When Failure Produces Insight

 

My most recent golf tournament didn’t go well, but as I stewed in the anger that followed, I discovered some new insights about myself that will not only improve my performance in golf, but in my personal life, and my professional life.

During the opening round, I came to the last hole suspecting I needed a birdie to make the cut and play Day 2. Until that point the round had been full of a litany of poor choices, uncommitted swings, delayed adjustments, back luck, and a slow playing partner that had our group on the clock, but I fought hard and kept myself in it.

I was had more competitive fire than at my previous event, the U.S. Open qualifier, and my putting and short game were significantly improved as well. I put in a lot of time to figure out adjustments in my technique and set-up to get the ball rolling better and more consistently and there was a marked improvement in this tournament.  I made 6 putts from 8-15’, including several for par, the exact opposite from the Open qualifier where I made none from that length and generally felt lost over those putts.

I gained entry to this tournament – the Philly Mid-am – through my qualifying victory at the start of the year, and coming in I felt I had a shot of winning. But you can’t win if you don’t make it to Day 2. Despite a challenging round, when I got to my last hole of the day I was focused on the task in front of me.

The 9th hole (my 18th hole of the day) at Commonwealth National is a 465-yard par 4, the fairway pinches around 280, and anything left of the fairway at that point will end up in a hazard. In the practice round, I noticed that the rough on the right side of the fairway was quite playable and it was 320 to a bunker on that line. I aimed right at the bunker and hit one of the best drives of the day. I was left with 154 yards from the center of the fairway to a back pin. I took dead aim and hit a fantastic shot to 5’.

The putt broke slightly right, but more than I played for, and it lipped out on the low side.

Being in the morning wave, I had to wait for the afternoon rounds to finish, but walking off I wasn’t optimistic. 5 hours later, it turned out I was right. I shot 77 (+6) and missed the cut on the number. Missing the last putt may have sealed my fate, but I knew the blame didn’t lie there.

I was angry. I came in feeling good about my game and the work that I put in, but I couldn’t put it all together.

 

Examining What Went Wrong Produced Deep Insight

To make sense of what when wrong I examined every shot the next day. My putting, competitive focus, and ball-striking were all there. Where I felt short this time was my decision-making and commitment. I counted 5 shots where I made objectively bad decisions – completely wrong for the situation – and 7 shots where I was uncommitted over the ball.

Out of the gate, on my first hole of the day, the 10th, I was disoriented because I thought the tees were father back from where I played it in the practice round and with the wind in my face, I thought I needed to hit driver vs. 3 wood, which I planned to hit. It was 290 to the fairway bunker, I aimed 10 yards left of it, flared it out right, and flew over the front part of the bunker and went into a hazard I didn’t even know was there.

Even if I had hit it where I was aiming, there’s a chance I would have gone in another hazard – the fairways were firmer than I expected. It was a poorly thought-out decision. I didn’t even consider that 3 wood would still leave me a short iron to the green and was all I needed to hit. After a nice recovery shot from an awkward spot, and a great chip to 3 feet, I saved bogey.

Mentally, I felt fine, but then I made another poor decision on my layup shot on the next hole, the par 5, 11th. My number to lay-up was 180, and I hit a smooth 6 iron, but I failed to consider how the ball would roll out and it bounded down the firm fairway, 215 yards through the fairway, into the first cut of rough and settled into an awkward lie to a tucked pin. I hit a decent shot and made par.

The par 3, 12th hole had water short and long right, but I didn’t commit to my target, which was objectively the right decision. I bailed out, fearing a shot to the left, even though there was no trouble left of the green. I still hit the green and two putted from 45’, but, upon reflection, I was miffed about why I was so worried about hitting it left.

I talked previously about how my new clubs and swing improvements had significantly reduced misses to the left. You’d think this would free me up more, but instead it weirdly put more pressure on me to not hit it left. This made me wonder if there was some emotional scar tissue from previous missed shots to the left that were still in my mind and prevented me from fully trusting it. I took a few deep breaths, allowing my mind to relax and see if any would come to mind.

