Detached Certainty

I received a very thoughtful comment in response to yesterday’s post, “Even They Don’t Know.” If you missed it, the post was basically about the mystery of mastery and some players apparent reluctance to explore those mysteries. The reader wrote:

We talk about the “Golf Gods” when we’re out there on the course, warn ourselves not to tempt them. I thought of this as you discussed champions not wanting to scratch the surface of the “how” of their winning ways. Maybe there’s more to those gods than idle chatter and superstition, by which I mean maybe notoriously winning golfers really are Zen-like masters who integrate their minds and bodies in mystical-seeming ways…Query if one of the keys to that secret is to revere it and not talk about it.

There was one transcendent hole in Tampa I remember from my Monday qualifying days. It was a par-5 with a slow boomerang curl to the right around a lake. The architect gave you plenty of room off the tee, but anything in the center of the fairway took away any chance of going across the lake to reach the green in two; you had to be on the right edge.

Fortunately, I’d been playing pretty well and had a number of practice rounds under my belt. So by the time Monday came around, I hopped up on the tee with no other thought in my mind but going for the green in two. I speared that drive into the perfect place in the right-side fairway undulations and they veered the ball a little closer to the hole yet. It was a completely fearless shot. I was so engrossed in it that I don’t even remember reacting to it: that’s what it was supposed to do wasn’t it?

The second shot was all carry across the lake to an elevated green with the look of a fortress. The front bunker would be a good place to be if you missed the green. The ball jumped off of my 5 wood in a towering arc headed straight for the flag…hung in the sky forever…and came down in the front bunker for an easy up and down birdie.

I hit a lot of good shots during my Monday qualifying days—I wouldn’t have spent nine years out there otherwise—but these two are the ones that keep flashing back in my mind. And over time, I realize that the reason wasn’t because of the majesty of the shots, it was the complete state of detached certainty.

Detached certainty requires no courage because there is no fear. It requires no great deliberation because the circumstances on the ground make it obvious what to do. The shot becomes inseparable from the swing, a natural extension of your body’s motion. And to that extent, it is a Zen-like experience, a state of consciousness that is as placid as it is sharp.

But because of the whir of our human machinery, detached certainty is as elusive as it sublime. And even then, you don’t recognize how sublime it is until you’ve come back to operating-in-the-world consciousness.

So I know from personal experience that this state of mind is attainable. I know that it is an amalgam of swing technique, practice, playing and, for competitive players, playing in tournaments. I know that the swing technique does not need to be flawless, it only has to reliably hit the ball at a target on the intended line and trajectory. I know that practice is where you breed familiarity with the swing motion, but playing is where the true test is and that practicing playing is much better than practicing golf swings.

I know that, with experience, there is still a nervous flutter at the beginning of the round, but that it disappears once a good shot ratifies all that you know about your talent as a golfer. And it is relevant everywhere on the golfers’ food chain. You can shoot the best 85 you ever did in that state of detached certainty that you will.

I know that once you become an adult, you lose “that kid in you,” where you played with freedom, fun and without a care. And I know that most people have to do some sort of plumbing of their depths—however deep, however shallow—to get that back, to know themselves as a human being. And that that knowledge orders the way you think about your play. If you know you’re impatient, you can practice playing with patience. If you know you get angry at yourself, you can begin to explore if that really works for you. LPGA Tour player Angela Stanford said that it does for her, but that she now knows where her red line is. So it’s mostly about coming to know yourself. For example, I never knew that I was a fearful person until I began Monday qualifying and realized that my feelings went beyond “just nerves.”

And once you have all of that together: a swing at whatever level, playing experience at whatever level and an understanding of who you are—is that really ever possible? I think you can get pretty close—then you have a chance at playing in detached certainty.

So while it’s certainly fun and a release to blame our human frailties on the Golf Gods, beyond that is just another disempowering superstition. It deprives us of our certainty that we can know our games and ourselves at some deeper level, the key to everything. If you seriously plumb those depths often enough, you will learn that getting to that Zen-like state is replicable, and, looking back, is far easier to access than could be imagined standing on this side of the consciousness curtain. It just takes practice, even when results are imperfect. 

I wouldn’t ever want to give that glorious accomplishment up to the Golf Gods. It would be a capitulation, a diminution of all we human beings are and what we’re capable of.

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