Michael Murphy is the co-founder of Esalen Institute, a destination in Big Sur, California, where hippies soak in cliffside hot springs and deep thinkers attend conferences on human potential, yoga innovations and nuclear disarmament.
That may seem to have little to do with golf.
But Murphy is also the author of a book called Golf in the Kingdom, and an avid and accomplished golfer.
He’s also a deep believer that golf is very much a spiritual—and Zen—sport.
That’s important here because when it comes to improving your golf swing, there are a number of things you can do mechanically, which we’ll get into, but there also exist a number of habits, principles and practices that tend toward thoughtful rather than athletic.
With that in mind, here are ways to improve your golf swing, both mentally and physically:
Often the best solutions are the simplest. That’s the case here. Far too many golfers—particularly on the tee—get a little nervous, experience some stage fright, hurry up their practice swings, then swing harder and faster than necessary.
Fortunately the first solution to that tendency to speed up, one of the most common crimes against good golf, is straightforward. The technique works in any rushed situations, on or off the golf course: Pause. Take a deep breath. Exhale gradually. Be present.
Yes, slow down.
Take your time with your practice swings too. There’s no shot clock.
While that all happens before your shot, patient tempo is important during your swing too. From a mechanical perspective, a simple exercise can help slow down your swing: Visit the driving range and practice pausing at the top of your swing, starting with wedges and working your way up through your bag.
You’ll be tempted to speed up as you move toward driver, so be attentive to reserving that extra bit of time at the top. A little goes a long way.
Another hack to emphasize the patient pacing: Take a four count through your swing: “One” when you start your swing, “two” when you reach the apex of your backswing, “three” when you strike the ball and “four” when you complete your smooth follow-through.
Keep Your Head
One of the most timeless mantras in golf is “keep your head down.” It’s helpful advice for beginners, who are often so eager to follow the arc of their shot, which is admittedly fun, that they lift their eyes from the ball too soon—often a split second before contact.
In so doing they sacrifice ball-striking precision.
But a more nuanced and helpful take on the classic bit of coaching rings more like a baseball axiom: “Keep your eye on the ball.”
It seems obvious, but represents another Zen-like ritual that nets gains in consistency and confidence with every golf swing.
Instead of freezing your eyes on the ball on the ground, which can restrict your follow through, focus instead on watching the club head hit the ball. Then it’s just fine to liberate your head, shoulders and eyes to follow the shot.
Just make sure you see the club strike. It’s another humble practice with profound benefits.
Thousands of marshals at professional golf tournaments around the globe earn their keep by keeping galleries quiet. That kind of quiet represents a different version of the term.
In golf swing parlance, “quiet” means still, steady, unmoving.
The thing to keep quiet is (for right-handed golfers) your left arm, particularly the elbow (and vice-versa for lefties).
By maintaining a steady and straight front arm, without being rigid, your shot will benefit immediately.
Take It Easy
Many golfers make the mistake of thinking power comes from might, as in the ferocity with which you take your golf swing.
Nope. Instead it comes from a good, fluid stroke that lets the club do the work.
Don’t try to kill it. This connects to the slower, more mindful swing already described, and will result in better results.
Less is more.
One trick to help realize this benefit of execution over exertion: Select a club one bigger than you originally planned on hitting, and then concentrate on a clean hit at maximum fluidity rather than maximum impact, and watch your shot travel the distance you wanted.
About the distance: John Daly shocked the world when he became the first golfer to barely, barely, barely make the field for a major, as the last alternate, and proceed to win the PGA Championship.
His number one lesson for improving your swing: Know how far each golf swing gets you.
He recommends taking your bag to the range and start small, with wedges, and measure which club goes 100 yards.
Once that happens, hit 10 shots to meet that distance. Then do the same for 125, 140, 150, 160, up to your longest club.
In the space of an hour, any golfer can find much greater confidence in how far each club can take them, and swing more relaxed with that knowledge built-in.
Daly came from a long way off, so it’s helpful to think of him when it comes to covering a lot of distance.
Like the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s a lot harder to get there.
Taking a moment to really pick out a target, the more specific the better. Making that a mandatory pre-swing rite of passage can pay big dividends.
It’s particularly important on the tee. Instead of lining up and trying to smack it anywhere in the fairway, select an object, whether a tree or a bush or left of a bunker, and set it as your target.
You’ll find the practice empowering and self-perpetuating. It focuses your mind and generates confidence.
When it comes to improving your swing, a lot of things aren’t about the swing. There’s a reason so many accomplished golfers describe the game, first and foremost, as a mental rather than a physical challenge.
Reasonable minds can disagree on various club grip techniques, but no matter the grip, it’s helpful to observe just how tightly you’re applying that grip.
Too aggressive a grip, and that tightness creates tension and physics that can limit power. A relaxed grip, meanwhile, increases club head speed and purer contact.
Be gentle with your grip. Stay strong enough in your grip to prevent your club from flying into the sky, but no stronger than that.
Lower the Boom
Nothing feels quite as good on the golf course other than crushing a drive deep—and straight—down the fairway.
But how often does that happen with your drive?
One quick and easy method of tuning up your accuracy is to take the difficult, dramatic but reasonable action of leaving your driver in the trunk for a round.
You’ll gain some powerful insight on your skills, and likely start scoring better.
Smile to yourself
It sounds silly, but it gets back to a major theme of this tutorial, namely enjoying the moment and the game itself.
You’re not in a cubicle. You’re not doing dishes. You’re in a beautiful place surrounded by grass.
Take a moment, revisit that deep breath, and let a little curl turn your lips into a smile.
Then take a nice, smooth, slow—and great—golf swing.