originally published in Caribbean Golf magazine

The inner game of golf is crucial to our golfing success and enjoyment. The single biggest thing that I see spoil the game in golfers is judgement, and it’s close friends, criticism and impatience. But the great news is that judgement isn’t an actual thing, it’s simply a point of view. And as such it is something that we can change. It’s just like a program running in our mind. We can play better golf when we free ourselves from these destructive internal influences.

mastering the inner game of golf

On the course our biggest opponent isn’t another human being, or the wind, or the condition of the greens, but what is going on in our head. The incessant chatter, the voices telling us what not to do, or telling us that we’ve screwed-up yet again can completely ruin a round of golf.

And of course, we have probably all experienced the opposite – moments when the mind is calm and the swing is a thing of beauty and simplicity. “Wow, I wish I could play like that more often”. Well, the good news is that you can, but it’s going to take a bit of commitment to begin to do something new, and that is exploring the inner game of golf.

In 1998 I learned a very simple series of meditation-like techniques called Ascension from a group of monks called the Ishayas. It had such a profound effect on me that now I’m a monk too and share these techniques. I know, I know, a golfing monk? It sounds a bit strange, but we’ve come this far so please stick around.

What these techniques did for me was to change my relationship with the thoughts that I had, to begin to help me to be more present and not always caught in thinking about the past or the future. The techniques are only taught in person and you can find more information on this website.

Inner game of golf exercise (part 1)

Although it says “Inner Game of Golf exercise” the truth is that this is for every part of your life. In a moment I want you to close your eyes and watch what is happening in your mind. As you close your eyes be gently alert and notice the thoughts move through, and as they do count them – 1, 2, 3, etc. Keep your eyes closed for about two minutes. Close them now.

So, how did you do? Were you able to count them? If not, try again, but be gentle. So how many were there – 4, 10, 30? The number doesn’t matter, but what is important is that you can begin to experience that you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are actually something outside of you. You are that which is aware of them. Just like watching cars going by on the highway we can watch safely from a distance.

But just like on the highway the trouble starts when we start getting in the way of things! When we resist or get involved in thinking the thoughts we lose ourselves and begin to experience whatever the content of the thought is. So if the thought is self-critical, and we begin to relate to it, we feel that in our body. Do you swing well when you’re thinking about how badly your round is going? Of course not, and we all know that it’s only going to get worse if we stay on the same mental page.

So using this simple method is a great way to make a change. You don’t need to change your thoughts. That’s worth repeating. You don’t need to change your thoughts! You’re not the one that’s making them anyway. All you need to do is to change your relationship with them. So for example by taking a moment to count them, the thought, “I have to make par, I have to make par,” and all the pressures that come with it, simply becomes thought number 5.

Now I’m not proposing that you wake up and start counting your thoughts all day long – the average person has over 80,000 per day! What we are doing is making a start.

Inner game of golf exercise (part 2)

So let’s progress this a bit. This time when you close your eyes for two minutes don’t count – just watch. Go ahead.

How was that? The more you do that, gently observe, the more you will experience the mind becoming quiet. Being the observer, not judging or resisting any thought begins to help you be free of their influence and will make you a better golfer, and improve how you experience all of your life.

So, does this inner game of golf stuff actually make a difference? Let me give you an example. I had my first introduction to golf as a teenager. I grew up in Scotland and golf was popular, cheap and it was a chance for me to hang out with my father. He bought me a half-set of clubs, showed me what to do and off we went.

We were playing at a lovely small course near the coastal village of Carradale on the Kintyre peninsula. We were on the 3rd or 4th tee and I swung an air shot. OK, so what? But the group behind caught up and were waiting. I swung again – this time with a bigger audience – and whoosh, more fresh air. Someone coughed . My embarrassment was intense, my face tomato- red, and I tried even harder with the next swing with the same result.

We let the other guys play through. I couldn’t watch (I didn’t want to make any eye contact), I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. In my 13 year old mind a belief was born, a new program – I don’t like it, and I don’t play well when people watch me.

This is not unique. Lots of people lose their game when they find they have an audience. Yet this is purely a mental block, there is nothing technically different in the shot. That’s why, to play great golf developing your inner golf game is critical.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when I came up behind a four ball. Graciously they indicated that I could play-through. From the tee I hit a perfect slice – OB, off into the trees to bother the squirrels. Behind me I heard someone cough. Like a bullet the memory of Carradale came back, along with the thoughts and beliefs planted in that experience.

But through my meditation practice I was able to stay uninvolved with these thoughts. In fact, I felt carefree and very content. With a sense of inner peace I teed up another ball, swung with no tension and struck a beautiful shot which left me with a nice 8 iron to the green.

The truth is that we are going to have bad shots when we play golf. It’s just in the nature of the game. The trick is to let them have no impact on how you play the rest of your shots. Being the impartial observer of the movement (and the peace) in your mind is a great way to be more natural when playing.

If your belief is, “From now on I am going to enjoy my golf” then you may find that the mind throws up some qualifiers – “I will if I play well, I will if I can finally beat my buddies, I will if I can get my short game together“, etc, etc. It may be that believing this “if” thought is the only thing that stops you having a great time.

Personally, I now have the experience where I enjoy the development of my game; I accept it for how it is in any moment; and appreciate that if I have commitment to practice, and don’t take it, or myself, too seriously, I can allow the journey to unfold in a fun, and sometimes magical, way.

You can too. Go on, do something different, start exploring the inner game of golf.