The first rule of the zone is that you don’t talk about the zone.
At least not when you’re in it.
As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “Buy the ticket, take the ride… and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well… maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion.” Sure, there’s more to the quotation, but that portion of it explains this weekend.
There is no freaking out. There is no getting beaten.
Last week, at the third oldest golf tournament in the United States, the Southern California Open, I shot 23-under-par in 54 holes and lapped a field of 291 players.
I finished seven shots clear of second place and ten shots clear of third. I took a joyful selfie in the front seat of a rental car after the tournament, trophy on the arm rest, and a four-foot tall ceremonial check in the passenger seat.
Driving home through the vast desert between Palm Springs and Phoenix that evening, my emotions fluctuated between calm satisfaction and radiating joy. The desert at sunset looked less barren and more beautiful than usual. The jagged hills on the horizon were filled with possibilities.
How did I get there? How did I enter the zone and stay there for three days? What is it like to perform in that tunnel of perfect focus? At great risk to ever returning there soon, here are my best answers.
The week before last, I wrote about my friend and mentor, Jeff Beedy, and the experience of being with him on his final day of life. A lovely, extraordinary man who inspired so many, including me, he left the world a better place. I’ve spent the past week thinking about him and what that final day meant. With the heaviness of that day still on my shoulders, golf has a weightless quality.
My practice and play almost immediately improved upon returning home from saying goodbye to a friend. I played a skins game before leaving for Palm Springs, already seeing my targets more clearly. Trouble and distractions weren’t entering into the lines of focus.
This is a big distinction most golfers can relate to. When you play for fun, it’s easy to see where you want the ball to go. When you play competitively, your field of vision can expand to include danger. This, of course, is because you care where your ball goes. As the stakes increase, it’s much easier to see where you don’t want the ball to go.
Jeff’s death narrowed my field of vision. It’s easier to realize that a wayward shot doesn’t mean much after you’ve been with a great man on his final day. Danger isn’t dangerous at all. It can wait.
When I arrived at Indian Wells, I was working on Spencer Levin content for Monday Q Info. Spencer had just won the Vertitex Bank Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour, and I had to piece his podcast together. As I listened to his interview, he said something that resonated like the answer to a complicated math problem.
Spencer said he was hitting the ball solidly and knew he was going to play well. He didn’t know what playing well meant. He didn’t know if it translated to getting through the Monday qualifier, making the cut in the tournament, or contending for the win. Even when he woke up on Sunday morning, he wasn’t thinking about winning. He was confident, free of expectations, and open to possibilities.
Golf is so personal. What works for me may not work for you, but I’ve always thrived with this combination: high on my own game and free of expectations.
A great practice round isn’t a necessary precondition for a great tournament, but I had one. Playing with public players from Sacramento – one used a chipper on a golf ball like he was trying to eat a steak dinner with a single chopstick – I put on a clinic. The questions from the group began with, “so is this like an amateur tournament?” and ended with, “we’ll watch for you on TV.”
I checked into a Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz-themed hotel and continued working on Spencer Levin content. The lobby was filled with a big voice from the restaurant stage, singing old hits for the die-hard audience of older locals, dressed in their best, absorbing every note.
Before I went to sleep, I listened to songs recorded by my friend, Jeff. One song, “Tired of Thinking,” has the following lyrics:
It seems so long
Since you’ve been gone
And now, you say it’s up to me
To give it all I’ve got
All I’ve got
To be free
I’m tired of thinking
So tired of thinking
I heard that song at various points during the opening round the following day. It was a distraction of perspective – a reminder that golf is a privilege, and it was time to have a sensory experience, not an analytical one. I let go of limiting thoughts or concerns of bad shots, and just played the game.
Hunter Reed, son of Callaway’s head of research and development, Tim Reed, was one of the members of our threesome. Tim generously welcomed me to Callaway when I joined their stable of tour players last year, and I’ve only ever played well when paired with Hunter.
Former PGA Tour player Jeff Hart completed our group. Jeff won the 2000 Steamtown Classic in Pennsylvania on the Korn Ferry Tour when it was the Buy.com Tour. He spent five years on the PGA Tour and went to Q-school 16 times in his career. He played with Tiger Woods in Tiger’s very first tournament as a professional, at the Greater Milwaukee Open.
At age 63, Jeff isn’t as competitive as he once was, but the guy has seen some things. He made for a great companion in the first two rounds – certainly better than the practice round guy with the chopstick chipper.
