Can meditation make you a better golfer? Yes . . . eventually
Editor's Note: In contention at the 2021 PGA Championship, Phil Mickelson has referenced how his meditation practice has helped his golf. This story was first published in 2018.
A few months ago Golf Digest set out to answer a question almost as old as the game itself: does alcohol make you play better, or worse? The experiment and resulting video with three too-eager participants, was illuminating, comical, and fairly conclusive: a little bit of “swing oil” has some residual benefits owing to a decrease in tension and inhibition. Too much, however, leads to deteriorating focus and coordination, and then you just stop caring about advancing the ball at all.
A subsequent experiment with marijuana yielded similar results: some weed might take the edge off and loosen up your swing, but anything more than a little becomes counterproductive.
That brings us to our recent experiment exploring the effects of meditation, structured like the first two, but also plenty unique. Here, too, we submitted three golfers of varying playing ability to a series of golf tests while interspersing the influence of an outside element—beers and tokes became 15 minutes of meditation. The difference is that while meditation does induce some immediate physiological effects and boasts several long-term health benefits, we’re still talking about a rather nuanced exercise that is difficult to quantify. And if you really wanted to measure it well, best to do it over a few months instead of a couple of hours.
Still, a few hours is what we started with one day this summer, and I, along with colleagues Keely Levins and Ben Walton, was selected as one of three golfers who would spend the day hitting golf shots and meditating to see what type of difference we'd see. Although Keely and Ben had limited experience with meditation, I’d recently begun dabbling in no small part because mindfulness, as it’s also known, has been hailed as perhaps the best way to temper the freneticism of our modern lives. And no doubt I was a worthy candidate: a digital editor who spends his days tethered to one electronic device or another, a father of two high-energy boys, and someone who can overthink everything from family dynamics to what club to hit off the tee. As I said in the video, I first told my wife that I thought meditation would help because, “I run pretty hot during the day.”
“No,” she corrected me. “You run hot all the time.”
So in terms of how a few minutes of meditation a day can calm the mind and harness focus, I was already sold. What I hadn’t explored, and what we sought to discover that day, was how it might affect one’s performance on the golf course. Plus, we saw it as an opportunity to debunk misconceptions about meditation — what exactly it is, what you do, and why it might mesh well with the mental and emotional demands of golf.
The day was broken into segments of three different golf challenges—driving for distance, approach shot accuracy, and putting—followed by brief sessions with meditation teacher Jonni Pollard. Pollard is the founder of a meditation app, 1 Giant Mind, and a personal mentor to a roster of clients that includes corporate executives and professional golfers. With a clean-shaven head, an Australian accent, and an affable manner, he spent the day convincing us of the ways meditation can not only help us think clearer on the golf course, but at work and home as well.
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Among Pollard’s central arguments is that for all our technological progress, the human body has remained virtually unchanged from man’s earliest days fending off regular physical threats, which is why we process stress the same whether it’s an unpleasant email or a bear attack. This disconnect between how we live now, and the biological constraints of our bodies and brains, can explain why we often feel scattered so much of the time, and why even the mundane stresses of everyday life can elicit profound physical reactions.
“This is the little glitch in our system,” Pollard said. “We are entrenched in a dysfunctional state of defensive living because the way we’re living now is so far removed from how we’ve biologically evolved.”
What does this have to do with our ability to hit a drive in the fairway? Plenty, actually, because the same forces that leave us feeling frequently disjointed also factor into our performance on the course.
Almost every golfer has to negotiate the chasm between the shots he’s capable of producing, and the those he actually hits. We’re too quick, we’re too distracted, we’re worried about the pond on the left—when the result falls short of our potential, it often emanates from somewhere between the ears. By contrast think about the time you mindlessly hit a shot on the range and it soars perfectly off the clubface; or when you rake in a conceded putt from afar without even trying, and it rolls straight into the hole. It’s precisely because you “weren’t thinking” that it worked out so well.
