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Mushin at the Masters

As golfers, it may be easy to wrap ourselves up in the spectacle of Greg Norman’s final round collapse at the 1996 Masters. For we the golfing faithful it seems natural to empathize with the notion of a downfall. In the game we experience letdowns; though they may not be comparative to losing the Grail of the Green Jacket, they are humbling still the same. We may feel solace in knowing that the brilliant Norman is a mere mortal just like the rest of us. But if we examine the whole tournament retrospectively we may come to realize the true meaning of what unfolded at Augusta. This analysis becomes quite profound when viewed in the light of Norman’s own adopted philosophy. Understanding what he has said publicly about golf after the first round of the Masters will help us understand what befell him privately in the final round of the Masters.

In the post first round interview, after having just tied the course record of 63, Norman used the word "mushin" (pronounced moo-shin) to describe the state of flow he had been experiencing during the round. After running the video excerpt of the press conference a local Cleveland area sportscaster chortled that we could learn a "few choice Japanese words" from Norman as well. What in the world Norman was talking about? What is "mushin"?

To understand we need to go back to an interview he gave during the midst of the 1994 PGA Championship at Sawgrass. If you recall, Norman won the tournament after a spectacular Sunday duel with Fuzzy Zoeller in which both players were dazzling. During the interview he revealed that his daughter, who had been taking a martial arts class, turned him on to a book titled, "Zen in the Martial Arts" by Joe Hyams. In the 1979 book Hyams relates his martial arts explorations and his encounters with the charismatic Bruce Lee. Norman noted that he now carries the little book with him in his golf bag during every tournament. Also, in a brief cut-away interview during that same tournament, Norman stated that his meticulous addressing of the ball is a way for him to get the "Creepy Crawlies" out of his head. Of course the media again, with humorous asides, discounted and misinterpreted what Norman was saying. The commentator instantly converted Norman’s words into a physical and mechanical notion of swing attributes. Based on the commentators summation, the viewer could only conclude that Norman was somehow talking about eliminating hitches in his swing.

Returning to the book mentioned above, the chapter Norman was referring to is titled, "Mushin: Let Your Mind Flow." Here Bruce Lee informs us that the Japanese word "mushin" literally means "no-mind." This is the state that Norman was experiencing during that first round at the Masters. It is a state where the golfer is forgetful of all technique.Conversely, if the mind becomes fixed on the goal, the mind freezes and blocks authentic action from flowing through. This fixating of the mind can be likened to a branch being dipped into the smooth and swiftly moving stream of the unconscious mind. When we go into the state of observing our own action we are instantly defeated. In reference to the art of swordsmanship, Lee called this state "suki" (pronounced soo-kee). It is an interval in which the opponent can defeat us. It is an instant of "What If?" or "If I just do such and such . . ." In golf the opponent is often the mirror image of the Self. To many this is a foe more daunting than a swordsman, the angst of self-defeat more painful than the sting of his sword.

Thus Norman’s four round performance at the 1996 Masters can be summed up like so: mushin, mushin, mushin, suki. For most of the golfing masses (author included) this mushin-suki cycle is played out shot by shot not round by round. Some may experience the mushin only on rare occasions. Some may experience it once in golf and chase it an entire lifetime. But since mushin is a moment of nothingness, a moment of no-mind (see Whening), chasing it is akin to trying to capture water by squeezing it in the hand. All concepts of "correctness" lead us to suki; all training devices lead us to suki; the desire for the goal awakens suki in us. Our desire to find out what mushin is gives rise to the greatest of all barriers to anyone attempting to teach or learn the game. Only we can find out for ourselves what binds us to suki and what releases us to mushin. No professional or guru can supply the answer. But ask yourself this: Am I like a small baby, wide eyed and reaching for the rattle? Or do I ask things like: How do I reach for the rattle?; How does a rattle make noise?; How do I get my very own rattle? The baby resides in mushin; the rest is all suki.

The most negative reaction to suki is frustration and anger, to mushin it is desire and ego arousal. The most positive reaction to suki is temperance, to mushin it is a transcendence beyond method and goal seeking. We may speculate that suki entered Norman that Sunday from the pressure of the goal. He stated in a post tournament press conference that he had forty million dollars but no Green Jacket. Perhaps all those juicy endorsement contracts or the desire for green jackets occluded his pure vision and stifled the artful movement. The touting of "better balls" and "better clubs" is all suki anyhow. He knows this better than most of his fellow tour professionals.

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Whatever it was, he somehow moved away from the center of the game/play paradox. Mushin always resides near the infinite center of all events. It is an aspect of balance that pre-exists our physical balance; it is a balance of temperament. In light of the Eastern thought, the observer in himself arose that Sunday and defeated him.

For we the less artful, however, mushin does not guarantee results. Our judgment may lag the entrance of mushin. We may hit a mushin eight iron straight and true into a lake. Usually though, when entering mushin, we will have a tendency to fly the ball straight over the pin and long over the green (see "The Art of Golf," p. 182). If we are playing poorly in this way, we should be encouraged. Therefore, it is a good idea to surmise each hole and each round of golf in terms of its mushin-suki ratio. This type of scoring, if you could call it scoring at all, focuses on actual swings and not penalty strokes or ego entanglement. It will help the golfer to simply address the ball, see the ball pristinely (without mental images of swing), and move purely. If you see the ball leaving the clubhead and spinning as it begins its ascent, you are experiencing mushin. Most likely you will hardly remember moving at all. Time loses all extension as we step into the actual moment unencumbered by thought.

Taylor Spalding is the founder of Golden Barefoot Golf, an organization dedicated to evolution in golf.


The previous article was written the week immediately following the 1996 Masters.


In a television interview aired during the Anderson Consulting match play event of January 1997, Norman reflected back on the Masters debacle. He noted one moment in particular that stood out. He recalled that late in the final round, floundering but still in contention, he called upon all he had learned about breathing, relaxation and visualization. He said that if he could just make that chip shot perhaps everything would turn around for him. He also used the term "zenning the ball into the hole" to describe the profundity of his focus. Well, he put a great roll on the ball and just lipped it out of the cup. One ounce less of pace would have holed the shot. "My whole body went limp" he recalled as the video replay showed him falling to the ground in disbelief. The Green Jacket was not to be his that day.

This early 1997 interview was yet another Greg Norman interview with a Zen spin on it. But in so much as the interview took you into the final round mind of Greg Norman, it also revealed how the state of suki is very subtle even to the professional playing in golf's most revered tournament. Desire for Zen is far different from Zen. This was the key to his downfall that day; it is degrees of this desire that is the downfall of all players. It is the paradox of play itself. Throughout the interview Norman seemed to exude a great calmness in the face of his own recollections, and he revealed that he is truly at peace with the game. He understands that art is often a vagrant creature liable to wander off at any moment. This is the mark of a true player, however flawed the temperament may be.

Masters Update

It is evident from the outcome of the 1997 Masters that Tiger Woods was a truer player in this year's tournament. His temperament is so refined that the quoting of the philosophical is unnecessary for him. He doesn't need to explain action. Though he surely has had access to Stanford's incredible library(just as Michael Murphy did), philosophy can only lead to the edge of the chasm; it cannot instruct in the actual leaping to the other side. As a pro, he is already showing us his "original face." It is the same face he showed us at age three, putting balls on national TV. It is the same face he showed as a baby while reaching for the rattle. It is the face of a modern Siddhartha, mushin throughout.

Will Tiger win the 1998 Masters? Here's a prediction.


Copyright 1996-1997, Golden Barefoot Golf


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