I hit my first poor shot of the day on the par 5 seventh hole. It was a pull-draw that rode a right-to-left wind and was headed for a deep fairway bunker. I assumed my ball was in the bunker and I’d have to lay up. When I arrived at the bunker, my ball had skirted the corner of the trap and was sitting up perfectly. There was a big tree 50 yards in front of me, but I’d caught a good break. I launched a 2-iron over the tree and 265 yards onto the back of the green. The fortuitous break wouldn’t be the last good one I’d get.
Everything seemed easy after that. I made nine birdies and one bogey for an opening 64, and a tie for the lead.
My second round was played on the Tom Fazio-designed Celebrity Course at Indian Wells. It’s considerably shorter and tighter than the Players Course, where I played the first round. Because each practice round cost $109, I chose not to play the Celebrity Course. There’s a balance in mini tour golf between being as prepared as possible, and cutting expenses.
Between Google Earth and the course tour on the website, I believed the practice round wasn’t entirely necessary. The Celebrity Course is framed by winding streams, small waterfalls, gentle slopes and brilliant flower beds. With the snow-capped mountains in the distance, it’s a visually striking layout.
The course, tee to green, turned out to be less challenging than I anticipated. My red-hot putter bailed me out the few times I hit an approach on the wrong side of a hole. I hit 17 greens in regulation and the two offline shots I hit all day ended up in low-stress areas.
One such shot was a cutting drive towards a collection of bunkers in the right rough. The ball flew right into the middle of the bunkers. Like the day before, I assumed my ball to be in one. When I arrived at my ball, it was perched on a narrow sliver of grass in between the bunkers, making my approach considerably easier. I thought about Spencer’s “magical week” at that moment, and how luck had gone his way; how breaks like that can make all the difference.
On the next green I had a slippery 12-footer for birdie. Jeff’s music began playing in my mind. His nickname for me on the golf course was “Tracker.” I heard his calming voice say, “You’re doing it, Tracker. I’m proud of you.” I stroked the putt with absolute certainty of the result and walked to the hole to remove the ball from it. I continued like this for the remainder of the round and signed for an eight under par 63. Eight birdies and no bogeys in my first trip around the course. At 16 under par for the first two rounds, I took a two-stroke lead into the final round over former Arizona State standout Cameron Sisk.
This would be a big test. In the past, I’ve stalled in final rounds where I’d been at the top of the leaderboard. It’s so easy to try too hard, to assign more importance to each shot when you know there’s a big paycheck waiting on the other side of the 18th green.
My only goal was to believe in myself and play freely in the final round. If I did those two things, I knew I’d win. I didn’t need to try to win or even think about winning. I considered what Spencer had said, that he woke up Sunday morning at the Veritex Bank Championship and never thought about winning. I drifted to sleep listening to Jeff’s dynamic guitar strums and reassuring lyrics.
A full night’s rest was the first good sign. A near perfect warm-up on the range was another. I had more energy than usual and the challenge would be to channel it into focusing on my targets. I ignored the steep cliff protecting the opening hole’s right side and hit a perfectly straight 3-wood down the fairway. The next 2 1/2 holes were a bit shaky as I tried to herd my nerves, but two crucial up-and-downs at the second and third holes kept Sisk from closing the gap.
After my tee shot on the uncomfortable fifth hole found the fairway, it was smooth sailing. I played the rest of the day with unwavering confidence, narrow focus, and continued expanding the lead.
On the 18th hole, I asked a rules official to see a scoreboard. I knew I had a significant enough lead, but had lost track of the margin.
“I don’t have a leaderboard on me, but I just heard over the radio there’s no chance for a playoff,” the official said.
Eighteen might be the course’s most difficult hole and I smirked, knowing what a crazy game golf can be. A conservatively played hole left me with a 12-footer with two feet of break for par, and a bogey-free final round. I didn’t need it, but wanted it desperately.
I could see the hole perfectly in my mind’s eye as I rolled the putt. The ball turned precisely on the line I thought it would and fell into the middle of the hole. The stylish close fueled a fist pump and everyone in my group and around the green congratulated me.
“Let me know what tournaments you’re playing in this summer. I’m going to play in all the other ones,” Brett Silverman, the third-place finisher, said.
It’s not a win on the PGA Tour, although I think my play would have translated well. I don’t get any exemptions as a result of the win and there aren’t any world-ranking points, though I do get a reserved parking spot at next year’s SoCal Open. It’s not life-changing money, although it did roughly double my net worth. But the play and the experience was beyond all of those things to me. It was transcendent. It was spiritual. It was rejuvenating. It feels like a rebirth for my golf career.
After I holed out on the 18th green, I took my hat off, closed my eyes and bathed in the warm, brilliant sun. I heard Jeff’s voice again.
“You’re doing it, Tracker. I’m proud of you.”