Watching Phil Mickelson’s spectacular performance this week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and seeing the way he waltzed around the TPC of Scottsdale as if he were strolling through a park, I immediately thought of Jack Nicklaus.
Like Phil last week, Jack was a master of staying in the moment. If you looked at Jack’s body language, you could never tell if he was 10 under or 10 over. He never walked faster or slower, never rushed or slowed down his pre-shot routine, and never let himself think about what he was shooting or what it meant. That’s because in Jack’s world, as in Phil’s, no one shot was more important than another.
For both of them, the game is about an objective with a number of potential options and variables. Once Jack or Phil pick a shot, they commit to it and execute. The second the club meets the ball, there is a new objective, a new set of variables and even more options. String those together, and soon you’re tapping in your final putt. This is no looking back or looking forward: there is only now.
I once said to Jack, “People say you concentrate more than anyone else.” He said, “I don’t concentrate.”
Assuming he was playing some semantic game, I said, “OK, you focus.” He said, “No, I’m not focused. I just don’t get distracted.”
I said, “Jack, that’s the same thing.”
He said, “No, it’s not. People who over-concentrate and try to focus put too much emphasis and importance on a situation. When I get into the moment, I’m in my routine, and that actually calms me down. I’m enjoying the process. I’m not focused on how crucial the shot or the hole or the round is. If I thought about that, I’d be placing a level of importance on it that wouldn’t ordinarily be there. That’s a recipe for failure.”
That’s why Jack is Jack. And it’s why Phil is Phil. They are able to ignore the outcome because of their confidence in their process.
Phil didn’t get amped up when he was flirting with a 59 in the opening round. He didn’t walk faster or talk more. He looked at each shot as if it was its own picture, and he stuck to his routine. He didn’t get too high when he was approaching history, and he didn’t get too low when he lipped out to shoot 60.
He could have doubted himself after closing out Friday with a double bogey, but he didn’t. Each shot, each round, and each day was its own event.
When I lived in Japan, there was a proverb that went, “Saru mo ki kara ochiru.” That translates to, “Even monkeys fall from trees.”
When they do, they don’t get out of their routines, and they don’t question their ability to climb. They get up and head back into the branches, because that’s what they do.
Amateur golfers have one bad hole or one bad round and immediately question their climbing ability. They also have one good hole or one good round and immediately start thinking about everything they’re doing.
When a tour player is playing poorly, he believes that he is one shot away from turning it around. And when he is playing well, as Phil did last week and as Jack did throughout his career, they get out of their way and let it happen.
You probably won’t lip out to shoot 60 instead of 59 this week. But you can still play like Phil. By committing to the process, and making your routine more important than the outcome, you will hit more quality shots and play better.
Because if you are committed to the process, the outcome will take care of itself.
Mike Malaska is the 2011 PGA National Teacher of the Year. He is the teaching professional at Superstition Mountain in Arizona. You can learn more about Mike at his website .