Corpus Callosum

It’s funny how much easier it is to join up the dots afterwards.

Analysing events, drawing conclusions… and then realising you’ve been taught those exact lessons more than once before. I guess it’s a weakness for most of us; needing evidence to truly believe in the path we’re taking, needing results to trust the process.  They’re probably the three most used words in the athlete world, and yet I think we say it as a reminder to ourselves rather than a statement of intent. But isn’t that the definition of trust? To have complete faith in something we have no definitive proof of?

There will be people that tell you there is proof. Well intentioned and highly reputable people who believe in you, people who undoubtedly know what they’re talking about, telling you “you’re doing things the right way”, that “it was only a matter of time”, or that “it’s the first of many”. And however much you trust these people, however much you respect them; seek out their opinions, advice and expertise in every other area, no one can make you trust yourself apart from, shock, yourself. To put it as simply as possible, the reason I have my first win on the LET is the same reason I was able to tee off the 18th with a two shot lead, knowing that a week’s work can implode in the space of a heartbeat, and still produce two of my best shots all week. I had complete trust in myself and my own ability.

But trying to figure out why I was able to do that that week is the part that possibly doesn’t quite add up on the outside. There’s probably too strong of an assumption in the sporting world that wins or good performances follow a specific set of rules, with very limited variations. Wins come because you’ve been putting in good performances, you’ve been showing signs of consistency, you’ve been in contention regularly. Or you are back somewhere you’ve done well at before; you’ve had a trigger for good vibes. I’ve had reasons to believe in myself and my own capability, I won’t doubt that. I’ve had weeks where I’ve looked at winning scores and known with complete certainty they were in my grasp, weeks where I’ve thought anything might be possible. But most of those weeks have stemmed from one of those sets of rules that I just mentioned. Weeks when maybe the odds might have leant slightly more in my favour. Weeks that weren’t on the back of two missed cuts out of three and a two month stroke average of 75. Weeks where I hadn’t spent parts of the previous events wondering if I’d reached my maximum. If I wasn’t going to achieve any kind of successful result because I just needed some practice time that I wasn’t able to get. If the strongest parts of my game would never be enough to hold the weakest parts together.

Analysis, rationality, doubts, plans, trust… all full cycle, day after day, week after week. Not knowing when, or if, it was all going to come together. Not knowing when, or if, or why, I could even get back to the level of performance I was producing a few months previously, when I believed I’d spent the time in between making myself better. But seeing the smallest of signs and trusting them… engaging in those processes that seem to be going full cycle, and realising they are edging you closer… knowing when to question, when to adapt, when to trust. Who to turn to. They all bridge the narrowing gap that might look like a chasm from the outside. They all bring you closer to the place I found myself in in Coffs Harbour, a place where I felt like limits was just a word and capability was undefined.

Corpus Callosum. It’s the name given for the structure that connects the left and right sides of your brain. The place where logic meets imagination, where reason meets intuition, where fact meets trust. Maybe it’s the scientific name for that place every athlete strives to get into… the place every athlete knows is where the magic happens, the place every athlete knows their performance will find new bounds, the place where every athlete wonders how all the endless complications can suddenly feel so simple. The place where you feel in more control than you ever thought was possible, and somehow completely out of control at the same time. The place you can only find by not looking for. The place where knowing you are in it takes you straight back out of it. The place where all your potential is laid out in its purest, barest form, simultaneously scaring and exciting you. The place you weren’t sure you could hold onto for long enough to believe it was real. The place you train for, sweat for, despair for, live for. The place some people call the zone. The place that makes it all worth it.

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You Do You

It’s always easier to theorise about things than to actually recognise them when they’re happening. Telling yourself that if x happens then I’ll do y. Telling yourself that no matter what you’ll be rational. Telling yourself you won’t care what people think. Telling yourself you won’t get sucked into pettiness. Telling yourself you’ll always push yourself, you’ll always try and do the right thing, you’ll always stand up for what you believe in. But you rarely factor in how different circumstances will impact on those promises. Because really, you have no idea how you’ll respond until you’re there in those moments.

