Zen and the Art of the Perfect Golf Swing: How Time Spent Alone Can Lead to the Timeless

A.H. Chu

The only thing a golfer needs is more daylight - Ben Hogan

Harmony. Courtesy: Icks Corner

There is a famous golf photo of golf legend Ben Hogan (hint: search for “Ben Hogan 1 iron”) that captures him staring down the fairway on the 18th hole in the final round of the 1950 US Open at Merion, holding his signature follow-through and framed by crowds of onlookers all the way down to the green in the distance.

The photo itself is beautiful, but there are a few things about it that are particularly remarkable. The first is that he is perfectly striking a 1-iron which, as Lee Trevino once pointed out, “even God can’t hit a 1-iron.” The second is that this photo happens to capture, at moment of impact, an improbable shot during an equally improbable comeback and victory. The final and most remarkable thing about this photo is that it was taken just sixteen months after a near fatal car crash almost ended Hogan’s legendary golf career.

It’s no mystery then why this photo and the story around it have been forever immortalized in golf lore as the “Miracle at Merion”.

However, the moment captured by this photo was not created out of thin air. Like Jiro’s sushi, it was finely crafted. All the initial components of high quality are there: observation, knowledge and iteration.

Hogan was revered for his level of astute introspection and his ability to self-diagnose his own swing mechanics over years of practice. He was also infamous for the grueling nature of his practice regime through which this fine tuning took place. And finally, as much a student of the game as a master of it, Hogan attributed much of what he learned to those around him starting with the young golfer he caddied for when he first picked up the game.

So what about his positive intent?

Ben Hogan was known to be more than somewhat elusive. Even the photographer who captured that famous photo, Hy Peskin, known as a master of photography in his own right, described Hogan as follows.

“Hogan was a mystery to me. But I didn’t think about it. He was distant. You shot pictures of him, he was (in the) distance. Sammy Snead — friendly. Ben Hogan — distant.” - Hy Peskin

So if Hogan didn’t seem particularly interested in the opinion or reaction of others, who or what was he broadcasting his positive signal to? For that matter, what does any golfer get out of this singularly solitary sport? Millions of golfers make their way to the greens ever year, entranced by the siren song of golf. This is all in the name of improving their game, or, more specifically, pursuing a high quality swing.

If I were to use my own golf game as a case study, the fewer people who could witness it the better, frankly. Nevertheless, despite the sad state of my golf game, or absence thereof to be more accurate, I, too, find myself drawn to the practice range to try to experience that perfect shot. And every once in a while when I do hit that one shot, I don’t need a gallery of onlookers to tell me that it was the one.

The quality of the shot itself reverberates and you feel the impact vibrate up your arms as you see the flight path of the ball trail into the distance, straight as an arrow. In lieu of this, a suspiciously Zen-like question arises; if a golfer hits a perfect shot and no one is there to witness it, was a positive signal ever sent into the world?

To shed some light on the answer, who best to speak to it than Ben Hogan himself? In a revealing interview published by Golf Magazine in 1987, Hogan was asked whom he competed against: himself, the golf course or the rest of the field? This was his answer:

“All three. First I went after the golf course. Generally, I figured that if I could beat the course I could stay ahead of the competition. Ultimately, however, I guess I played against my own standards. It was a constant struggle of one kind or another — but always a pleasant one.”

This is not only a succinct description of the challenge of golf but also of any other sport or activity where competition is involved.

Competition is feedback.

To compete is to put yourself against an opposing force, whether that is a force of nature, a field of competitors or, more often than not, yourself. Hogan understood that it was the constant struggle that allowed him to improve. Without it, he would have had no mechanism to judge his own growth.

However, the struggle of competition in itself isn’t necessarily a positive signal or intent. It can, in a lot of cases, be particularly grueling, even unpleasant if the circumstances are not healthy. So how do we parse out the positive attributes of competition? Where is the positive intent in competition? The key is in Hogan’s description of the constant struggle, it took on many forms, but it was always… pleasant?

