Golf Flow: Chapter 10 (pt. 2)

CHAPTER 10 – MATT KUCHAR Loving the Game Part 2


Over the years that I’ve been working with golfers, I’ve heard more than my share of stories of golfers breaking golf clubs, throwing their clubs into a lake, and vowing to quit the game altogether.

Frustration is part of the game. The fact is that you can work relentlessly to improve your game, but you will not progress at a predictable, steady pace, not will you ever fully master the game and be able to perform perfectly in every outing.

The frustration that plagues recreational players is not lost on the best players in the world. As we discussed in chapter 8, the best players probably got there not because they don’t ever play poorly or get frustrated, but because they absorb those experiences better than others do. Think of how you feel after a missed putt or a drive that sails out of bounds. Now imagine having those feeling thousands of times, week in and week out. Compound that with week after week of airports, rental cars, hotels, blown leads, missed cuts, chokes, snipes, and slumps. All told, living the life of a professional golfer can be weary, dreary, and exhausting.

Yet some players stick it out, embrace the highs and lows of the game, and enjoy great success.

Matt Kuchar’s mind-set buffers him from developing a negative attitude. In 2010 Matt offered some insight into how he thinks about the game:

I love the game. I love playing golf. I love practicing. I lover everything about it. I love having chances. And even when the chances don’t go your way, I think it makes you tougher, makes you stronger. If you don’t get beaten up by it, if you keep on stepping forward, all those close calls, they’re going to make you better for opportunities in the future. It’s fun. I have a great time out her. I have my family traveling. I’ve got a great family. I enjoy life as a professional golfer. I think it’s a great life. It’s a great way to make a living. And I feel awfully fortunate.

The crucial point here is that Matt doesn’t only love golf when he’s playing well. He loves everything about the game – the highs and the lows, the challenges and successes. To put Matt’s remark into perspective, realize that he made it after a disappointing finish.

Also note that he won a PGA Tour event in 2002 and promptly went into a prolonged slump. It was during this slump that he decided to revamp both his golf swing and his attitude.

When people say that they too would love golf if they made a million dollars a year playing it, they’re guilty of reverse causality. Matt doesn’t love golf because he makes money at it. Matt makes money at golf because he loves it. He loved it when he was struggling, and that’s what took him from losing his card to receiving the 2010 Byron Nelson Award for lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour.

As part of my doctoral program I took a course in human achievement. For one assignment my advisor gave me the task of exploring the underlying patterns of excellence, not just in athletics but across achievement domains. “Research the best of the best, Gio,” my advisor said, “and look for the patterns. What do they all have in common?” That question has been the cornerstone of my work for the past 15 years.

At a general level, the patterns are common and well known: discipline, work ethic, practice, intelligence, composure, and commitment. You can peruse the self-help section of any bookstore and find no shortage of advice on living a better life. But there are also intangible variables such as interest, engagement, enthusiasm, and love for what you’re doing! It is well documented that people generally fall into flow when doing their favorite activities, so keeping alive the passion for the game helps fertilize the field for flow.


To illustrate, in his 2009 book Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall chronicles the modern phenomenon of distance runners who make traditional 25-mile (42km) marathons seem like wind sprints. These ultramarathoners tend to think of 42 miles (68km) as their normal distance, and sometimes run more than 75 miles (120km) at a clip. While exploring this unique subset of the population, McDougall uncovered the life of a native tribe who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico called the Tarahumara, a people who are widely recognized as the leading distance runners on the planet. The Tarahumara not only run superhuman distances but do it on a diet based largely on corn meal and beer and while wearing simple leather wraps on their feet in lieu of pricey running shoes. Even more amazing is that the Tarahumara rarely report fatigue, illness, or injury.

Many explanations have been offered for the high-performance running capabilities of this tribe, but none are more compelling than their psychological traits, which contrast strikingly with those of American runners. While the Tarahumara were increasing their distances and lowering their times, America’s best distance runners were doing the exact opposite. The people running in leather straps and drinking beer were improving, whereas those eating energy bars and running in the most technologically advanced running shoes ever created were getting worse. According to McDougall,

By the early ‘80’s, The Greater Boston Track Club had half a dozen guys who could run a 2:12 marathon. That’s six guys in one club in one city. Twenty years later you couldn’t find a single 2:12 marathoner anywhere in the country…So what happened? How did we go from leader of the pack to lost and left behind?