When those moments show themselves, or our environments change, or our comfort zones change, or the people we spend our time with change, it can affect us without us really realising what’s happening. It takes longer than it should for most people to feel comfortable in their own skin… even if some hide it better than others. Pretty much everyone has their insecurities, pretty much everyone craves acceptance, or approval, or respect, in some shape or form. And just when you think you might have learnt to trust yourself, to feel comfortable in yourself, something changes. But maybe that’s the whole point. The last thing I ever want is to get stuck in one place; in one comfort zone. Not being sure where you stand – whether that’s with yourself or with other people – or why you’re struggling, or if you are even struggling… it’s all part of it. And I think recognising that means you’re learning. It means you’re stretching yourself in readiness for moving onto something better. But the only way to move to something better is to not be ok with where you are and what you’re doing. I think one of the things that’s difficult is comparing other people’s comfort zone to your own, or comparing the path other people take to your own, or trying to judge what new people in new situations think of what your ‘normal’ is. That’s when there’s a danger of trying to do what other people do, or not doing what you feel like you need to do, or not trusting your instincts. But one of the most obvious things in the world can be the hardest to wrap your head round; that different things work for different people.

The thing I’m trying to remind myself of though is that really, it only matters if you, yourself, think you’re doing the right thing. If you think you’re doing what is best for yourself, getting yourself where you want to get to… then that’s what counts. Because the people around you that matter should be influencing you to do exactly that anyway. There shouldn’t be a need to worry about what they might be thinking, or changing your behaviour to suit them, because chances are the people around you, are around you, for you. For you being yourself. (Maybe if I repeat the same words one more time it might make sense..) But if they don’t get it, if you feel uncomfortable doing the things you really want to do, if you have to think twice before doing anything… then it isn’t you that needs to change. Chances are, the only thing you need to think twice about is who those people are, and why they are having an influence on your life.

Figuring out what’s right for you doesn’t mean you have to wonder why it isn’t right for other people. If spending a few hours in the pouring rain on the driving range is what you feel like works for you, trust it. If spending all afternoon sitting inside with friends watching movies you really should have seen before is what you feel like works for you, trust it. If having a few drinks after missing a cut, or having a bad day, or getting into an argument with someone you care about, is what you feel like works for you, trust it. (Although establishing the limits of a “few” drinks is probably a good idea first…). Trusting yourself, and looking after yourself… that’s what works. And that’s what will bring people you need into your life, and people whose opinion you can care about, people’s whose respect you’ll have. Just by doing you.

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Access to Better

People always want to know about the difference between amateur golf and professional golf. Why do some make the step up and some don’t? Why do some of the best amateurs in the world fall off the radar? Why do players you’ve never heard of keep their card year after year? Why do players who have struggled on feeder tours for their whole careers suddenly win on the big stage?

I don’t have the answers to all of that (if I did, I wouldn’t be writing a blog post wondering if anyone is actually going to read it), but I do know one of the most obvious changes can be one of the most problematic. You tick a box or sign a letter to say you’ve turned professional, and suddenly there’s a cheque being waved at you with every event you play. Initially, that just seems like an incredible bonus… you’re doing exactly what you’ve always done, the thing you love, the thing you’ve put sweat and sacrifice and into… and now you’re getting paid for it. Unfortunately that novelty wears off pretty quickly because you realise just how many expenses you have. You realise exactly what position in what tournament you have to finish, just to break even. Just to make the life that you want, the life that you can’t imagine not doing, financially viable. Going from a little thrill of excitement when you check your bank account or see the ‘earnings’ tab next to your name on the leaderboard, to doing all you can to avoid mentally or physically comparing the relentless ‘money out’ column to the lonely ‘money in’ one. Or repeatedly logging in to your accounts page, desperately hoping the payment has gone in, so you can find something else to worry about for a few days. And that’s if you’re making cuts…

