Get in The Arena

Failure has made me a better golfer today than I was just a month ago.

Here’s why:

I have truly enjoyed my single plane swing journey the past seven years….my journey to play the game at a higher, and higher level. I love this path of exploration and growth inside the game that I am on. And I suspect you do too.

But I noticed this Summer that I was not testing myself the way I could be.

My idea of competition had been the Saturday morning money games, scramble-format charity events, and match play tournaments at my club. All great experiences, for sure. And ones which helped me to experience what it is like to play through stress and pressure.

This year, however, I decided that I needed to test myself in new ways. So, I signed up for a scratch event at the end of July as part of the Cleveland Metroparks annual championship tournament.

I wanted to see what it would be like to play against a much better tier of golfer…in a 36-hole event in which every single shot counted. No handicaps. Low score wins. Period.

What a great experience.

First, in the context of traditional outcome measurements, my results were mediocre at best. I shot 87, 92 and finished 54th out of 70.

Second, while it is easy to dwell on the failures: I struggled off the tee at times, and my iron play was not very solid, plus I took too many putts…. what I learned about myself and the current state of my game far outweighs any temporary setback I might be feeling with respect to the results.

I learned this:

My short game was pretty solid.

Todd Graves tells a story about when he shot a particularly high score in a tournament…like a 90 or something. When Tim asked how the heck he hit a 90 Todd said: “I putted great!”  

If you asked how I shot an 87 on the first day of the tournament, I might have said: “I chipped pretty well!”

I stayed relaxed through the hitting area…not nervy or jerky, hit my landing spots often, and judged distances well.

If there is one thing that has made the golf so much more fun for me over the past few years it is the development of my short game. Tim Graves’ impact here – and his emphasis on the short game – has been profound for me.

My putting needs to be better.

I noticed that I struggled to dial in pace properly.

The greens were set up VERY fast for this event… faster than I had ever seen them. But no excuses… this will have to change if I am going to shoot lower scores.

Another thing I noticed was that I was not hitting committed putts. I know this, and YOU know this… we must be committing to the putts we are hitting! No vacillating over the ball. Hit the putt you commit to, Paul!

My trail hand gets “rotational” when I am tired.

This was something that surprised me. By the back nine of the second day – I was feeling the physical impacts of being out there. And it showed up as a duck-hooky, early extension kind of a swing off the tee that led to hitting several shots left… or even way left.

While this caused a lot of trouble for me on the course that weekend, it was a very important revelation for me. I am fully aware of something today that I just wasn’t that aware of before. Now I can put a game plan together to stay non-rotational no matter what.

My game needs work.

It’s pretty clear: I must hit more fairways and more greens. It’s that simple. The numbers don’t lie. And there is nothing better than an event like this to be a giant metaphorical mirror to show you exactly where your game needs work. It sounds elementary – but this was a HUGE ah-ha for me.

I need to manage my physical energy better. (I think I over-did the prep in the days leading up to the tournament.)

And I need to manage my mental energy better. Great pre-shot routines, and great post-shot thinking (ie… neutral or celebrate), but too much thinking in the play box ( Go Zone). Need to be prepared more to be a better athlete in the Go Zone – and not a thinker. (Anybody know a good mental game guy?)

The real competitor is the course.

I managed to keep a healthy perspective on who my true competitor was that weekend. It was the course. Not the guys who happened to be playing in my group.

Golf is funny – we normally think of our competitors in terms of WHO we are playing against. But the real competitor is always the course. (I believe that is true, even in a match play event… even if the other person’s play is part of the dynamic.)

The way this showed up for me was in my course management. Understanding what my next move would be, independent of what anyone else was doing…and not being intimidated by their longer drives or other productive play.

I can play the game on the same playing field as really good players.

How do I know that? Because I did. And I routinely put together lots of good shots. And I also went toe-to-toe on several holes with my playing partners who were low single-digit-handicap guys.

For example, the first hole was the number 2 handicap hole with a landing area that was only 25 yards wide. I was the only one in my group in the fairway. I gave myself permission to celebrate that one!

None of this means that I expect to shoot better than a +2 in an event like this. But I do believe that it is possible to play my best golf in an event like this – even if I didn’t exactly do that this time around.

One of the guys in my group shot 54-39 on day one. He made such a mess of the first 6 holes…and kept saying “Hey guys… I’m better than this…really.”  (Irrelevant, btw.) Turns out he is a 3-handicap and just had a tough day. He shot 78 on day two.

Say what you will – about his play or mine – the key is that we were in the arena. That’s what matters. That’s what will make us better players.

Teddy Roosevelt famously said:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,…”

And if you’ve not seen it, the full quote is:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 Read that again. Slowly. And think about it.

It’s easy to do a lot of talking. It’s harder to do the doing. But by doing the doing…by daring greatly…you set yourself up not just for the admiration of others, (which – in the grand scheme is nice but not worth that much) but for growth and mastery that come from the experience. And that is what makes it totally worth it.

What’s your next-level arena as you move along your own Single Plane Swing journey? What competitive challenge is next for you…to test and expose the strengths and the shortcomings of your current game?

Whatever that challenge is for you…get in that arena! You may experience victory on some level. You may experience failure. But either way, you will be a better golfer because of it.

Hit ‘em straight!


Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan is an International Coach Federation (ICF) - credentialed coach working in the arena of human potential. Paul’s clients are leaders, executives, athletes and musicians who are serious about transforming how they perform in critical moments. His experiences in leadership and development over a highly-successful 25-year corporate career have created powerful context and understanding for the leaders and executives he coaches. Additionally, his passions and experiences in sports and music have uniquely positioned Paul to profoundly impact his clients in those areas as well.

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