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Monday, September 7, 2009

The Apostle Paul’s Guide to Better Golf

Zen has become a very popular approach to the mental game nowadays, led by sports psychologists like Dr. Joe Parent, but the Bible is just as valid as a source for clear thinking. I want to show you a couple of things Paul said that have really helped me deal with my inadequacies with a golf club, and to learn how to enjoy the game no matter how I’m playing.

These two verses are from a short book called Philippians. It was written to Christians living in a town called Philippi, and it’s gained a reputation as a book about finding joy in life. (That’s a good start when you’re talking about golf!) Not surprisingly, it talks about goals and achieving excellence, but it also contains what some people might consider contradictory advice. It doesn’t, really; it just presents a way of dealing with the complicated problem of getting better. Follow along and you’ll find some real help for your game. (For those of you interested in such things, I’m using the New American Standard Version of the Bible; more of you may be familiar with the King James Version, but I think the NASV says things clearer for this post. And in case you’re unfamiliar with verse notation: The numbers after the quote are the chapter, followed by a colon, followed by the verse numbers.)

In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to follow Jesus. He uses himself as an example and says, “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect; but I press on, in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:12-14). Let’s put this in the context of golf.

We all have goals. We all want to get better, but we know we aren’t there yet. I like the way Paul says it: Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect. Golf is a struggle sometimes, and it can be depressing when you keep messing up. But Paul gives us two tips to use in our pursuit of improvement; namely, he forgets about all the failures he’s had, and then he refocuses on his goal.

You can see how these two tips apply to golf. If you don’t let go of your past failures, they just build up and weigh you down. (Those are the "oughts" I was talking about in the last post.) You can see this happening with Sergio, who is still struggling with his near misses over the last couple of years. Don’t let that happen to you. Learn what you can from your mistakes, then chuck the bad memories.

But don’t just forget the past; move ahead toward your goal. Although Paul doesn’t say it here, let me focus this one for you: Pick one thing that you really need to work on, be it pitch shots from the rough, tee shots on dogleg left holes, greenside bunker shots, or whatever. Be specific (remember, small targets are easier to focus on) and don’t beat yourself up about the things you aren’t working on; you’ll get to those soon enough. This way, you carry an increasing load of successes with you; that’s a weight that can only help your game.

But I know what you’re going to say: “What about the rest of my game? It’s so bad, it’ll take me forever to see any progress.”

In the fourth chapter, Paul addresses this problem as well. He thanks the Philippians for some supplies they sent him, and he says, “Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (4:11).

How can he be content when he's in a bad situation and he just said he knows (1) he’s not perfect and (2) he’s struggling to improve? I think “content” is an unfortunate choice of words by the translators here; if you read the verses following this one, Paul talks about being hungry and doing without. It’s obvious he doesn’t want to stay in that condition.

It’s pretty clear to me that he means I have learned to accept where I am. He wants things to change, of course, but he’s not going to beat himself up just because he’s not where he wants to be. Everybody has to start somewhere; rather than berate yourself for being in a situation that may not even be your fault, accept the way things are. This is only your starting point; you’re not going to stay here, so you don’t waste energy over it. You will improve if you try; focus on that.

There you have it. This is the mindset that helps you beat insecurity in your game:
  • First, remember that nobody’s perfect when it comes to this game; everybody makes mistakes. Learn what you can from them, then ditch the bad memories and move ahead.
  • Second, pick one aspect of your game to improve, and focus on that; that’s the quickest way to make progress.
  • Finally, don’t beat yourself up just because your game isn’t where you want it to be. Accept where you are and take some pride in the things you do well. And remember: No matter what your game looks like, everybody has to start somewhere.
Play with Paul’s mindset and you’ll not only improve, you’ll enjoy yourself more while you do.


  1. Mike, I like the linking of your Christian faith to the playing of golf..thanks for the insight. I'm always amazed at the negative mindset golfers often have - "Oh I always hit it in the bunker here"; "I'll never get over (around, through) those trees."; "I never hit this iron (wood) very good." We seem to set ourselves up for failure. Maybe following Paul will result in more golf (and life) "successes."

  2. I understand Christopher Reeve (the actor who played Superman, back before he became a quadriplegic) once said, "Once you choose hope, anything's possible."

    I can live with that. ;-)