Even though I feel like the money side of things will make my head explode sometimes, I’m pretty lucky that I’m still young enough to not have my whole life revolve around which bills I need to pay. And at the highest level, golf can be an incredibly rewarding, even ludicrous sport from a financial perspective. But not at every level. It almost amused rather than irritated me last year as I realised that making a profit by playing on the Access Series is damn near impossible. (If anyone is interested, I’d say you pretty much have to finish top 5 to have a chance of breaking even in each event). But that’s not a dig at Access, because feeder tours are exactly what they say they are: feeder tours. You shouldn’t be able to sustain your career by playing them for the rest of your life. In my mind, sport, and life, are about pushing yourself to be the best you can possibly be… I can’t understand people who ever get comfortable with mediocrity.

Playing Access was my only choice last year; it was the only tour I was guaranteed playing opportunities. That was far from how I envisioned moving from the amateur ranks to the professional ones, but I will tell anyone who will listen now that it was the best thing that could have happened to me. And maybe it was because of the limited prize money that I was able to play myself into a much better position in a year… to improve mentally and physically. I read something recently about how providing a financial, or external, incentive has been proven to lessen your intrinsic motivation. Maybe playing a tour where it’s pretty impossible to be driven by the financials is actually a benefit; you can’t get distracted by a reason you didn’t fall in love with something in the first place. Your only choice is to concentrate on getting better…. Maybe that’s part of why there can be more hunger on feeder tours than on bigger tours.

But I also think there’s a lot of pressure, whether self-inflicted or not, on players who have had a good amateur career, and think they are ready to make their mark in the professional world. Social media is all about the superstars; the players at the top, the players who make instant breakthroughs as if it was the only logical next step. The reality is that there are a million and one ‘next steps’ that you can take.. and they can come at any point in a player’s career. Quite often, they might feel like a step back. But actually, if you keep your eyes forward, it doesn’t matter what direction each individual step goes in. Ultimately, you’ll end up exactly where you are supposed to.

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365 Days, 360 Degrees

Every time I’ve gone to write or add to this blog post, I seem to have a slightly different perspective on what I’m trying to say… and maybe that in itself is the thread that’s woven its way through 2017.

It started on my flight home from Dubai (anyone reading this who I saw the night before that flight will recognise that is an achievement in itself), and I was trying to find a way to piece together the story of that week, in the context of the whole year. Because in a way, that season-ending event felt like a snapshot of the twelve months that preceded it. Kind of like when a series that you really like has just begun its new season, and despite how obsessed you were with it previously, so many details have slipped your mind… and so they show you a 30 second crash course of the 20 episodes worth of drama that went before. The combination of controlled confidence, adrenaline, leaderboard-climbing and crashing, exhaustion, despair… and then perspective. It was like every single emotion I’ve felt this year was thrown at me in its most extreme form… but maybe it all happened to re-emphasize everything I’ve learnt in my first year as a professional. It’s funny how even when you feel like you are learning unbelievable amounts from every single day of every single tournament, of every practice session, of every travel dilemma and every person you come across – it’s still far too easy to let those lessons slip by you. Maybe that’s why everything in Dubai seemed so heightened… it was like a reminder to remember.

And another reminder to remember has hit me in the last few days, with LET Q School going on. Mentally, I was a little all over the place this time last year, but in a completely different way to how I was when I started writing this blog. When Q School was over last year and I hadn’t achieved my full card, and I hadn’t gained any status in America after I graduated from college in the summer, I had a battle with myself over whether I needed to take a massive step back and find the missing pieces, or whether I needed to commit everything I had to the small improvements I was already trying to make. There was a lot of doubt involved at that point… a lot of analysis and questioning and reflection. While wondering if I should be doing the complete opposite. Weeks like Q School can do that to you; when it feels like your entire career and self worth is balancing upon a razor blade of a missed putt or a pulled 5 iron.

