Golf Flow: Mastery Orientation: Ego


As Jack Nicklaus described, flow is that state of effortless action that we feel when everything is going just right. But as I’ve discussed in this book, flow states rarely just happen out of the blue. More commonly, they are the product of a constellation of psychological and physical factors that come together in an emergent manner, which is why flow is as much something that we have to let happen as make happen.

The first step in the process that leads to flow begins with the reasons that golfers choose to play the game. Whenever golfers come to visit me for the first time or pull me aside to ask my advice, I typically first ask them to explain why they play golf. It’s really not a trick question. In fact, it is rather straightforward. Despite the simplicity of the question, however, many golfers have a remarkably difficult time explaining why they play golf.

Great golfers, on the other hand, never have difficulty answering that question. They are crystal clear about why they play golf. As the legendary Jack Nicklaus remarked, “I had no visions in my head of fans and trophies. Basically I sought three things from the game: to improve at it, to compete at it, and to win at it”. Tiger Woods plays the game “to be the best I can be, to challenge myself, and to win every single time I tee it up”. Golf’s pioneering proponent of kaizen, the Japanese term for continuous, incremental improvement, Ben Hogan, said, “I don’t like the glamour. I just like the game.” Clearly, each of these gifted golfers was driven to win, but it is the desire to master the game, to be challenged by it, and to improve at it that causes champions to fall in love with it.

As I often explain to golfers, if you can find clarity regarding your motivation in the game, you’ll be able to unlock a significant portion of the psychological mystery that surrounds golf and overcome many of the psychological obstacles of the game. The nature of a golfer’s achievement goal orientation determines whether she or he will be able to remain calm and focused under pressure or become edgy and nervous. Not to be confused with the more popular outcome goals that answer what a person wants to achieve, achievement goals focus on the why that drives behaviour.

Because seamless thinking and a quiet mind characterize flow states, achievement goals provide clarity about a person’s motivation. Conflicted motivation results in conflicting thinking, whereas clarity of motivation sets the stage for peak performance and ultimately for flow. Therefore, before reading any further, you should ask yourself that simple question that I pose to all golfers: Why do you play golf?

Take a moment to write down you answers. If you’ve written, “Because it’s fun,” then push yourself a bit further and ask, “Why is it fun?” If you answer, “Because I like competition,” then push yourself and ask, “Why do you like competition?” Take a moment and write down the reasons with the intent of connecting with the internal motivations that the game nourishes in you. Next, see which of the following two psychological categories those reasons fall into.


The first achievement goal orientation is called mastery orientation. A mastery golfer is one who is driven by the love of the game, the challenge of the round, and the desire to improve. Mastery golfers become absorbed in the details of the game, and they launch themselves into exploring and understanding those details. Their motivation to play is often guided by the same simple and basic motivation that guided them when they first picked up a golf club as children: curiosity, interest, challenge, enjoyment, fun, excitement, and enthusiasm.

Mastery golfers engage the idea of kaizen, and they view their work as long term and never ending. They not only accept the fact that golf is a challenging, fickle, unpredictable game; they savor it. They thrive on the challenges that are inherent and implicit to the game. They love the challenge, the eternal struggle, the fickleness and unpredictability, the high highs and low lows, and the sensitivity to marginal differences in their moods, bodies, and concentration. They love playing golf, rather than some version of golf in which every bounce goes their way, in which every well-struck shot results in a good lie, and in which the conditions are always consistent and perfect.

Jack Nicklaus was the archetypical mastery golfer. I’ve profiled Nicklaus closely throughout the years. I’ve had the chance to dine with him, to play golf with him, and to interview him for this book. His ideas are mastery to the core. In My Story (Nicklaus 1997), he wrote,

Meeting such challenges is never easy, but to me the urge and struggle to do so are what competing at sports is all about. That’s because, when I succeeded…the emotional high was the single biggest thrill of my life. And the reason, of course, is not that I have whipped up on all those other people, but that I have conquered the toughest opponent of all: myself.

