To the casual observer of the game of golf, the making of a 10 foot putt seems like it should be a rountine task, particularly for a highly-skilled professional. After all, the putting green is the place where professionals most distinguish themselves from rank amateurs and their fellow competitors. For the competitive golfer, it is strokes gained or lost on the putting surface that often mean the difference between winning and losing or, in some cases, simply “making the cut” and being able to compete on the weekend. And yet, as someone who has played dozens of rounds of golf over the years and spectated a few hundred more (mostly watching accomplished players compete), I can assure you that the making of a 10 foot putt is anything but a routine exercise. In fact, recent statistics indicate that members of the PGA Tour, generally acknowledged to be the finest golfers in the world, make only slightly more than half (i.e., 55.6% to be precise) of all putts between 10 and 15 feet! How is that possible and, as importantly, how does someone who has chosen to make a living playing golf maintain their sanity knowing that, on most days, they will fail almost half the time at one of the most critical parts of their job?
The first question is relatively easy to answer. In fact, one need not look beyond the “geometry” of the task to appreciate its inherent difficulty (i.e., the player wielding the putter is being asked to put a ball that weighs only 1.62 ounces, is 1.68″ in diameter and has between 300 and 500 dimples stamped on its surface into a hole – 10 feet away – that is only 4.25″ inches in diameter. Add to that, the fact that: (1) the game is played outdoors and, therefore, is subject to the elements (e.g., wind, rain, hot, cold, etc.); and (2) the ball is traveling over a living, breathing, often uneven surface (i.e., grass) that frequently is not very well-manicured; and the task takes on an even higher degree of difficulty. Indeed, all it takes is a subtle, often imperceptible undulation in the terrain, a footprint left behind by an earlier competitor, a few erratic blades of grass, a spike mark or a hole that is not properly cut and an otherwise perfectly struck putt will have no chance of going in the hole. Simply put: There a number of reasons a 10 foot putt can fail to find its way to the bottom of its intended target (i.e., the hole) that have little, if anything to do with the technical skill of the person doing the putting. These aren’t “excuses” they’re objectively verifiable facts.
Which brings us to the second question, a question that is just as “easy” to answer, but far more difficult to put into action and one that, I believe, has profound implications in our daily lives: How does someone get out of bed in the morning, let alone continue to give 110% 100 percent of the time knowing that they are likely to fail at what they are setting out to do nearly half the time they do it? There’s only one way to do that and not lose your mind: You can’t focus on the result. Stated otherwise, you have to recognize that the only piece of the puzzle you have any control over is “the stroke itself.” Once the ball leaves the face of the putter, it is completely outside of your control – you can’t “make it” go in the hole. The minute you become fixated on the result and allow it, rather than the proficiency and grace with which you executed the stroke, to serve as the ultimate barometer of your competency as a player or, worse yet, define you, you’ve set foot on a very slippery slope. Golfers who realize and implement this truth derive considerably more pleasure out of what is an incredibly challenging game and tend to “make a lot more 10 foot putts” – and we will too, albeit putts of a more human kind.
Because, truth be told, the “answer” to both parts of the question we asked earlier is the same. The reason professionals only make roughly half of the 10 foot putts they attempt and the reason they are able to live with themselves notwithstanding that high degree of “failure” has as much to do with the living, breathing thing that resides in the 6” between their ears as it does the innumerable variables that they will never control and that will always exist in the 10 feet between them and the hole. And so it is with us and the metaphorical holes we aim at every day. Ideally, our mind should serve a co-partner, if not a zealous personal cheerleader as we traverse the fairways of our lives and confront one double-breaking 10 foot putt after another. However, simply having it remain neutral (i.e., not get in the way of our instincts) would be a significant step in the right direction for most of us. What we can’t afford is for it to add to our challenges, through negative self-talk, needless anxiety, defeatism and a fixation on outcomes. In the end, we have to care more about how we’re swinging, than we do about where the ball ultimately will end up – and we have to keep swinging with the expectation that eventually the ball will find its way to the hole!
But, don’t just take another golfer’s word for it, take a caddy’s: