“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favourite day,” said Pooh.”
― A.A. Milne
We know better than most; the mind of a golfer is a wandering one.
On the course, golfers have a unique ability to focus on things that aren’t happening now: the putt we missed on the last, the drive we hooked out-of-bounds on this hole last year, the whys and the wherefores of life – all instead of the shot we’re playing.
But what if golf could help you to slow your life down and focus on being present, instead of thinking ahead to the next hole or, indeed, life goal? What if golf even held the key to unlocking a happier life?
Now, let’s acknowledge right here that these are lofty aims and we have all heard cliches like ‘live in the moment’ before, but there is a golfer blazing a truly compelling trail in this area and he’s worth hearing out.
Meet Luke Willett, known to many as the Iron Golfer. This PGA pro, who worked under the likes of David Leadbetter and Denis Pugh, has lived a life less ordinary.
In 2019, he cycled 830 miles in 10 days to play all 14 courses to have staged The Open Championship. He took four clubs with him and along the way, somehow found a way to shoot 73 on The Old Course, St Andrews. His coast-to-coast challenge saw him begin with six holes at Silloth on England’s west coast, before cycling to Bellingham to play six more and finished on the east coast with six holes at Goswick.
Luke is also one of UK’s best speed golfers, having played 18 holes in 26 minutes and shot 66. Yes 66. In 2020, he played Woking, West Hill and Worplesdon in under three hours, a time which included running from course to course. And that, believe it or not, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
“Golf is the ultimate adventure,” he says. “No two shots are the same, nor are the days. I want to show people the game in a way they have never seen it before. As golfers it’s inbuilt in us to follow the rules, but if you go back to the origins of golf, it was about adventure and exploration – people making their own way. That ethos is one I cling to, because golf is game of infinite possibilities.”
It might be tempting to put Luke’s adventures down to some mad wild streak, a scratch in him that simply must be itched. But dig a little deeper and you soon realise that each of these new paths he takes all have something in common. Something more profound. When it comes to golf, mindfulness and meditation are still viewed with suspicion rather than significance, at least outside of the elite levels of the game. If that is your view, you may be missing out on the opportunity for huge change.
A number of studies have found that living in the now helps people find happiness in life. Harvard research found adults in 2010 spent nearly half their time (46.9%) thinking about something other than what they were actually doing. That number has grown exponentially in the decade since with the prevalence of the smart phone, meaning we all experience a myriad of demands at any one time – dinner with your spouse while scrolling your emails, a work meeting while checking social media. Multitasking is the norm. But how does this relate to Luke?
“Doing what I do helps me tap into a way to be truly and profoundly present. Right there in the moment. And that state brings with it a feeling of unstoppable confidence, serenity and peace. It’s hard to sum up with words. But what I can say is that when I reach it, that feeling of certainty and joy is the holy grail, the secret of life, the elixir – all of those things in one. There are moments when I will find myself coming to a stop and taking these very long, deep breaths. When I get there, there are no worries, distractions or concerns. I’m grateful to be right there on that golf course at that moment and I am nowhere else. It’s so powerful.
“Now I am able to tap into that even when I’m not on a challenge. Talking to you now, I can feel it, almost as if I can reach out and switch it on. Why do I reach this state? The one overriding theme that ties all of this together, going back to my days playing golf in the middle of Oxford Circus or the Three Peaks, it’s about stripping away the things that are restraining us from getting back to our primal selves.
“Now most people believe feeling that real sense of peace or contentment is out of reach for them, that it’s something other people find. But what if I told you there is a way for everyone to get there? And relatively quickly. But that it’s a choice and the choice is discomfort.”
Luke should know about discomfort. His many challenges have taken him in search of it. But why? “As humans, we naturally gravitate towards comfort. If we find a good food source, we stay there. What we wear, how we dress, everything is geared towards comfort and we need that. But I don’t just stay there. I take myself out of it and when I do, it helps me find this state that the majority of us aren’t prepared to find.
“I could ask people if they want to come away with me to Nepal for nine days next year. That will be about exploring the outer limits of the sporting world. We’ll be playing Himalayas Golf Club, which is incredibly remote and sits in the valley not far from Mt Everest. I will be climbing the local mountains and visiting the tea huts with my golf clubs on my back. That might be too much for most people.
“Or you could come with me to Scotland for a weekend, to see the beauty of the Highlands and camp on the best golf courses on the NC500 at Brora, Wick, Reay and Durness. I’ve had people ask me if they can come with me to Scotland and stay in B&Bs. I’ve said no. This is not about the courses. I want you to have the discomfort of having to put a tent up and pull it down again. I want you to get cold at night and then wrap up warm, I want you to have doubts and then lose yourself on those golf courses. And then when it’s over I want you to drive home, thinking ‘what have I just been through?’ And then feel what I feel. That peace and exhilaration. And perhaps to know it has changed your life, even in a small way.”
It might be convenient to dismiss all of this as somehow detached from golf. Luke would beg to differ. “All of this has always been about the game. I’m still a golf pro, so it is always tied back to golf. It’s just about exploring the limits. You could look at speed golf and say ‘that’s not golf’. But can you honestly look at a scorecard and tell someone who has shot a round of 66 that isn’t golf? When I was a teaching pro there was always a deep sense within of me that there was so much more to be had from this game, more stones to turn.” Luke is still turning them.
It was Walt Whitman, the father of American literature, who wrote: “Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.” In taking the road less travelled, Luke has opened up the possibility that golf may just be the pathway to the secret of life. That may sound trite, but unless you’re prepared to accept his challenge, you may always wonder and your mind may continue to wander.