You swing your best when you have the fewest things to think about. – Bobby Jones
Stewart Cink and I had been working together for only a few months in 2009 before he had the opportunity to play at one of the crown jewels of golf: the British Open. The oldest championship tournament in golf, it was being played that year at what may be the world’s original golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland.
I would love to have been there. What golfer wouldn’t? It’s not only the undulating greens, the ocean-hugging views, and the sight of the Ailsa Craig rising up out of the whitecaps and misty blue on the Firth of Clyde. Scotland, after all, is the very birthplace of golf, sometime back in the fifteenth century. Besides all that, I would like to have been there for Stewart’s sake, giving him whatever encouragement or advice that I could in his first major since we started working together.
The year 2008 and the first few months of 2009 hadn’t been very satisfying for Stewart, and it showed in his results. His best finish was twenty-fourth at the limited-field Mercedes-Benz Championship in January, and he had missed the cut in the first major, the Masters. That showing in particular and his overall poor play were beginning to have an impact on his thinking.
Watching his first nine holes at the Players Championship that year, I knew exactly how I could help him if he ever asked. His problem mostly had to do with his putting. He clearly had no set pre-shot routine, and he wasn’t confident at all walking into his putts. There was a lot of “wishing” going on when the putter was in his hands. In short, he had lost his way on the greens.
On May 17, after Stewart had missed the cut at the Players, I got a call from him.
“Hey, Mo,” he said, “are you ready for a serious project?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Stewart,” I said, “this is the project I’ve been hoping to get for over a year. And it’s not nearly the project you think it is. You’re a lot closer than you realize!”
Just a few weeks after that, Stewart left to play in the British Open. What an outstanding opportunity for him – or for any golfer. I couldn’t be there to offer any counsel. All I could do for my friend was pray for him and text him what I hoped would be a strong reminder of what we had worked on together – especially on the greens. My message to him was, Invite the challenge.
He knew exactly what I meant. In the brief time I had worked with Stewart, I knew that he tended to view big tournaments as burdens to be endured rather than as challenges to be relished. I had told him the very reason you turn pro, try to get on the PGA tour, and take on some of the legends of golf is because you want the challenge.
You’re doing exactly what you want to do and what untold thousands of aspiring amateur and weekend golfers long to do but may never have the opportunity to do. So when the big moments come, you want to relish them.
And this was the biggest golf moment that thirty-six-year-old Stewart Cink had ever faced. He needed to invite the challenge, invite the pressure, invite the competition, and step into it with all his heart. And of all the mental tools we had been discussing to improve Stewart’s competitive mind-set, the concept of REFOCUSING might be one of the most important tools of all.
For many golf fans around the world and for the assembled media at Turnberry, the British Open that year was more a story about what could have happened rather than what did happen. What had everyone so excited was the apparent comeback of the legendary Tom Watson, who was fifty-nine at the time and on the cusp of pulling off what many might have regarded as one of the greatest wins in the history of the game. Watson had won five British Opens from 1975 to 1983 and was making a strong run at the 2009 Open. He had opened with a blistering 65 and followed the next day with a 70 to move into a tie for the lead. In the third round he shot 71 to take the lead, and in the final round he had held or shared the lead for much of the day. Stewart Cink, however, was right there with him – a very tall shadow (at 6′ 4″) that would have been difficult to ignore.
On that final round, it really all came down to a 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole. If Stewart could nail that putt, he would find himself 2-under and “leader in the clubhouse” – the player with the lowest score having completed regulation play. Writing about that putt after the tournament was over, a reporter at Golf Digest called it “a breakthrough moment.” And this was the point where Stewart very much needed to remember the first of the 4-R principles we’d been working on together. He needed to REFOCUS before he stepped behind the ball to attempt that putt.
Stewart later described the moment like this:
“Okay, so you’ve got 15 feet between you and the hole. Obviously, there is a physical side and an emotional side to that putt. It feels a little different when you’re 15 feet away on the final hole with a chance to beat Tom Watson and win a major than it does when you’re on the practice green warming up with your friends. Yes, it’s still 15 feet, but it feels different. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel some emotion. You know you’re ‘in the hunt’ to win your first major. You know what it would mean to make that putt, and you also know what it would mean to miss that putt. When you’re in that kind of situation, the normal human tendency is to try to steer or guide the ball into the hole, instead of just following through on your routine.”
We spend a lot of time in our practice, however, trying to reduce the putt into its basic physical meaning. It’s so many feet… it’s left or right. These are the physical attributes that don’t change much from green to green.
However… this was the fabled Open. People all over the world were watching. This was a duel with one of the all-time greats of the game, one of Stewart’s personal heroes, and a golf warrior who himself had dethroned Jack Nicklaus. This was a purse of $1,221,005. This would be his first victory in a major. This would be a mountaintop in his career no matter what followed.
How do you put such things out of your mind?
