This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Going For It!: A Spiritual Adventure on the Champions Tour:
I was playing a practice round in Park City, Utah, with another qualifier who could hit the ball prodigious distances. He was a fit man of solid mass who could seemingly effortlessly sail the ball past most everyone I had seen out there.
We were playing a par-5 that played straight off the tee and then turned right around a small pond and went on up the mountain to the green. If you could shave it by the pond, you had a pretty reasonable chance to get to the green in two shots even though it played uphill.
And even though I forewarned him, he put his first shot into the pond. “Oh, I didn’t know the pond was there,” he fudged, as if to say, “It wasn’t my fault, I didn’t know it was there.” He re-teed another ball and his second shot was the soaring perfection we had come to expect from him.
As we strolled off the tee towards our golf carts, the rest of us were congratulating him on the accomplishment of the second tee shot, exhorting him to keep hitting the ball that way—not the way he had hit the first one.
And then, in a quiet, tortured tone of voice, he uttered a rhetorical question that let me know that, in my inquiry into mastery, I was on the right track, “Yeah, but what do you do with the fear?”
It was one of the most intelligent questions I heard during the entire quest and my immediate instinct to engage him in that conversation was interrupted by our arrival at our respective carts…and his macho-ignorant “friend” who made fun of him for even wondering, as if this fifty-year-old man was some sissy schoolboy taunted because he wouldn’t “stand up and be a man.” It made me sad and wistful that this possible opening for him, this opportunity to come to know himself better, had been crushed by his thoughtless friend.
But in his wondering was a certain validation of my own feelings: if a seemingly great player like him could be inhibited by his fear, then perhaps it was okay for me too.
This incident came back to me today because of a conversation I was having with a naked psychiatrist. Actually, we were both naked. We had just finished out workouts at our fitness center here at Desert Mountain and I was inquiring about the nature of his practice that he had retired from.
And then, between the mouthwash and Q-Tips and hairdryers and body lotion (a must in the desert), it came around to my nine-year Monday qualifying experiences. And he asked me what it had been like. And I said that what you learn in the end is how to come to terms with your fear.
And I remember, standing there naked with the naked psychiatrist, pleased with how easily the word “fear” came to me. I had come a long way.
Nobody wants to admit to fear, certainly not in the macho world of professional golf (or the equally competitive ladies’ tours). To do so would be a tell — like a poker tell, a facial expression or physical movement that tips the other players to your weak or, equally useful, strong hand.
We think that to admit fear is to expose a vulnerability and risk the chiding my fellow competitor received from his friend in Park City. Or risk giving a fellow competitor a competitive edge.
So we call it nervousness instead. “Yeah, I was just a little nervous on the first tee.” Or, “Yeah, the nerves got me. I just couldn’t shake that last putt in on 18.”
But the thing about calling it nervousness instead of fear is that that’s just a coping mechanism to hold the fear at bay rather than to get closer to it…rather than to confront it. Because confronting it on any other terms but your own is a threat to the ego.
As we’ve been discussing at this blog, the ego is the facade we construct on our spiritual essence in response to our human experience of the world. The ego is protective, our essence is fearlessly expressive. Why? Because essence, certain of its spiritual connection to everyone and everything, has nothing to be afraid off.
Just one time in the early days of my Monday qualifying when I finally got to the crux of the matter, when a fellow competitor introduced himself on the first tee and asked me how I was doing, I’d liked to have been bold enough to respond, “You know I’m scared to death. My breath is too shallow and I feel this tingling all bunched up in my shoulders. My arms feel weak and my legs are slightly trembling.”
That would have broken the ice. That would have drawn the fear out in the open, put it on the table for all to see. No more lurking in the shadows. No more unexamined personal issues. You confessed to the world and you’re still alive! In fact, you’re more alive! Alive with the giddiness that comes from shackles being lifted.
Why? Because when you’re caught up in your fear, you can’t give all of your attention to your target, to your shot, and the second and a half of peace that it takes to hold all of that in your mind.
But when the fear is at least sublimated in the moment, that’s where the best golf comes from.
Then the only thing you have to do from there is beware of naked psychiatrists.