The American approach…was too artificial and grabby. Too much about getting stuff and getting it now. It wasn’t art; it was business, a hard-nosed quid pro quo. No wonder so many people hated running; if you thought it was only a means to an end, then why stick with it if you weren’t getting enough quo for your quid?

McDougall explores the decline of American running in more depth and in doing so asks a number of provocative questions that could be applied to the game of golf:

How is it that all the research and technology of modern science has reduced the progress in running?

How do the Tarahumara incur fewer injuries without access to modern shoes?

How does cornmeal fuel them better than our modern-day energy bars and protein shakes?

McDougall’s simple and direct conclusion accurately elucidates the reason that Matt Kuchar has been able to rise quietly to the top of the golfing world. “The real secret of the Tarahumara: They’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running.” (p. 92).

The point that McDougall makes is consistent with research in psychology. His argument that the introduction of rewards into running undermined the sport and delayed progress of American runners is nothing new. Recall our discussion of the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the effect that motivation has on a golfer’s experience and ability to get into flow (chapter 6).

Psychological researchers have shown that differences in motivation have a profound effect on performance. For example, students who read because they enjoy reading (i.e., those who have intrinsic motivation) tend to remember more of what they read, read more often, and do better on reading tests than students who read because they will receive rewards. Kids who read because they “have to” may be able to pass an exam, but research shows that when reading is no longer required they choose to do something other than reading. On the other hand, kids who are encouraged to love reading do as well or better on standardized tests of achievement and are more likely to pick up books spontaneously of their own free will. Like the Tarahumara and intrinsically motivated golfers, these kids will continue to hone their skills throughout the trajectory of their lives because they enjoy doing so.

Similarly, research on students in the United States reveals a sharp decline in students’ interest in their schoolwork and their enjoyment of learning after third grade. In other words, U.S. students generally like learning and attending school until the third grade. At that point, their motivation and enjoyment begin to decline. Researchers note that this shift in motivation occurs as grades are introduced into the curriculum. Initially, the focus is on learning for the sake of learning, socialization, and cooperation. Later, the focus shifts to earning grades, impressing teachers, and competing against peers.

Perhaps the most confounding thing to researchers is that curiosity, the desire to learn, is an inborn, intrinsic trait. Many theorists argue that schools, with all their programs and extrinsic rewards, interrupt that natural curiosity and undermine the very learning that they are charged with promoting.

The message from all this research for golfers is that in addition to being self-reinforcing, good golf brings rewards that can be distracting and disruptive. Whether those rewards take the form of attention, money, status with the in

social group, or just personal best scores, extrinsic rewards exist at all levels of golf. Golfers who allow those rewards to interfere with their mind-sets are also inviting static and clutter into their minds – the type of static that penetrates their ability to focus and keep quiet. Golfers can certainly enjoy these rewards, so long as they are careful not to let the rewards supplant their intrinsic interest in, and passion for, the game of golf. Enjoying the rewards that come with the game and simultaneously enjoying the game on its own terms is entirely possible; the key is to maintain perspective with regard to motivation.

Ultimately, the lesson to learn from the Tarahumara, the psychological studies, and Matt Kuchar is to keep falling in love with golf. You will continue to grow, develop, and change as a person, and as you do, your golf will evolve. By enjoying each stage of development for what it is, you’ll see the solutions to your game more quickly and effectively, keep better perspective, manage stress better, and maybe, just maybe, win the Byron Nelson Award someday! In Matt’s case, his love for golf allowed him to view that disappointing Sunday as a learning experience rather than a negative experience. He channeled his energy into answering a simple question that all fearless golfers ask: “What can I learn from this experience?” From that question came Matt’s realization that he tended to play too conservatively on Sundays if he was near the lead. He learned his lesson, refined his process, and took a more aggressive mind-set into his very next Sunday. The result was a final round 69 at Turning Stone, and a win.

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