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One Shot at a Time

One Shot at a Time

Editor’s Note: The Masters — golf’s biggest tournament — begins tomorrow. To be a champion golfer, you have to train your mind for the challenge. The same is true in our spiritual life as we “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us].” Sports psychologist Dr. Morris Pickens shows us a productive process for improving focus on the golf course… and in our spiritual walk. Enjoy today’s selection from The Winning Way in Golf and Life.


One Shot at a Time

If your head is in the wrong place, you can expect everything else to follow. — Dr. Mo

From the New York Times, April 8, 2007:

Augusta, Ga. — The wind had finally eased at Augusta National Golf Club, and Zach Johnson, the son of a chiropractor from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, stood behind the 18th green not exactly sure what to do.

Tiger Woods, the last golfer with a chance to catch him, was still playing in the gloaming of the 71st Masters, so Johnson leaned in to hug his wife, Kim, and planted a kiss on the forehead of his 14-week-old son, Will, refusing to let go for several seconds.

“I was an emotional wreck,” Johnson said. “I was a slob. I knew there were still chances for guys to make birdie.”

When Woods stalled with three closing pars, though, Johnson had completed a task where 95 other golfers failed, claiming a Masters title after one of the most difficult weeks in the history of the tournament.

Johnson, 31, fired a closing three-under-par 69 on Sunday to defeat Woods (72), Rory Sabbatini (69), and Retief Goosen (69) by two strokes for his first major championship and second PGA Tour victory.1


Zach Johnson’s head was in the “right place” almost the entire day on Sunday, April 8, 2007. And for the brief period that his mind wasn’t in the right place, he paid the consequence on hole 17 with his only back-nine bogey.

Back in focus again on hole 18, he stayed in his process the rest of the way, winning the Masters and one of the most coveted prizes in the golf universe: the Green Jacket.

If it was a delirious moment for Zach and Kim Johnson, it was almost as much for me, Zach’s coach and golf psychologist. Over the last nineteen years I have seen this pattern repeated countless times. Isn’t it amazing how a little, white, dimpled ball will go wherever a skull-encased, two-hemisphere, gray-matter ball tells it to go?

When you are thinking your best, you focus on one shot at a time. There is no looking back or projecting forward. Thoughts of your score or what you might shoot do not exist. The implications of winning a tournament become as irrelevant as snowshoes in South Georgia. Mistakes from earlier in the round are completely forgotten. Your focus is entirely on the shot before you, and nothing else. When not playing your shot, your mind is consumed with the simple joys around you: the smell of the grass, the beauty of the clouds, a conversation with your playing partners. You’re not thinking about the next hole or how the match stands or why your last shot landed between a willow and a pine. You are in control of your mind, and your focus is clear and concise. The million-dollar question is (and for my students, that million dollars may be literal), “How do you keep your mind this focused every time you play?”

In golf I believe your best chance of achieving this focus is to have a thinking process that occupies your mind. This process gives you the best chance of playing at a higher level more often.

It’s strange how some high-achieving businesspeople closely follow tried-and-true processes in sales, marketing, and medicine but step onto the golf course with only a hope and a prayer and a vague plan to “try to do better today.” And maybe they’d best forget about the prayer part too. Even Billy Graham once said, “The only times my prayers are never answered are on the golf course.”

If a process helps to sell cars, market soda, or treat illness, it will also have value for your day on the golf course. The key is to make your thinking process (1) effective and (2) a habit of mind. Make it as much a part of your game as your swing off the tee or a blast out of the bunker.

In my opinion, all great players utilize a consistent thinking process. And even average golfers — weekend golfers — use such a thinking process when they’re playing their best.

What is this productive process for improving your golf game? I call it the 4-Rs.

And when consistently applied, the 4-Rs produce the fifth R, results. For my students, that may mean joining an elite company of those who conquer a major tournament on the tour. In fact, my students have twenty-three PGA tour wins since 2005, and three have won majors.

For golf hobbyists who simply love the game, it will mean the sweetness and satisfaction of playing at a level they had only dreamed of. And that is no small thing.

