In the Zone… Whatever that Means

Professionals talk all the time about being in the zone, what does that really mean?

Thrash TalkIt always seems that when we hear a golfer talk about playing well they will sometimes say that they were “in the zone.” Sadly for me I can honestly say that when it comes to golf I have never been, “in the zone.” I think if there were a zone, for me to get in over the course of the 4+ hours it takes to play golf, I doubt I could stay in that zone for all 18 holes. This likely explains why I am such a lousy golfer.

We hear this description as sometimes an athlete describing the game slowing down so that they could see each action sometimes before it even happened. Or we often hear it described as the athlete getting out of their own way. I have heard golfers explaining that they could see the line of the putt before they hit it. Whatever your description, the funny thing about golf is that it rarely lasts for long. We may be able to play a few weeks or a few months well but that bad round is out there waiting for us on the horizon. We all know it. I heard it described by a friend of mine as “when you are playing bad you think it is never going to end, and when you are playing well you are just waiting for it to end.”Certainly golf has an enormous mental component. In most sports you can rely on your instincts of reaction. In baseball you react to when the ball is thrown, in basketball you look at the hoop and shoot. In golf the ball just sits there, and there is a bunch of time to think about the shot you are about to hit. It is my feeling that golf requires as much if not more mental focus than any sport out there.

I recently played in a three-day tournament. The first two days I played really well. I was making good decisions, going through my mental process for each shot, and nothing felt rushed. On the last day we were in contention and even though the pace of play was slower than the first two days, I felt rushed most of the day. I was not going through the process I followed the first two days and I played pretty poorly. It was not my swing; it was purely a mental thing.

After this I started researching what is out there for the mental side of the game. Wading through the information on the mental side of golf is not very easy. Many people suggested the Bob Rotella books. While I like what he has to say, I am not sure it is all that helpful in getting me into the zone or getting me to play better. In fact some of what he says I disagree with; I think he is a bit too caught up in hitting the wedges tight to the hole and feeling lukewarm about your long irons.

Henrik Stenson and Bob Rotella

I researched GOLF54 and read their book “Every Shot Must Have a Purpose” but I’ll be honest and say that I never finished it. The book was too convoluted with sections that were unnecessary or weren’t terribly helpful. Again I like some of the concepts but the book was not all that well written which may or may not be their fault. I studied a few more including “Zen Golf” and “Fearless Golf,” but I don’t feel that many of them are going to help me coming down the stretch of a golf tournament as I want.

After all of this, the thing that has helped me the most is the simple concept that the ball does not care how I feel. The physics of the club impacting the ball has little to do with what I had for lunch or my mental approach. This way I understand that if I make a good swing the ball will do what I want and the rest will take care of itself. I still believe in what most of the mind gurus say about staying in the moment. It is so easy when you are on the golf course on the 15th to start thinking about what you are going to tell your buddies about how you played, or see yourself holding the trophy. I think one has to try their best to avoid that. But even still with that, all that matters is the club head and the ball.

I don’t mean to downplay the mental side of the game. Many of the guys on tour rave about the help they have gotten from mental coaches. Guys like Davis Love III has stated many times about how Dr. Rotella saved his career along with many others. I think the key is finding out what works for you.

Your Take
I think that most anyone who has played in tournament golf has likely peaked into what is out there on the mental side of golf instruction. I would like to hear from each of you what your experience was, what worked what didn’t. I think this is a bit of an open space right now.

Photo credits: © Sam Greenwood.

8 thoughts on “In the Zone… Whatever that Means”

  1. First of all, I can only recall being in “the zone” one time in my life. I was playing in a golf outing with my usual crew. These clowns are the guys with trick balls and the joke of the week just before you start your backswing, and constantly changing nicknames and other foolishness.

    For some reason they were just background noise and it was like I was out there by myself. I’d never broken 80 in my life, but that day I had a bogie and a birdie on the front nine to par the nine with 36. At the turn the genius with the scorecard yells out “Hey, Junior (one of my nicknames) parred the front.” I went double bogie, bogie, bogie bogie, bogie, then took a deep breath, blocked those guys out again and finsihed the back in 43 for a 79. I’ve only broken 80 twice since and that first time was in 1974..

    I’ve never been able to recreate that feeling of being in the “zone”.

    I’ve read both of Rotella’s book and I must say the first book helped me a lot. The second book “Golf Is A Game Of Confidence” really seems like a rip-off to me. It’s basically a bunch of testimonials to the first book. Sort of like he just published the letters he received after writing the first book “Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect”

    I recommend this book. It didn’t get me in the “zone” but it is a valuable read for those wanting to explore the mental side of the game of golf.

  2. I love it when I get in the “zone.” It happened a few weeks ago for me and I felt like I couldn’t be stopped. Then I didn’t play for a few days because of work and when I went out again I was no longer in the “zone.”

  3. Most really good golfers will tell you they play in “the zone” quite often. It’s all relative to what your expectations are of yourself. “The zone” a slang term used to describe a day when it all comes together. It’s taken on this elusive form because golf is such a hard game to play well.

    Now, for the average golfer… “the zone” still exists. It comes and goes, with no signs of when it will return, and leaves you wanting more. It can appear with just one club, or several. “The zone” literally has no rhyme or reason and can cause you to get seriously addicted to this game. You’ve been warned.

  4. Great post. Good points about Rotella etc.

    I think we all can relate to feeling rushed when there is no reason to and building up scenarios in our heads that do not contribute to hitting good shots. I think you nailed it and I think it’s best to keep it as simple as possible.

    I played in a member-guest this weekend and there were a few stretches when I felt like I was in the zone. Its focusing on the shot at hand, not the one before or the one after, not what it means or who is watching or anything besides, “what is my target and how do I want to get my ball there.” Of course the other thoughts rise up eventually and it’s being 100% committed to fully returning to the shot.

  5. It’s elusive as an honest politician,the day when it does not matter what you do it all comes together,even the mishits work.I recently shot my lowest (82) score which is good for me and the course just flowed.The drives worked , the wedges worked and the hole seemed as big as a bucket .I think the Planets were aligned that day.

  6. I equate being in the zone with feeling comfortable with the setup and the shot/task at hand. I’ve hit shots just knowing that my contact would be solid and trusted that my distance control would be dead on perfect. Sometimes the zone only lasts for a few minutes and sometimes it lasts for a few hours. During a couple recent practice rounds (an extra ball or two and holes replayed) I could do no wrong. It got to the point where I wasn’t sure how to play certain shots because I knew whichever choice I made the result would be good. Then I started over thinking my pitches and chips, trying to get too precise and controlling the spin. Do I want to hit it high with a 57, land it a few feet short of the pin with a punched 53 or go with a 9 and try to run it in like a long putt. Pretty soon instead of just seeing and feeling the right shot to take at that moment, I start overanalyzing everything, the potential of a flub creeps into my subconscious and the wheels invariably fall off.

  7. “All individuals involved in an athletic endeavor (whether skilled and gifted or not) perform at times on a basic functioning level, and at other times at an exceptional level. That exceptional level is referred to as “being in the zone.” Gifted athletes learn to develop methods for entering it. For us, it is a less frequently visited region, yet eminently discoverable (at least for a brief period) each time we play. The repeated unaltered fundamentals of a consistently executed swing are the keys to gaining entrance. Learn them and believe in them. They will serve you well and will not let you down. We will however, let ourselves down.”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons.” iBooks.

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