The usage of the word “pleasant” seems like almost a throwaway at first, a way for Hogan to downplay his own extreme competitiveness. However, I believe there is another level to Hogan’s description.

It may be hard to imagine competition as being anything resembling pleasant. The definition of competition is to put oneself outside of one’s comfort zone, to find an equal and opposing force to throw oneself at in hopes of getting some feedback as to one’s growth.

So how in the world can this be “pleasant”?

A do-or-die drive in the closing seconds of the Super Bowl is stomach-churning, yes, terrifying, yes, nauseating, probably, but pleasant? Like smelling flowers on a crisp spring morning pleasant? Heavens no. Thankfully, Hogan once again can shed some light on this.

“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself.
I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. I’d be at the practice tee at the crack of dawn, hit balls for a few hours, then take a break and get right back to it.
And I still thoroughly enjoy it. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard andcrisply — when anyone is — it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

In truth, Hogan described it as pleasant because he truly felt that it was. He was enjoying himself! His joy was deeper than just enjoying a mint julep on the porch of the clubhouse. This is the deep-felt joy of pursuing high quality, indeed, a joy “that very few people experience”.

When he hits the ball where he wants, he describes it as hard and crisp. You can almost imagine how it feels, the vibration through the arms, the instant positive feedback. Some call this being “in the zone”. For those that have experienced being “in the zone” in any context, you know the feeling when you are fully in the moment. You are neither fully in control nor fully at the whim of your environment. You lose track of time. You are a tuning fork that has been struck and your frequency is in tune with everything around you.

This is the feeling of absolute engagement in the pursuit of quality.

In this way, the pursuit of quality is itself its own reward. When this harmonious type of feedback is received, whether from the satisfied twinkle in a customer’s eye or the vibration of a perfect golf impact or the flow of a basketball arc as it drops effortlessly through the net… swish, that is the joy, the little victory, that makes life more deeply rewarding.

However, as Hogan implied in his responses, this joy is not given, it is earned. It accumulates only after persistent focus and an absolute engagement in discovering the minutiae that make up a quality signal. The tuning process, the persistent iteration, is what generates the little vibrations. When you keep working at something, trying to understand it, to improve it, to solve it and then finally- it clicks.

It’s these little tremors of positive feedback, in turn, that keep you going, keep you iterating further to reach new heights. It can be a beautifully virtuous cycle. Even better, you don’t necessarily need an audience to enjoy it. If quality is a relationship between two things, why can’t those two things be the same thing?

The answer, it can be.

Relationships exist all around us, if you thought about all the possible permutations of relationships between any two things, you would probably drive yourself mad. So how do we make sense of it? Imagine a relationship is a string between two points which, when plucked, generates a certain frequency.

When the line cook at In-N-Out grills a customer’s patty in just the right way, a line is plucked and a positive frequency generated.

When Jiro finds a tweak to his sushi preparation that further improves its texture, a line is plucked and a tremor is felt.

And when Ben Hogan struck the ball with his 1-iron on the 18th hole at Merion, not only did he receive the feedback in his heart, he felt a literal vibration in his arm just as the crowd felt a tremor of suspense in their bellies and a master photographer clicked his shutter, anticipating something historic wavering in the air.

There are some moments in history where a series of small vibrations, built up over years and years, layered one over the other, some low frequency, strung low and deep across time, some sharp and high, punctuating a precise point in time, come together in sync at the exact right moment, so much so that they create a harmony that is so strong, so distinct and so positive that it quite literally reverberates through time thereafter.

Ben Hogan’s strike was one of those moments. Harmonious. Timeless.

We are not all Ben Hogan, this is true. But the beauty of seeking quality is that time spent alone, generating those small rhythms and melodies, is not wasted. Like a master chef who works tirelessly in her kitchen to discover a new ground-breaking dish, all those who pursue quality share this feeling on some level. To be true, if the Lesson from Jiro is the recipe for quality, then this feeling of resonance is the “joy of cooking”.