The answer is, you don’t. No one can. Golfers are human beings, not robots, and no one truly knows how to consistently blank thoughts out of the conscious mind on command like a child with a magic slate. But you also remember that while golf has its emotional side, it has its physical side as well. So what do you do in such moments? You simply acknowledge that the shot has special meaning, do your best to set that aside, concentrate on all the physical aspects of the putt, and make a stroke.
And that’s what Stewart did. He tipped his hat to all the what-ifs, set them aside, refocused on the physical putt before him, stepped into the ball, and put it in the hole. As history will recall, that birdie forced him into a four-hole playoff with Tom Watson, which Stewart won by six strokes. And in a brisk wind rolling across those venerable greens and creating whitecaps on the sea, he hoisted the fabled Claret Jug trophy.
Let’s take time to look more closely at this first of the 4-Rs, the one that helped Stewart overcome some of the difficulties of his game – and within weeks claim one of golf’s most coveted titles. It’s what I call the REFOCUS step. Every one of us brings worries and concerns and distractions to the golf course. Why? Because we bring ourselves to the golf course.
You refocus before a round of golf, and you refocus before every shot on the golf course. In the midst of your game, “refocus” refers to how you process all the relevant information before you attempt to play the upcoming shot. Refocusing occurs after you have relaxed from the previous shot (or after your warmup for the first shot of the day) but before you begin your pre-shot routine. The refocusing step is when you do the majority of your “golf thinking” on the course. It’s the moments in a competitive round when you “tune back in” to your game. The primary action of refocusing is to make a decision about your upcoming shot.
Usually this “tuning back in” will start to occur about five to ten steps before you get to your ball. You don’t really need to start refocusing much before this, because the physical environment around your ball will dictate your preparation and game plan for the next shot.
If you’re riding in a cart, relax (I’m serious!) until you come to the ball, tee box, or green. Once you take a club out of your bag, let this be your signal to start refocusing.
Life Application – A Fresh Commitment to Seek the Lord
Learning to refocus may be the most important skill you will ever attain. If it helps in golf, it helps a thousand times over in life. That’s because losing focus in golf shows up on a scorecard, a piece of paper relevant for one day;
Losing focus in life could change your marriage, your family, your career, your destiny.
My friend and student John Rollins described it like this:
In golf sometimes, maybe after a couple of victories, you’re tempted to think you’ve got the game beat. You’ve got it all figured out. You’ve got it all under control. And then all of a sudden, it jumps up and bites you. It’s the same in our walk with the Lord. The world is full of temptations and evil things – forces that are always trying to knock you off course. You think you’ve got life going, with everything right where you want it, and – boom – something happens. An illness. An injury. A bad decision. It jumps up and smacks you in the face, and it feels like you’re starting all over again, and that you’re a long way from the man you thought you were.
Both golf and life in Christ demand our constant attention to stay on track.
The primary action of refocusing in life is simply making a decision to seek the Lord every day – and even many times throughout your day, and allowing Him to reset your thoughts, or renew your mind (Romans 12:1–2).
Making a decision – and keeping it – is a commitment. And a person is only as strong as his or her commitments. Everything that is best in life, everything that is worth keeping when the chips are down, grows out of a commitment, a promise. If you have something in your life that you’re not really committed to, I can assure you of this: eventually it will fall out of your life altogether.
A commitment to improve your golf score is one thing. Far, far more important is your commitment to your spouse, your children, and your extended family and friends. And infinitely more important than even these is your commitment to God. If you daily lock your focus on Him from the time your feet hit the floor in the morning, it will change you more than you could have imagined.
The apostle Paul described this process well in his letter to the church in Philippi. Paul was writing from a Roman prison at the time, which adds even more weight to his words:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!.. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things… and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:4, Philippians 4:6–9
Paul says that we can come into any situation in life with a tranquil mind, a peaceful heart, and an attitude of joy regardless of difficult or distracting circumstances. Very carefully and very specifically, he says, “Be anxious for nothing,” and he says to bring “everything” to the Lord in prayer.
Someone will say, “That would mean I’m praying all day long!” It might! It might mean you have a prayer going in the back of your mind as you move through your day, as you seek to turn every worry, every concern, every disappointment, and every setback into a prayer and then leave them with the Lord.
Let me ask you this: Every day when you wake up, what do you seek? Is it money? Getting ahead on the job? Making a name for yourself? I know that I have wrestled with all of those desires. If left to ourselves, we will just naturally focus on ourselves. We’ll get caught up in our own wants and desires and plans and goals, and in the end, we’ll be miserable for it and feel as empty as a discarded shell on the beach.
What you want to do is to set aside the distractions, disappointments, and frustrations of your day, quit focusing on yourself, and seek the Lord’s strength, stability, perspective, and joy as you walk into each of these situations with a composed mind and a strong sense of purpose to be the best spouse, parent, or friend you can possibly be.
Excerpted with permission from The Winning Way in Golf and Life by Dr. Morris Pickens, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2014.
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In what ways do you feel the Lord calling you to refocus in your life, your walk with Him, your marriage, your work, and your relationships? What distractions do you need to set aside? Join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily