February 19, 2015

For The Love Of Spring

Why those first rounds back are so sweet

First round of the year. You find your clubs and head with your buddies to a soggy local course to do the thing you've been dreaming about for months—play golf.

Your swing thought is pithy: See the ball. Hit the ball. Find the ball. And you play great! Your swing is working effortlessly. You've identified the formula. What a season it's going to be.

Careful. You might be a victim of the "honeymoon round," an actual thing, it turns out.

"It's definitely real," says Tom Ferraro, Ph.D., a psychologist in Williston Park, N.Y., who works with elite athletes. "It involves expectations—there are none, usually. Your body is healthy. The game is fresh and interesting. You have an empty mind, more or less. And then the fun begins. Soreness and stiffness happen. Expectations happen."

Some wise Chinese philosophers explained this long ago. In his new book, Trying Not to Try, Edward Slingerland, Ph.D., a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, describes a state the Daoists and the Confucians called wu-wei (pronounced ooo-way), meaning effortless action or non-doing, which sounds a lot like a honeymoon round. You care, but you're not trying. Good golf is just happening to you.

"Most sports require you to be in wu-wei—relaxed, absorbed, focused but not tense—to be successful," Slingerland says. "But it's particularly important for sports like golf and tennis because they focus on the individual, and so the outside pressure is heavier."

There's also a suddenness to that first round, says sport psychologist Gio Valiante, Ph.D., author of Golf Flow (a kind of Western version of wu-wei). And it can work in your favor. "You're shoved into the present. You're fearful, so your alertness is high, and that's a good thing. No recent history, no past, just present," Valiante says. "It's more target, less thinking, and that's what flow is: not thinking."

A break from playing can produce this freshness, too, says Richard Coop, Ph.D., who has advised golfers for three decades. "College coaches give their kids time off, and people say, 'Hey, they should be working harder, not resting.' But the coaches are trying to get the freshness back." Professional golfers like Bruce Lietzke and more recently Phil Mickelson swear by such breaks.

The problem for weekend golfers, Coop says, is that when they experience that great post-layoff round, they not only want to bottle it, they figure it's their new normal. "Now the whole year is going to be like that. That's just not realistic. You're not going to suddenly raise your normal."

Trying to bottle the feel of the first day back is futile, Valiante says, because we feel things contextually, not absolutely. The swing feel that produced a gentle draw on Saturday creates a snap-hook a week later. He says it's akin to our memory of music. "You love a song because of some emotional connection. Then you hear it a year or two later, and the song feels like nothing special. What happened? In golf, two years is 24 hours." Our nature, Valiante says, is to try to get back to it. "But it's not about that. It's about being in the present," he says, "with each individual shot."

In short, if you recapture anything, make it that "see the ball, hit the ball" mode. And know that the feel of your swing might be different. Johnny Miller said he decided whom he was going to swing like after he had warmed up. One day he was himself, one day he was Lee Trevino (playing a slight cut), one day he was Tony Lema (a big draw).

Coop's advice for looking back on honeymoon rounds: "Get outside yourself. Was I more forgiving? Was I more patient? Was I more conservative? Try to do that the next round." Perhaps, he says, it was your just-happy-to-be-here attitude or the friends you were with. "Try committing yourself to things that bring the spontaneity back. Your score will take care of itself."

Valiante and Slingerland recommend meditation as a path to "mindfulness," which could be said to characterize a honeymoon round. For one, meditation enhances physical awareness. (Doing an eyes-closed, toes-to-nose tensing and relaxing of muscles is one form.) Meditation also clears the mind, which is important given that it's often the accumulation of swing thoughts—and judgments—that sabotages subsequent rounds.

This isn't to suggest that you should abandon breaking 80 or some other grand goal. Just remember that it might happen in a way you don't plan, and it might feel out of your control. In his book, Slingerland includes this enigmatic quote from the spiritual teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: "You cannot try, but you also cannot not try; trying is wrong, but not trying is also wrong."

Which is to say: Give it your all, and expect nothing. "Have to, need to, or should—these are the language of expectations," says Debbie Crews, Ph.D., who works with athletes at Arizona State. Replace those with "a thought, word or picture that describes your intention. Example: 'the fairway' or 'in the hole.' Then your internal system has a clear instruction to follow. The trash cans on the tees work very well for throwing away expectations. It's a choice."

And if all else fails, see P.G. Wodehouse and his character Wallace Chesney, who one day ruins the magical plus-fours that have transformed his game, returns to his bumbling state and has an epiphany.

"Wallace Chesney stood on the tee watching the spot in the water where his third ball had fallen. The crowd was now openly amused, and, as he listened to their happy laughter, it was borne in upon Wallace that he, too, was amused and happy... This, he felt, was something like golf. This was golf as it should be—not the dull, mechanical thing which had bored him during all these past weeks of his perfection, but a gay, rollicking adventure ... "

Talk about wu-wei.