No shots came to mind, but I had a sense that this problem was more psychological, like bailing out was safety. It takes real conviction to put yourself on the line, to really find out where you stand, and while consciously I was willing to do that, I realized that subconsciously I wasn’t, and in the heat of the moment I’d bail.

Bailing out felt like I was protecting myself from really putting myself on the line. As if hitting it left meant that I fucked up.

This sparked a big emotional release. I was sobbing in a way that felt deeply personal.

I was immediately reminded of my reaction to unfair book reviews of The Mental Game of Poker shortly after releasing it 13 years ago. I had no problem with harsh feedback from people that didn’t like the book but could clearly articulate what they didn’t like. I appreciate that kind of feedback and my successive books were better for it.

What tilted me were reviews that wildly misrepresented what I was saying or criticized me for things I never said. My wife never understood why it was so upsetting, and, frankly, neither did I. When most people loved the book and got a lot of value out of it, why would I care about a handful of outliers that made no sense?

Through the tears I had a flash of being criticized by my grandfather for needing to wear glasses when I was 16. I remember hearing him say to my mom, “I’m 80 years old and don’t need glasses, why does he?” I had an amazing relationship with my grandfather, so perhaps such a laughable comment stuck with me is because there was a pattern in my childhood of being criticized in ways that had more to do with the other person, than providing helpful feedback to me.

On an intellectual level this must be true since I didn’t realize I was dyslexic until my early 30’s. I vividly remember feeling stupid in my 5th grade class trying to learn morse code. I excelled in math, (struggled in English and spelling, was able to get by in history and science), but I couldn’t understand why morse code was so hard – it seemed like math, and yet everyone else figured it out except me.

The false feedback, and I assume false criticism, that I got must have felt incredibly unfair. My brain works differently, my eyes aren’t strong enough. These are things that I have no control over and yet I was being criticized, how does that make sense?

I didn’t have that level of self-awareness at the time. I just took it. Internalized it and found ways to avoid it and keep myself safe.

Bailing out is safety from unfair criticism.

I can see this pattern elsewhere in my life. Most notably, writing books. One of the reasons they take so long for me to complete is because when the work gets particularly challenging, I bail. My mind shuts off, and I look for a distraction or to take a break.

It is objectively that hard, or am I afraid of unfair criticism?

I now see it as the latter, because I like challenges. I enjoy pushing myself. Hard work is a core part of my character. If I bail and stop working, then I prolong the period before I open myself up to unfair criticism. I get to stay safe.

All this from a golf shot…

 

Taking the Feedback

This is why I love high level competition. Because of the intensity, I found a weakness that has been hiding in plain sight. On a personal, professional and golfing level, I will be better for it and I’m thankful the failure in this tournament helped me find it.

Now that I’m aware of this pattern, I’ll look out for other ways it affects me…funny enough it happened a few times while writing this blog. When I struggled to express my thoughts, or find the right word, I could feel my mind wanting to bail. Being aware was enough to bring me back.

At this point, I’m unsure if I’ll need an Injecting Logic Statement (ILS) to correct the pattern. Since there was such a profound emotional release, awareness may be enough to forge new strength and resolve the problem. I tried coming up with an ILS but haven’t found one yet that resonated.

If the ball is going to go left, I want to know. I want the feedback because it helps me learn and ultimately be in more control. And the same is true with my writing…missing the mark is part of learning how to hit it.

While I believe this insight will help me to be more committed to the shots I select, I’m under no illusion that it will improve my decision making. That’s the big focus as I prepare for my next tournament, the Philly Open Qualifier, in three weeks. Fortunately, this tournament is being played at my home course, Jericho National. That certainly doesn’t guarantee I’ll get through, but knowing the course as well as I do is an advantage and makes it easier to work on my decision-making process.

 

As I take one last attempt to realize my golf dreams, I decided to start blogging to practice what I preach, bring some accountability, and provide a window into my mental game work, goals, and process. If you’d like my latest post delivered right to your inbox, click here to added to the list.

Written by Jared Tendler

May 29, 2024

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