But the point I managed to reach at the end of last year, and the point I’m at now the rawness of Dubai has passed, is that perspective is everything. While your initial emotions can be the most honest ones, taking a step back from situations can be what you need to see the whole picture. Sometimes you’re too close to have clarity. Some things this year hurt more than I thought was possible; for every moment of pride and satisfaction there have been infinite moments of frustration and pain. But I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve done this year, in how I’ve grown golf wise and character wise. And golf… golf is a sport where even one of the greatest sportspeople the world has ever seen, in Tiger, could never come close to a wining percentage over the course of a career.

Equally though, I think it’s incredibly important to see every angle. I don’t ever want to pretend those reactions; those emotions, those ‘losses’ aren’t real. I don’t think people are always willing to admit to, or accept, or maybe even let themselves see that there are both ends of the spectrum; there are highs and lows and that’s ok. Maybe it’s an element of success to be single-minded in your pursuit of a goal; to refuse to let weakness show itself. But I think there has to be a way to see it all, to feel it all, and to appreciate it all. Because if you choose to ignore anything other than self-satisfaction, I think it undermines both your desire, and your capacity for improvement… it undermines your potential.

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Depth Perception

As a Newcastle fan, admitting the world isn’t black and white is quite a difficult thing to say. Black and white makes things simple; makes them understandable. Black and white makes us feel like we know which side of the line we stand on. It’s easy to see why we would want things to be as straightforward as that… it lessens our doubt and strengthens our convictions.

Black and white also reduces our understanding, our balance, our empathy, our compassion and our reasoning. Our ability to see more than two (or one) sides of the story. To see things as more than our own self-interest. To comprehend that decisions made to affect long term change won’t necessarily have short term benefits. To realise it isn’t us versus them, or right versus wrong, or win versus loss. That every decision doesn’t come down to a yes or no check box.

Standing up for what you believe in is a very good quality to have. But having the maturity to see the picture beyond those beliefs is a better quality to have. Living in a comfort zone, and blaming everything outside that comfort zone for why you’re still there… the world doesn’t owe you anything and if you think it does, you’ll stop seeing the opportunities you’re being given every single day. It can also be difficult when you’re trying to achieve something to take time out from that. But committing to the bigger picture will improve your own position in it, if you have the patience to see how it all fits together. Zooming out to zoom back in.

Black and white and everything in between is relevant no matter where you look. Results and numbers on a screen are undoubtedly what matters when you’re in a results-driven profession, but that doesn’t mean they are the only thing. Being able to take a step back to understand what goes into that result, what influences it and creates it and what it means. It’s like a million brush strokes to create a single line. There’s a million chances there to make that line look different; a million ways to create a different result. But without taking the time, or the patience, or the understanding to view those individual brush strokes, you might never know they were there. Or how to make them better next time.

 

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Living

I’d say “living the dream” is probably one of my most used phrases. (“One latte please” is unquestionably number one in that category). It gets said to me just as much; phone conversations with family members, comments on social media, envious club members listening to my latest adventures. As players, we probably use it ironically more often than we should, but to be fair to us there is a very very unglamorous side to tour life too. A lot of people only see the highlight reel – as with so many distorted life summaries through the social media lens – but the crowd cheering chip-ins and par 3s running alongside beautiful beaches are the pinnacle, rather than the norm. (As further evidence, I’m writing this from the top of a bunk bed). There are a lot of lonely moments and a lot of sacrifices, but for every bunk bed week; for every cold, wet Sunday night searching for your car at an airport while you trail your golf clubs behind you with the strap cutting viciously into your hand; for every alarm when it’s still dark outside and for every six footer that slides past the hole… there are immeasurable moments that outweigh them.

We are living the dream. I am living the dream. But not necessarily because I’m a professional golfer getting to play sport for a paycheck, but because I get to do something I love. I love golf so much I keep it quiet for fear of sounding insane, but it’s true. I like forcing myself to get to the course early because I know I’ve done that extra bit of preparation. I like dragging myself out to practice in the rain because I know I’ll have that extra bit of confidence if I’m in contention on the final day and conditions are tough. I like struggling with a practice drill because I know when I eventually make the breakthrough it will feel even sweeter. I love what I do.

