Zen Golf

While brainstorming a topic for this column, I jumped on my road bike and set off for a mid-afternoon ride in the rolling hills surrounding my hometown. When I’m in the saddle, inspiration often comes. As I pedalled past cows grazing in farmer’s fields, postcard-worthy weathered barns and Mennonite families in their horses and buggies, I was struck by the similarities between two of my passions − cycling and golf − and I knew what to write about. A recent interview with Jim Cuddy, founder of Canadian roots rock band Blue Rodeo, confirmed my beliefs. When I asked the songwriter what he loved most about cycling, you could just as easily have applied his answer to golf. The 10-time JUNO winner said that cycling is a social activity which gives him time to catch up with fellow riders in the music community; it is also a sport that, like golf, does not discriminate. You can participate in – and enjoy both equally – no matter your body type, age or gender. And, with a little work and discipline, you can excel and improve your performance in either activity.

Let’s look first at the communal aspects of each. My mom is a social butterfly. COVID-19 was especially hard for her. During quarantine, seeing and spending time with friends was not possible. When the golf course at which my parents are members finally opened, that changed. Overnight, her spirits lifted. At a social distance, she could now spend several days a week golfing with friends and enjoying time with them. Over 18 holes on the golf course or on a longer road ride, you are gifted time for these conversations.

Another similarity shared by these two activities is illustrated by this famous quote from American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” What I love about golf is that no game is the same. Whether I’m playing the course I grew up at as a member for the 200th time, or teeing it up on a course I’ve never played before, each round is unique. No two shots are the same and the conditions vary from course to course and also depending on Mother Nature’s mood that day. The list of differences is endless. How can you get bored cycling when each time you clip your feet in and climb on the saddle for a ride, or put your tee into the ground on the first hole, you don’t know what lies ahead. Maybe you will encounter wildlife on the course – or on your ride – which you’ve never seen before. I’ve encountered deer, foxes, turkeys, snakes and more on golf courses and seen similar wildlife while pedalling down a country road.

As long as you are in good health, age is also not a factor for participating in either sport. My father, at 80, is in great shape; he cycles and golfs regularly. Another characteristic of cycling which Cuddy mentioned is that he often rides with his wife and two sons. Cycling and golf are family affairs. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandfather and granddaughter, or husband and wife… the combinations are endless. Golf, like cycling, provides opportunities to make lasting memories and spend quality family time together.

Both sports also offer the opportunity to chart your improvement. If you put in the time and the work, you can achieve your goals. I track my cycling performance on the free version of Strava. It’s a great app filled with valuable statistics, which allow you to see when you’ve eclipsed a personal best or had another breakthrough moment. This motivates me to set higher goals. As I meet each objective, my confidence rises. In March 2020, I set a goal to cycle from my hometown to my cottage by the end of the summer. Thanks to regular rides and discipline, I achieved this milestone — riding the 145 km in about six hours over the Civic holiday long weekend.

Golf allows you to set similar goals and monitor progress. For $50, become a Golf Canada member. One of the benefits is the ability to track your handicap online. Then, you can set a goal to lower your handicap to a certain number by a certain time. All you have to do to achieve this goal is put in time on the putting green, take a lesson, or hit the driving range. The results are immediately tangible. You can see incremental change each time you golf. Hitting smaller weekly milestones will help motivate you to continuously improve your game throughout the season.

Zen Golf & The Calm Of Cycling

While golf and cycling are both social, I often enjoy these activities alone. My most memorable golf games have been ones where I was a “dew sweeper,” the first one on a course before sunrise somewhere with the only things breaking the solitude were the mowers ahead of me from the turf crew and a few songbirds. Cycling is the same. While I love riding with my dad, or sometimes with a friend, the times in the saddle I enjoy most are when it’s just my bike and me. This hobby offers time to think without any distractions, to meditate, and to enjoy a few hours where I do not need to talk to anyone. I can focus only on making perfect circles with my pedal strokes, communing with Mother Nature and appreciating the serenity of the scenes seen from the saddle.

Finally, golf and cycling both require focus to succeed. In golf, you must block out distractions – both externally and internally – and concentrate on the shot or putt at hand. There’s a reason why Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game and subsequent books such as Zen Putting by Dr. Joseph Parent are bestsellers. Take a cue from this noted PGA coach and Buddhist instructor. Next time you step to the tee, take a deep breath, visualize your shot, clear your mind for a moment and watch your concentration sharpen. The same focus is required while riding: whether it’s concentrating on other vehicles or training your mind to focus on your cadence and improve the efficiency of your pedal strokes to conserve energy.

This summer, whether you are golfing or cycling, I challenge you to pause. Look around. Soak in the scenery. And, if just for a moment, reflect on how lucky you are. That is the biggest silver lining of this pandemic – the extra time it has given all of us to slow down and be grateful for the bursts of beauty that paint the canvases of our lives. I guarantee, if you make an extra effort to find this meditative moment, you will enjoy your ride and have better shots from tee to green.

by David McPherson