The reasons for playing that I hear from master golfers are typically consistent: love of challenge, opportunity to test themselves, and continual refinement of skills. Most want to take their learning, understanding, and ability to execute golf shots as far as possible. They genuinely want to know their own limitations and are willing to test those limits through relentless learning, practice, instruction, and competition.

A unique characteristic of a mastery golfer is the view that there are two players in every golf contest: the golfer and the course on which he or she is playing. Except when dictated by common sense during head-to-head formats, mastery golfers do not compete against other golfers. They never obsess about a score or compete to impress or show off to others. Because the matchup is always the same – the golfer versus the golf course – the master golfer is buffered against external distraction and finds it relatively easy to get lost in the process of playing that course one shot at a time.


The second achievement goal orientation is called ego orientation. In contrast to intrinsically driven mastery golfers, ego golfers play for extrinsic reasons that center on others. Usually this takes the form of wanting to impress or otherwise gain recognition from other people by shooting low scores or winning so that others will look at them in a more favourable light. Ego golfers enjoy playing well to the degree that others know that they played well. They don’t enjoy the game of golf as much as they enjoy the status or ego-fulfilling characteristics that come with playing golf. In many cases, ego golfers play golf to make themselves feel better (about themselves) and to show that they are better than others. Ego golfers value the attention, compliments, accolades, envy, and respect that accompany good golf as much as, and often even more than, actually playing good golf.

Like mastery golfers, ego golfers also know that there are two players in every golf contest. But unlike mastery golfers, for whom those two players are the golfer and the course, the two players that ego golfers see are the golfer and other golfers. Ego golfers do not play the course. Instead, they constantly measure themselves relative to others, be they a tournament field, their business colleagues, or even their friends and family.

The greatest players in the game have all been mastery golfers. Bobby Jones spoke of Old Man par. And it would be hard to improve on Jack Nicklaus’ ideas on the subject:

I developed an ever sharpening awareness that one’s true opponent in every golf contest is never another player, or even the entire field but always the course itself – a realization, I am now sure, that has been common to all great champions and, I believe, a major contributor to their success.

A mastery outlook is often what allows promising young golfers to separate themselves from their peers. Consider Zach Johnson’s reflections on winning the 2007 Masters:

I didn’t look at the boards. I really didn’t know what was going on, which was a good thing. I was able to maintain my focus and maintain an even keel and, you know, I stuck to my guns. I played my own game. I knew if I just kept doing what I was doing, staying in the present and putting well, I had a chance…I really felt like I just tried to maintain my focus, and maintain my game plan.

Mastery Golfers like Zach Johnson commit to the internal, process-oriented goal of achieving their best possible level of play.

By contrast, because ego-orientated golfers tend to experience a round of golf as a chance to show off, their confidence is held prisoner to the success that they experience doing so. For ego golfers who wish to – who need to – impress, any misstep is a potential embarrassment in front of the people whose approval they crave. Ego golfers are confident to the degree that they feel themselves successful in achieving their goal, whether that goal is shooting a certain score, beating a certain player, or impressing a certain client, coach, or observer.

Imagine, however, the anxiety, stress, and tension that invariably chaperone the need to earn the approval or admiration of others. Imagine the discomfort and dread that must accompany the fear of failing to impress. Imagine the irritation that follows a missed shot or an exercise in poor judgment. Playing a round of golf with an ego mind-set requires handing other people the keys to our feelings and emotions. For an ego golfer, satisfaction and growth can never come from within. Instead, it must be purchased with the accolades of others.

When their confidence begins to waver, ego golfers go into what’s called an ego-avoid mind-set. When they are in ego-avoid mode, ego golfers play to avoid failing or to avoid making mistakes. Rather than playing to achieve personal excellence, they become motivated not to make mistakes, not to get worse, not to be embarrassed. The inner self-talk that ego-avoid golfers use typically takes the form of desperate phrases such as “Don’t slice,” “Don’t choke,” “Don’t miss,” and “Don’t hit it into the water.” This mind-set of trying to avoid the negative is based on fear, which is the source of the physical tension that often produces the very results that it aims to prevent.