It’s like when you meet your retired neighbor on the way to the mailbox and something in the brief conversation reminds him of a golf game long ago and far away on a day when he couldn’t seem to miss. “I tell you,” he says, waving a stack of bills and junk mail in the air, “everything I hit went into the hole. It was windy as anything that day, and the rain was in my face. But I forgot all about the weather and played the best game of my life. I think I must have shot 77. Now that was a day!”

That’s how we remember those golden days when we maintained our focus through eighteen holes — or most of them — and found ourselves more into our game than ever before.

The 4-Rs, in order, are:

  1. REFOCUS. This is your golf decision making and involves shot selection, club selection, lie, wind, obstacles, and the best place to advance the ball. This is when you should be doing the vast majority of your thinking on the course, and it occurs behind the ball before you walk into the shot.
  2. ROUTINE. The pre-shot routine is your golf preparation and includes how you walk in, get set up, and take practice swings if desired. This happens only after the decision has been finalized, and it occurs walking into and beside the ball but before you actually swing.
  3. REACT. This is your golf execution — making the actual swing or stroke. This happens immediately after the routine is done and can best be described as the player’s “trusting and going.”
  4. RELAX. This is your relaxation on the course and speaks of how you spend time between shots, when you release your focus on golf. During this time you can think about architecture, wildlife, clouds, hobbies, anything — just not golf. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of your time on a golf course is spent on the fourth R, or at least it should be!

For this process to improve your score, it must become a consistent part of your game, not an “add-on” when you feel it is needed. It is always needed.

The fact that golf happens to be an excellent metaphor for life shouldn’t surprise us. If the sport had been around in the first century, no doubt the apostle Paul would have used it in his New Testament letters. Instead, he used the sport that did occupy the minds of sports fans two thousand years ago: running races in the Olympics.

Israelite and Pharisee that he was, can there be any doubt that Paul was a sports fan? To the Corinthians he wrote:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly. — 1 Corinthians 9:24-26

Paul even got the sport of boxing in the mix, adding, “I fight to win. I’m not just shadowboxing or playing around.” — 1 Corinthians 9:26 TLB

But it was to the church at Philippi that Paul gave the best advice for golf — and life. After explaining his goal of experiencing the power and presence of Jesus Christ in a fresh and life-transforming way, he went on to say:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 3:12-14

That’s it. That’s one of the irreplaceable keys to golf — and life: “Forgetting the past… looking forward to what lies ahead… press on… to win the prize.” The key to golf is playing one shot at a time. The key to life is living in the moment.

Golf is life. If you can’t take golf, you can’t take life. —Author unknown

As Stewart Cink says, “Glorifying God on the golf course doesn’t mean playing the greatest golf you’ve ever played; it just means being every bit of the golfer you can be on any given day.”2

Likewise, Zach Johnson says, “Golf is a game of staying in the now.

When you think about it, what’s the alternative? You can’t play Friday’s round on Thursday, and you can’t tee off on the 18th if you’re in the bunker on the 16th. But you can grasp the incomparable privilege of stepping behind the ball for this one solitary shot and, using every bit of the talent God gave you, maximize the investment of all those who believed in you, helped you, taught you, and encouraged you along the way. This you can do.

Jim Elliot, a young missionary martyr who was slain by Auca warriors on the banks of Ecuador’s Curaray River in 1956, once expressed it like this: “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”3

We can’t do anything to change the past, and the future doesn’t even exist yet. What does exist is this day, this hour, this moment. And how you live in the right now — the focus, energy, discipline, perspective, and wisdom you bring to this day, this solitary square on the calendar — will determine your future, your legacy, and your destiny.

I call this the 4-Rs. Paul called it “press[ing] on toward the goal” (Philippians 3:14). Jim Elliot called it living life to the hilt. Whatever you call it, it’s a beautiful way to do golf — and just about everything else you have ever valued.

  1. Damon Hack, “Zach Johnson Wins the Masters,” New York Times, April 8, 2007, http://www
  2. Interview with the collaborator. All subsequent quotes are taken from personal interviews with the collaborators unless otherwise noted.
  3. Goodreads, to-the-hilt.

Excerpted with permission from The Winning Way in Golf and Life by Dr. Morris Pickens, copyright Dr. Morris Pickens.

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