CARMEL, Ind. – Byron Nelson called it a trance. The contemporary usage is “zone.” It is the state in which a golfer is in a peaceful flow and mental demons are repelled.
Rory McIlroy knows the rare feeling. He won each of his two major-championship titles by eight strokes in 2011-12. You don’t do that without enormous physical talent as well as being able to block out negative thoughts.
“The most important thing when that does happen, you have to realize it’s happening and just get out of your own way and just completely play one shot at a time,” McIlroy said Wednesday at the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick.
Mental coaches call this getting into the comfort of routine and target. Focus on fairway, green, hole and repeat.
Though only 23, McIlroy is a credible source on the subject because over the past seven majors he has joined Tiger Woods as the lone separation players of recent decades. They are the only men since World War I who have won multiple majors by at least eight strokes.
Woods, of course, has become renowned for his thousand-yard stare, a symbol of his single-minded focus. He has won 14 majors seemingly with a lack of peripheral vision.
Woods provided insight on that kind of mental acumen last month at the PGA Championship, a day after shooting himself out of contention with a barrage of bogeys. He bemoaned an uncharacteristic casual approach on a major Saturday and added, “I play intense and full systems go, all out. That’s how I won 14 of these things. … I’m intense and focused on what I’m doing, and nothing else matters.”
Woods and McIlroy, of course, are the lone three-time winners on the 2012 PGA Tour. McIlroy, though, is the clear favorite for Player of the Year because he has a major title for which Woods might pay seven figures.
And as it applies to this theme, they apparently also lead the Tour in zone. Scary that McIlroy maintains that reaching such a peaceful place is something “I still feel like I’m learning to do.”
Should he learn fully, there’s no telling how many big golf tournaments he could win. But he’s realistic.
“There are some weeks where golf does seem as simple as that,” said McIlroy, winner by one stroke Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship. “But it’s very difficult to play like that all the time. That’s why with the great players, they learn to win when they’re not playing their best.”
To hear McIlroy, the bedrock of zone/trance is confidence.
“You’ve got total self-belief,” he said in explaining the feeling behind dominant golf. “You’re hitting it at your target; you’re hitting it close to the pins. You’re seeing every putt go in. It’s just like all aspects of your game are fully on.”
But it’s more than that. It also includes mental clarity.
“Sometimes all aspects on your game are fully on, but you get in your own way and you start to thinking about it too much and you start to talk yourself out of it. Whereas when you’re mentally in a great place, you just go with it and keep going.
“There have been a few guys who have been able to do that, and I’m happy that I’m one of them.”
Bob Rotella, the renowned sports psychologist, was discussing golf “killer instinct” with me recently and defined it thusly: Staying in a good routine and in the moment and unconsciously hitting the ball at targets until you run out of holes.
He has taught such tenets to Davis Love III, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, for more than a couple of decades. But even though the accomplished professional is well versed in proper mental thought, Love says he wants to be fed more – specifically by some of golf’s greatest living players and other legends.
“I would love to be able to get an honest hour with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Wayne Gretzky,” Love said in a long, candid interview recently. “I want to say to them, ‘What are you doing to be good at that? I know what you’re good at, but what did you do to do it better?’ ”
Love’s eyes were wide as he spoke. This was a 20-time Tour winner, a PGA champion, talking with a sense of wonder, not a rank amateur.
“Is it just a God-given ability that they could do it better or did they have some way of channeling it and getting in that position more?” Love said. “It’d be interesting. It’d be like a science experiment. You could cut everybody’s brain up and find out why they did it better.”
Such a group discussion would be compelling to anyone with a competitive gene. And considering recent events, it is sensible to suggest Rory McIlroy be invited to the round table.