CHAPTER 10 – MATT KUCHAR Loving the Game part 1
Matt Kuchar entered the final round of the 2009 BMW Championship in Chicago paired in the final group and had a legitimate chance to win the tournament. The stakes were high during this inaugural season of the PGA Tour playoffs: Play well, and earn a spot in the following week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta; play poorly and be eliminated.
Everything about the possibility of playing the Tour Championship excited Matt. As a Georgia Tech graduate and Atlanta resident, Matt loved the prospect of playing a home game in front of family, friends, and neighbours. During his time in Atlanta, he had played East Lake often enough to know that he loved the course. He believed that his experience there might give him an advantage. Finally, Matt had recently reversed a trend in his career. Up until 2009 he’d established a pattern of starting the year strong only to fade after June. In 2009 he had finally found the consistency that he was looking for; he was playing well late into the summer and wanted to keep it going.
All this anticipation led to a final round 75, which dropped Matt from 1st place to 10th place for the tournament and eliminated him from the Tour Championship. As you can imagine, Matt was initially disappointed. When dealing with experiences such as this, every golfer has a choice to make. Indeed, there is reality and there is what you do with that reality. Matt had a choice to make.
During times like this many golfers focus on the emotional letdown of a bad round. They feel bad, and they beat themselves up so much that they keep feeling bad. They want it to hurt. In many cases, they may even escalate the self-defeating attitudes by making their personal attacks more, well, personal. Rather than simply focus on the emotion, they make the conceptual leap from attacking the performance to attacking their own character: “You’re not good enough to win. You’re a loser. You don’t have what it takes.”
I see talented golfers do this sort of thing all the time. Apparently, they are angry because they didn’t perform well and they hope to perform better in the future. But because beating yourself up is antagonistic to good performance, I’ve always wondered how much these people actually care about getting better. They say they want to improve (e.g., “I’m mad because I really, really want to improve”), but if they really wanted to progress, they would manage their emotions better. At least that’s the way I view golfers who lose their temper and chalk it up to a self-proclaimed strong desire to improve.
Although these golfers are wallowing in self-pity and engaging in self-abuse, the great champions of the game have already turned their attention to becoming better. The champions move on and focus on taking steps toward improvement.
By this measure, Matt Kuchar is a great champion.
Matt decided to frame the situation in 2009 as well as he could and to turn every negative into a positive. This task wasn’t difficult for Matt because he is by nature a positive person. Specifically, Matt turned his negative into a positive by focusing on three things: the things he did well, the things he could build off, and most important, the things he could learn from experience.
WHAT’ LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
More than being positive, Matt has a deep love of both competition in general and the game of golf in particular. This love has allowed him to become one of the most consistent players on the Tour over the past several years.
You might ask what Matt Kuchar’s love of competition and golf has to do with flow and great golf? The answer is that it has everything to do with his ability to get into flow and to play well on the Tour!
One of the most defining and enduring characteristics of flow states is that they almost always occur when people are doing their favorite tasks – the things that they love to do for the sake of doing them. People commonly experience flow when they are doing things such as gardening, cooking, playing sports, swimming, sailing, painting, playing video games, or even having an engaging conversation or going on a long car ride. The objective task doesn’t necessarily matter, so long as the activity is something that generates positive feelings. Think about it. Have you ever been in flow doing something that you dread? The answer is probably not. An activity or experience that fragments our thinking or fails to capture our full attention creates a splintered, atrophied state of mind that is the exact opposite of flow. This is consistent with John Dewey’s famous observation that “there is no greater enemy of effective thinking than divided interest.” Whatever the task is, it has to capture your attention and bring positive feelings.
When I use Matt Kuchar as a common example of a golfer who gets it and who therefore often gets into flow, a common reaction is this. “Well, how hard can it be to love golf – especially when you’re playing for million-dollar purses every week?” This reaction misses the point entirely and flies in the face of abundant research that shows the diminishing effect of external rewards on motivation and performance. The reality is that succeeding at Matt’s level of play requires so much time, commitment, sacrifice, and dedication that external rewards, in the absence of love for the game itself, would never produce the type of golf that Matt produces week in and week out on the PGA Tour.
The more acquainted you become with the game, the more you realize how frustrating it can be for many people. Golf often begins as a love affair between the person and the game. How many of us, in our youth, would stay on the golf course or driving range until dusk or dark, often hitting balls into the blackness of the night and looking for them with a flashlight? When I was in my early teens my friends and I spent many evenings playing golf at night. We’d hit the ball and say, “That one felt like a push.” We’d go look for it with a flashlight, prepacked in our bags in anticipation that we’d be unable to drag ourselves off the course at dusk. I know many golfers who fell hard for the game at a young age and couldn’t get enough of it.
This love affair eventually turns bittersweet as we enter periods of high effort without seeing any improvement (the game turns on all of us at times). We find ourselves in the dreaded slump, which often devolves quickly into hating the thought of ever playing golf again. How golfers respond to this phase of development powerfully shapes their future development. In this regard a philosophical approach to the game can be helpful.
While mired in the midst of his slump in 2003, Steve Stricker commented, “This game is so fickle. You can just find it from one tee to the next or lose it from one tee to the next, so you’ve got to keep plugging away and keep working at it.” As his game progressed and he began playing better, he reflected, “I think it’s the nature of the game, and that’s what I’ve come to realize.”
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