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Sunday Journal

The mind's eye looks both ways

Published October 16, 2005

At 15, I thought I might become a professional golfer. I could hit the ball a mile, and control my approach shots pretty well, but I had an unfortunate tendency to choke in the clutch. As soon as a shot really mattered, I'd drive the ball deep into the rough, or miss a 6-inch putt. My mind was my worst opponent.

Then I read an article about the "mental game" of golf. All I had to do was visualize, the author said. Before each shot I should take a moment to imagine, as vividly as possible, how I would swing. In my mind's eye I should see the ball arc, land and roll toward the flag. Visualize, visualize, visualize, the article urged.

To my amazement, it worked. Suddenly I was shooting below par. As long as I visualized every shot, from the longest drive to the shortest putt, the ball obeyed. I felt like I had developed a weird psychic power.

So I signed up for the Pepsi Open, a tournament for teenagers held every summer at the local public course. I would visualize, I told myself, and I would win the beautiful set of clubs on display in the clubhouse.

I had played the compact 9-hole golf course many times, and I was painfully familiar with the diabolical layout. A deep ravine with a creek at the bottom ran through the course, forcing golfers to shoot over water on six holes. Tall, old trees encroached on the fairways, and two long fairways ran along railroad tracks flanked by tall grass. Hitting a shot onto the tracks meant fatal penalty strokes, and a lost ball.

On the day of the tournament, when my name was called, I confidently teed up in front of dozens of other boys. Ordinarily, self-consciousness would have guaranteed a flub, but this time I visualized. I imagined my swing; I saw my ball arc gracefully over the ravine and land about 20 yards in front of the sloping green. Then it would roll toward the pin, leaving me with an easy putt. Visualize, visualize, visualize.

I stepped up to my ball, took a mighty swing, and the ball did precisely what I had imagined. A perfect shot. I even heard some murmured "ooohs" and "aaahs" from my rivals. I sank the putt for a birdie, and then repeated the process on the second hole, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. I was shooting the best game of my life. I knew if I kept this up I would win the golf clubs and get my picture in the newspaper.

On the sixth hole my drive sailed gracefully once again over that troublesome ravine and came to rest an easy 250 yards from the tee. Perfect! All I had to do was take my five iron and drive my second shot onto the green wedged into a corner formed by the railroad tracks and the woods. Visualize!

I stepped up to the ball feeling strong and confident, and swung smoothly, but to my horror I shanked the shot, causing the ball to soar skyward to my right, over the fence toward the dreaded railroad tracks. I was doomed. The penalty strokes would ruin me. My chances for glory and new golf clubs were riding on a skyball headed for oblivion. As the ball sank toward the tall grass, my hopes sank with it. Then, like a miracle, when the ball landed it hit one of the rails and shot skyward again, back toward the fairway. Down it floated, as though in slow motion, and landed right in front of the green, precisely where I had visualized it would land. I gaped, frozen in place, convinced I really did possess supernatural control over the ball. I was still in the game. I was probably even in the lead.

But I was so rattled by this improbable recovery that my ability to visualize abandoned me. I was a duffer again. I chipped my ball over the green and into the woods. On the next hole, I embedded my drive in the muddy bank of the creek. My mind, which had brought me so far, was destroying me. Fear of failure was making me fail. All I could visualize was blowing my lead. Which I did. I walked away with a pack of three golf balls as a humiliating consolation prize.

I had an uncle who was an amazing natural athlete. He won the Golden Gloves boxing tournament as a teenager, went on to play minor league baseball, and became such a good golfer that people urged him to turn pro. Instead, he ran a golf driving range and limited his playing to an occasional bucket of balls which he would drive, one by one, to the edge of the woods more than 300 yards away. What happened to the guy, I wondered? Clearly, he could have been a contender. What went wrong?

Another uncle clued me in. Yes, he said, his brother was a gifted athlete, graceful and coordinated enough to overwhelm any rival except one - himself. When he struck out, or missed an easy putt, he would get so angry at himself he would fall apart and start making foolish mistakes. He would defeat himself; no one had to do it for him.

I understood that. Until the Pepsi Open, I thought of my mind as a meek and humble servant poised to carry out whatever I visualized. Instead, I learned my mind can also behave like a bored clerk - slow, sullen and uncooperative. Sometimes it even works against me, deliberately hiding words, for example, or generating stupid ideas. I can visualize all I want, but my mind, I'm afraid, has a mind of its own.

- Tom Valeo is a frequent Sunday Journal contributor.

[Last modified October 13, 2005, 09:14:03]

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