After Zach Johnson won this year’s John Deere Classic with an absolutely glorious shot from the fairway bunker to win the playoff against Troy Matteson, he said to CBS announcer David Feherty, “I just want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for giving me the patience and perseverance and the talent to play this game.” While some people may cringe at hearing so public a proclamation of such privately held beliefs, just a quick look at the success of the Jesus club should make us stop and wonder: Bubba Watson (the Masters), Webb Simpson (US Open), Rickie Fowler (Wells Fargo), Hunter Mahan (WGC Match Play, Shell Houston), Jason Dufner (Zurich, Byron Nelson). Regardless of our feelings, that’s an objectively impressive list and anyone would do well to decipher just what the Jesus club adds to these players’ already powerful armatorium that proves to be the saving grace for them.
It is important to note that Zach credits the Jesus club with three things: talent, patience and perseverance, with two of them being the kind of cognitive benefits that are the ineffable, though quite tangible, difference between winning and losing in any sport, golf in particular. When we think about it from a slight remove, we can identify at least three benefits that the Jesus club might impart that anyone would do well to incorporate into their bag regardless of the affiliation of their creed.
- Praying. While we don’t know the details of Zach’s religious observation, we can imagine that it involves some form of prayer. Regular prayer has been shown effective in helping all kinds of problems, from improving mental and physical health to reducing stress and increasing a sense of happiness through serenity. Furthermore, most religions have prayers that believers utter in incantatory repetition. In this vein, we think of praying the rosary, with its repetitions of the “Hail Mary,” and some Christian adherents resort to the “Jesus Prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have pity on me, a sinner.” The Buddhist mantra “Om mane padme hum,” is yet another example. Any prayer or mantra when uttered in repetition will have a distinct, calming effect on one’s neurological functioning, changes which have been proven on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). It is also important to note that one does not need to resort to religious prayer to achieve this effect. Regular mindfulness meditation, encouraging mantras repeated with regularity, and especially, a mindful attention to one’s breathing--particularly in competitive situations when the breath gets short--can all produce the same effects on the sympathetic nervous system as any of the prayers mentioned above.
- Participating. Many people of a religious bent feel as though they are participating in something larger than themselves, that they are a small feature in a bigger drama that is playing out around them. For them, there is a larger plan, a broader canvas and even an entire other realm for which this one is mere preparation. This belief, when truly incorporated, tends to have a calming effect on the here and now. Crises seem less urgent, adverse turns of fortune can be tolerated with greater equanimity and the need to understand every last thing becomes less insistent. Now note: caring less about the here and now doesn’t mean that they become careless about it. This crucial distinction itself brings about a strange but true paradox: by caring less about the here and now, they can bring a more full attention to it, not forcing an outcome with their mind, but freeing their body to do best what it has been trained to do. It also means that they can more easily tolerate the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune better than the rest of us. This kind of toleration is, quite literally, money in the bank when it comes to enduring the famous “rub of the green” of golf, where our perfectly struck ball has a disastrous outcome, but our rival’s shank hits the ball washer of the next tee only to end up as a leaner against the flag. It is here important to remember that the first playoff hole of the John Deere was halved in sixes, as Zach hit his first fairway bunker shot into the water hazard. His miraculous shot on the second playoff hole, from the very same bunker, is testament to his ability not to be undone by events of the first.
- Letting go. Very closely connected to this idea of participating in something larger is the idea that such an attitude brings on a relaxation of need to control absolutely everything, oblivious to the reality that forces larger than us are in play. It is a sports cognition cliché that we should focus only on the things we can control, not the bad bounces, the bad calls, the rambunctious crowd, the petty irritations of an opponent. But players of a religious bent have this idea already as part of their deep-seated cognitive and spiritual repertoire. The bumper sticker: “Let go, let God,” comes to mind here. So, too, the AA Serenity Prayer. It is important to note how foreign from our mind set this attitude is. For much of the history of the human tragicomedy, we have given enormous privilege to the power of rationality, of human cognition, as a way out of our problems and jams. But, many problems, indeed the biggest problems, such as fate, free will and the meaning of life, are problems of being, not problems of thinking. In this sense, we are all mini versions of Oedipus, that wonderful thinker who, when the chips were down, couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag. He was, quite simply, using the wrong club. Compounding the problem is the fact that we spend the majority of time trapped in the bubble of our minds and believing the thoughts ricocheting around that bubble. Time spent this way leads us to the auteur problem: a cognitive distortion that would have us believe that we are the author, director and cinematographer of a movie (“My Life”) in which we are also the main protagonist. This thought must gain incredible strength for a golfer toward the end of a tournament, thronged by fans, televised globally, who is, quite literally, a main character of the unfolding drama. Imagine how helpful it is to feel that one is only in control of the moment to a certain degree, particularly when those moments are highly pressurized. “I will play my part, and the universe will play its.” It is my main point, here, that not only is this a very healthy cognitive attitude, but that those who use the Jesus club come to the game already well practiced with it and are thus more able to reap its rewards.
So, if you’ve read this far, perhaps I’ve piqued your interest. Or, maybe you’re just a friend of mine and are being patiently abiding. Either way, it is important for me to say that I am not proselytizing for any particular deity. I am evangelizing that you incorporate these three skills into your cognitive repertoire, if you haven’t already. But, you should also know that the Jesus club is not something that you go down to your local pro shop and pick up like a new hybrid or your 10th new putter in as many years. No, the directions to achieving the heavenly benefits of the Jesus club are the same as those to that other storied place of perfect performance: practice, practice, practice. These are skills that require as much cultivation as any other sport skill. And I highly recommend you start soon, because the stakes are very high, indeed. Until then, you can repeat the Golfer’s Prayer after me: “O Golfing Goddess, daughter of the Universe, have pity on me, a thinker.”