Here is an e-mail that I sent to my golfers to illustrate how mastery golf is actualized:

Just a reminder about the purpose of our Mondays:

The longer we stay in this game, the more chance we have that the bad stuff can accumulate in our minds and either deflate our motivation or clutter our minds with unnecessary information. Thus, on Mondays we want to accomplish the following:

1. Dump any bad experiences, bad emotions, or memories that do us no good from the week before. This process is called clearing.

2. Learn one or two simple lessons that can help us improve and grow. These lessons can be technical, personal, or anything that goes into the overall mix that makes us healthy, energetic, mentally free golfers.

3. Summon a sense of gratitude for the process. We all function better (and freer) when we are grateful and appreciative of (rather than feeling entitled and presumptuous about) what we’re doing and those who assist us in that effort.

It is (calendar date), and I’d like you to reflect on the year so far. If you are carrying any negative emotional baggage, root it out and discard it. If you have learned any great, simple lessons so far, identify them, record them in your file, and be prepared to use them constructively.

A lot of great golf courses lie in front of you. Each site and round of competition represents a ripe opportunity to demonstrate your passion for the game and to become fully engaged in the event. Remember, golf is a process of long-term learning, and the knowledge that you gain each week adds to your self-awareness and strengthens your game.


On the professional tours that I frequent, the characteristics of mastery golfers and ego golfers manifest themselves in interesting ways. Mastery golfers approach a round of golf with the mind-set of trying to play the golf course the best way they know how. They are consistent in their mannerisms and motivations; their Thursday preparation is the same as their Sunday preparation. Their effort level remains constant whether the shot is for a birdie, par, or bogey. Their challenge is to get into their routine, stick to their game plan, and commit to every shot regardless of the circumstances. Mastery golfers treat every situation with the same focus and intensity, and they realize that when they are thinking properly, there are no easy shots and no hard shots. There are only golf shots.

On the other hand, ego golfers tend to play with the aim of making the cut, or sometimes, not missing the cut. When near the lead, their energy and intensity feeds off what other golfers are doing. Because their efforts are focused on the competition rather than getting the most out of their game, they tend to play to the level of the competition. Frequently, this tendency manifests itself as playing down to the level of their competition and scoring worse than golfers with inferior skills and abilities. Their confidence and stress levels change according to how other golfers are playing and from the results of their own shots. As such, they finish a round of golf emotionally drained and feeling that they have no control over their own confidence – which, or course, they don’t.

Playing golf with a mastery orientation is deeply and fundamentally important because this mind-set buffers golfers against the type of panic triggered by the changeable nature of the performances and approval of others. Playing for mastery reasons rather than to feed or protect the ego makes it possible for golfers to absorb the natural fluctuations inherent in the game. Regardless of how much progress they find themselves making, mastery golfers engage continuously in the process of learning, refining, and improving. Their commitment to this process does not waver. Regardless of the surprises and disappointments of the game, they continue to view golf as a challenge and focus their attention on the golf course rather than on the other golfers, the score, or the crowd. For mastery golfers, the process and motivation remain constant.

Ultimately, becoming a mastery golfer requires a pure type of motivation. Because golf presents endless and novel challenges, success at the game requires the type of person who derives satisfaction from kaizen, who has a love of challenge. Consistent with the love of challenge, mastery golfers have a love of experience and a love for learning and growth independent of performance outcomes. As a golfer moves higher up the golfing ladder, the measure of improvement is typically delayed and fickle, often coming long before it is reflected in scoring. This outcome is especially true for more skilled golfers, for whom improvement comes in smaller and more nuanced increments. Of all the reasons to become a mastery golfer, perhaps the most important is this: Research studies have shown that a mastery orientation is significantly related to the ability to generate flow.

2014-15 PGA Tour Dates


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