And you know why that’s so important? Because life is too short not to. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do something I love, but I think everyone can have that opportunity if they look hard enough. And it’s more than that; it’s about being the person you want to be, day in and day out. There is no time to put ourselves on hold; to assume that one day we’ll get around to maybe taking up that thing that we secretly kind of enjoy, or reaching out to someone we let things end badly with, or trying to learn from people we look up to. My heart breaks for what’s happening in Las Vegas right now, but the scariest part is that events like this aren’t as shocking as they should be. But if we become numb to horrific events like this shooting, or the Manchester bombing, or the France terrorist attack, or the infinite number of other tragedies… we lose our own power. Our power to make every single day worthwhile. To make every single day mean something. Because we don’t know how many of them we’re going to get.

 

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Snakes and Ladders

I might have taken board games too seriously when I was a kid. Remember snakes and ladders? You could take hours and hours to get to that top line of the board, just a few squares away from the victorious one, sensing the finish line. Potentially one move away. Thinking all the hard work was done. All that forwards and backwards, climbing and falling, and here you were. You were on the right level. You were there.

But there was always the longest snake of all right before the last square, one that would take your precious, hopeful counter all the way back to somewhere near the beginning of the board. All the way back…

I think the people who created that game deserve some credit for life lessons.

I could compare so many things to that board game scenario. Every round, every tournament, every year, every golfing or sporting or professional career pretty much has their own versions of that. I’ve had more than one tournament this year where I’ve finished high up the leaderboard, but I was one shot or decision away, on the very last hole, from winning. There are plenty of positives in that of course, but as professionals in an individual sport we are all selfish and (at least I think) we are all in it to come home with the trophy. That’s what sport is, when it comes down to it. Second place is first loser etc etc. The brutal thing about golf is you put so much energy and effort in for so long and one tiny thing at the end of hours and hours is what brings about ‘loss’. In time – and the recovery time is thankfully getting shorter for me – you recognise the good that you did and can be proud about it, and more importantly learn from it, but… you’re still left with an incredibly bitter taste in your mouth for a while. Like getting to the penultimate square and just as you get ready to step over the line you come crashing back down. (I’m not sure I felt quite as strongly about losing in snakes and ladders, but hopefully you see the point).

US Open was kind of like that to the absolute extreme. I know people want to know what happened, why I didn’t perform, if I was that much out of my depth and so on… but I had good performances before then and I’ve had good performances since then, just as I’ve had and will have bad. What I will say is I’ve learnt more in the last month than I would have believed possible, and as long as that keeps happening then I know I can keep progressing. And the flip side of disappointments like that is you have to get into that position to have them. Getting to the top level of whatever your board game is means you’ve climbed and plotted and battled our way up there. Every person that I’m lucky enough to say supports me will make sure I don’t forget that. Disappointments are one thing, but the context of your disappointments will tell you a few things too.

There’s something about being pulled backwards to go forwards again. Look at what Koepka did… he won the US Open and suddenly people remembered that he was playing on the Challenge Tour a few years ago. Look at Jordan Smith winning the Order of Merit on EuroPro, then Challenge Tour, and now an event on the European Tour. I think people are starting to acknowledge that bursting onto a major stage as a young prodigy isn’t the only (or even the best) recipe for superstar-dom. Taking paths like that can be tough when you watch a Spieth or Lexi Thompson winning majors at the age they are. And I know I would say this with where I am career wise, but feel like you can learn possibly even more by getting yourself cut a few times on your way up. Maybe that way, you’ll be sharper when you do get there. Call it grit, resilience, character… call it nothing at all if you want. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got more of it from the past 12 months than I would have if I’d had things all go the way I wanted them to. And I’m also pretty sure that’s a good thing.

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