This, Pollard said, this is where meditation can make a difference.
“What it does is it hits factory restart and restores our natural capability,” Pollard said. “Our natural capability is there and we need to allow it to be there, so what is the thing that’s inhibiting it? From my perspective it’s the hyper stimulation of the thinking mind.”
Which is not to say that each meditation session sets you on a path to a truer golf swing. Not exactly at least. As the afternoon unfolded, my driver carry improved, but my approach shots were looser, and my putting stayed about the same. To think of meditation as some type of performance enhancer in deep-breathing form is to misinterpret the underlying machinations at work. As Pollard said, when you meditate for 20 minutes, focusing on your breath or a mantra and allowing outside elements to recede into the background, it’s similar to doing a set of bench presses at the gym. The act itself may make you stronger, but it’s really repetition and time that allows the effects to take hold
“The conversations I like to have when talking about meditation is one, it’s really wonderful to alleviate short term the symptoms of stress,” Pollard says. “But also it creates the internal infrastructure for us to be able to become resilient in this life, rather than feel like life is taxing you.”
Beyond technical improvement, what we really detected was an underlying sense of calm, noteworthy on what could have been a stressful day. Although Keely played college golf, Ben and I were not used to the strain of having every shot measured so precisely. Throw a handful of cameras and a crew of about 10 into the equation, and under normal circumstances I’d question if I could even draw the club back. But after each session with Pollard we began to mind the attention less, and distractions subsided.
“It became easier to be over the shot,” said Keely. “I had this odd sense of detachment to where it was going, like I didn’t want to look at the result. Not every shot was great, but there was some freedom and ease in not feeling painfully invested in how straight my drives were flying.”
This is what Pollard means when he describes the “infrastructure” meditation helps construct. Scientific studies of meditation have shown that the practice strengthens the pre-frontal cortex portion of the brain responsible for concentration, focus and problem solving while shrinking the amygdala section that triggers our panicky “fight or flight” response. So even though I didn’t hit the ball markedly better that day, the ingredients were all there to do so—I was more focused, less fatigued, not nearly as wrapped up in the shot I just hit or the one still to come.
And therein lies the real breakthrough, because golf is nothing if not an opportunity for self-sabotage. You start a round poorly, you stress over wanting to play better. You start out playing well, you wonder how long it will last. Pollard and other meditation experts like to say that the practice improves “present moment awareness,” which is a variation of the old golf cliche of “taking it one shot at a time.” Roll your eyes if you must, but think about how much easier the game would be if your mind were free of competing narratives and you just played.
Our Max Adler played a round of golf last year with Sadghuru Jaggi Vasudev, a spiritual leader with millions of followers and a surprising affection for golf. Adler attended one of the guru's workshops to better understand how Eastern practices like meditation can translate to athletic performance. Sadghuru, too, emphasized the value of getting out of your head.
“People trip on their own minds,” Sadghuru said. “They need to create a little distance between what they think and what they do."
So, to get back to the original question: Does meditation help you become a better golfer? The short answer is yes. The longer answer might be encapsulated by an experience from a few weeks after our session with Pollard, when I developed a wicked case of the shanks.
For about 10 days in the heart of the golf season, I had a hard time hitting an iron or wedge without the ball screaming off the hosel right into some unspeakable place. Golfers who’ve experienced the dynamic know no more maddening affliction, and in the grips of it, I couldn’t hit a simple 30-yard pitch without panicking. Then I recalled an exercise we learned with Pollard for right before address. We’d stand behind the ball, place both hands on the grip of the club, and take in a deep breath before proceeding. For an entire round, I did this over every shot —a mini-meditation session that attempted Pollard’s version of “factory restart.” My head clearer, my breath slower, the panic receded, and solid contact soon returned.
So if you’re asking, no, I don’t think you can measure the efficacy of mediation by saying it will drop this number of strokes from your score. But what I have noticed is that it can work to flush out our worst instincts—both on the course and everywhere else. I, for one, need all the help I can get.