The central theme of this blog is mastery; mastery as it relates to golf specifically and life generally (because how you do anything is how you do everything).
The central tenant of golf mastery is to approach the game with a calm, clear and present mind that allows you to pay attention to what’s occurring in the moment; what’s actually happening. What’s actually happening in all the disparate skills required of you and the circumstances you find yourself in.
In “About This Zone Thing,” and later, “Looking Into Consciousness,” I detailed the bifurcated nature of human beings: the spiritual essence with which we arrive and the labyrinthine ego structure that we erect on that essence. That ego formation is the result of life as we find it and how we choose to react to it.
In some competitive situations, ego can be a constructive thing. If you become convinced that you are the best golfer in the match, that edge can be helpful in winning the day. But notwithstanding your convictions, if the tide of the match begins to turn and you begin to doubt yourself, that’s the destructive side of the ego.
Essence, on the other hand, is that purest form of our existence where that nucleus is bigger than and independent from what we happen to think about it. When you are in the zone, you’re not thinking about it, you’re just there. All of your senses are sharper and all distractions fade to the margins of your awareness. The only thing you are attracted to is what you’re doing in the moment.
All of this came up because Rory McIlroy was asked some very specific questions about the zone in his media session Wednesday at the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick just outside of Indianapolis. And he had some very pertinent things to say about it. And as someone who won two majors by eight strokes, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, he’s about as good a person to get a report from the front as there is in the game right now.
It began with a familiar question about how he finds another gear when the heat is on:
It seems like when you — you have this gear that you can go to in events — we saw it last weekend [at the Deutsche Bank], we saw it at the PGA, we saw it at Congressional — where you can kind of put your foot on the gas and begin to leave people behind you. What is it? What’s the key for you in moments like that, where you feel like you’re firing on all cylinders? Mentally where are you at when those kind of rounds happen?
I think the most important thing when that does happen, you have to realize it’s happening and just get out of your own way and just completely just play one shot at a time. Obviously you’re hitting the ball well, you’re just trying to hit it in the fairway, hit it on the green, hole the putt, go to the next hole, do it all over again. That’s what you’re trying to do.
There’s some weeks where golf does seem as simple as that, and when you’re on like that, it’s obviously a great feeling. It’s very difficult to play like that all the time, and that’s why it’s the great players, they learn to win when they’re not playing their best. That’s something, I’ve said this before, that I still feel like I’m learning to do. I think I sort of did that for a little bit of last week. I struggled to close out the tournament, but a couple of crucial up‑and‑downs on the way in, which helped, and that’s what the great players do; they find a way.
This last part, “they find a way,” speaks to willfulness, the ability to will yourself across the finish line. But the only reason that happens is because you’re operating from essence where all your attention is distilled down to the matter at hand and you “just get our of your own way,” as McIlroy says. It seems like you’re willing it to happen, but it’s more like you’re allowing it to happen.
When you’re in that state, you may look like a zombie on the outside, but on the inside all you experience is calm, expansive, unfettered clarity. As you get ready to hit the 30-foot chip shot you’re trying to make, you see everything about the lie, the nuance of how the blades of grass are lying. You see the grain in the green without the need for a checklist to look at it. You see the break on the green like you see the lines in the fender of a fine car; it’s an aesthetic rather than a calculation. And the cup is a magnet that you almost can’t take your eyes off of.
When you see all of those things, experience all those things, that is more powerful than your ego telling you to be careful. Being careful is when you have dropped out of the zone. McIlroy speaks to that in this answer to a Ryder Cup question, the Ryder Cup being just three weeks away.
I just wanted to ask you about the Ryder Cup. I’m just curious about your first one in Wales. A lot of guys have talked about the pressure being more than they’ve ever experienced, the atmosphere. I’m curious if it was like that for you, if it was more than you expected, and if there’s even an anecdote or anything you remember about how you might have reacted to your first go and maybe the first day.
Yeah. I think the thing about the Ryder Cup is that it brings a completely different pressure than you face week in, week out, because if you play badly, it’s all you. You’re only letting down yourself. You’re not letting down your teammates or your captain or your country or anyone else. It just brings its own pressures. You’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for a whole lot of different reasons.
That’s something we’re not quite used to doing, and it’s something I struggled with at the last Ryder Cup. The first day I was so tight, I was so tentative, I was just trying not to make mistakes instead of going out there and free‑wheeling it, especially in the fourball where you’re out there and just trying to make birdies. I’m sort of tense and tight, and once I freed up and started to play my own game, everything was fine. But that’s the thing that I really felt; I was just trying to be so — I was just trying not to make any mistakes but realize the best way to play in the Ryder Cup is just play the way you do when you play for yourself. And if you do that, you try and win as many points for the team as possible, and that’s all you can do.
I wanted to go back to what you were talking about, the feeling when you’re separating yourself from the field. Byron Nelson used to call it a trance; for years it’s been called a zone. Can you talk about what that feels like? You mentioned you realize that you’re in the midst of it. Are there times that you say, oh, my God, I’m in this, or is it an unconscious/subconscious thing?
I think it’s more of a subconscious thing. But yeah, you can call it a trance or you can call it getting in the zone. For me, I just — you’re just very confident. You’ve got total self‑belief. You’re hitting it at your target, you’re hitting it close to the pins. You’re seeing every putt go in. It’s just like all aspects of your game are fully on. Sometimes all aspects of your game are fully on but you get in your own way and you start to thinking about it too much and you start to talk yourself out of it, whereas when you’re mentally in a great place, you just go with it and keep it going.
I’ve been able to do that a couple of times. Fortunately those couple of times have been in major championships and I’ve ended up winning them by quite a margin. Hopefully I continue to do that.
But yeah, I mean, there’s been a few guys that have been able to do it in the past, and I’m happy that I’m one of them.
But you know, again, I don’t care if I win by one like last week or if I win by eight like Kiawah or Congressional. As long as your name goes on that trophy, that’s all that matters.
The prosecution rests.