopy magazine. So here it is:
Don’t Overload Yourself. I can’t think about a bunch of technical things before I hit a shot. I’m not sure anybody can. I have one or two swing keys that I go with, but I’m definitely not focusing on them in the few seconds before I swing.
Focus On The Target. I’ll think of those keys…but by the time I’m in my stance, all I’m doing is picturing the shot and where I want it to go. It’s a specific picture, too: how high, how much it curves, where it’ll land and where it’ll end up. That’s my only “swing thought.”
Keep It Positive. I realize that’s way easier to say than necessarily do, but expecting a good shot actually produces more of them. You pretty much have a choice to think positively or negatively, and too many golfers think of the negative. Or, as I said, the mechanics.
Exhale And Let It Go. The longer you stand over the ball, the more bad things can happen. You tense up and get less athletic. You lose the picture of the shot you want to hit, and doubt and pressure start to get in your head. See your shot, step in, exhale and let it go. That’s what I do.
Words to play by. And since Baker-Finch doesn’t go off until 12:24 (Pacific) today and there’s still a chance he might read this, just play, Finchy. Just play.