Mike Weir’s six-under-par 66 in the opening round Thursday of the Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla, Calif. was the product not only of a hot putter and improved ball-striking, but of a refined mental state. In an unusual move for a private person who rarely speaks publicly about the details of what he’s working on, Weir said after his round on Golf Channel that he wanted to thank “Graham and Henry from FocusBand.”
That sent me scurrying to learn more about FocusBand. What’s it all about? Who are Graham and Henry? In fact, I thought I’d heard Weir tell Frank Nobilo and Terry Gannon that he wanted to thank “Jason and Henry,” but some research showed me he must have said “Graham and Henry.” Graham and Henry Boulton are a father and son team from Windaroo, Queensland, Australia. FocusBand is a device that an athlete wears on his head that measures electrical impulses in the brain while providing information on his mental state. The information is transmitted wirelessly to a computer.
The idea as I understand it is based on extensive research that the Boultons‘ provide on their website. The website links to one study called Quiet Eye Duration, Expertise, and Task Complexity in Near and Far Aiming Exercises, a collaborative effort that three scientists conducted with billiards players. Skilled players kept their eyes fixed on the target longer than lesser players before they started to move the billiard cue. They were more focused, the result of quiet rather than twitchy eyes.
There’s a lot more to the Boultons’ work than that one paragraph can indicate. The objective is to help the athlete get into that zone where, in golf at any rate, he is swinging rather than thinking. The intention is to engage the right rather than the left brain–the imaginative and instinctive part of the brain rather than the logical side. Golfers have heard for years that “You can’t think and swing at the same time.”
There’s more than a hint of Zen in this, and, as it turns out, the approach is meant to generate what is called a “Mushin” state. Now, I’ve read my share of books about Zen – hey, I’m a 60s kid and so I read The Way of Zen by Alan Watts – a Zen bible of sports for 60s kids. I studied psychology and read Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. Every kid of the 60s recited the famous Gestalt saying that went, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”
FocusBand, I read, tries to move the golfer into a state known in eastern culture as “Mushin.” Martial arts experts get into this state, although they’re not the only athletes who do so, of course. One definition I read said that Mushin “is the progressive experience of deepening levels of no conscious mindedness.” The Boultons’ website claims that FocusBand is “built on revolutionary Asian scientific discoveries.” Weir is featured on the home page of the website as a “FocusBand user.”
The Boultons launched their product at the 2011 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. I’m heading to the show this morning. Maybe they’ll be there. I emailed Henry Boulton after Weir’s first round to ask about their work with him, and whether they’ll be at the PGA Show. As of this writing early Friday, Henry has not yet replied.
Golf at Weir’s level is a tricky business, much more so than for those of us for whom it’s merely a game. He’s been working with his usual dedication on rebuilding his swing, under the guidance of Grant Waite, a former PGA Tour player who won once. Weir hasn’t made a cut since the 2011 AT&T National – or 18 tournaments. But he’s shot four rounds in the 60s this season, and he’s played only seven rounds. He was nine-under-par for 13 holes in the third round of last week’s Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif. before making a bogey and then triple-bogeying the last hole when he was right on the cut line. The cut came after three rounds at the Humana. Weir was bloodied but hardly beaten.
A golfer doesn’t go nine-under for 13 holes without swinging well. That’s the mechanics part, even though something broke down on the 18th hole when Weir needed to make a good swing to make the cut. He drove into the water, and that was effectively that. Maybe he wasn’t in his comfort zone at that moment. After all, just making the cut would have been an accomplishment. That can sound weird when we’re talking about a golfer who has won a Masters and seven other PGA Tour events. But golf can be brutal and it can wreak havoc on a player’s swing and mind.
Weir has settled on Waite for his swing, after flitting from instructor to instructor. And he seems to have settled on the Boultons and FocusBand for turning off his rational side and turning on his intuitive side on the course. That’s not easy for any golfer, especially somebody like Weir who has had to rebuild a swing after a serious elbow injury that required surgery. If the mechanics of his swing are improving, and it appears that’s the case, then it will be all that more important for Weir to believe in it, to have a quiet mind, and, I suppose, the quiet eye that goes with it.
Weir played the easier North course at Torrey Pines in his first round. At one late point in his round I looked at his statistics, and he had hit only 11 per cent of the fairways. Driving has been his major issue, and he’ll need to find more fairways on the difficult and much longer South course, where Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open. Still, Weir is showing marked progress. He’s one shot out of the lead and obviously in great shape to make the cut. Can he trust his driver when there’s a significant penalty for missing a fairway?
In the first round, Weir’s last hole was the ninth hole. He drove into the right rough and then swung aggressively on his second shot to get to or near the green. He went at the ball so hard that his back, or left, foot, came off the ground as he lurched forward. The shot finished short of the green in the left rough. As Weir walked forward after his second shot, the camera was on him. I noticed that he put a finger against or in each ear.
Was Weir trying to trigger a quiet mind? Was this something he’d learned from wearing the FocusBand and getting the information it provides from measuring electrical activity on the golfer’s scalp? Or was he simply itchy? Maybe he was trying “to stay in the now,” which the Boultons teach in their workshops.
Weir didn’t get up and down for birdie on his last hole, a par-five. But he did shoot 66, and he then told Nobilo and Gannon that it’s been difficult for him in these last couple of years to maintain his focus. But, he said, he loves golf and he needed to push through the problems and barriers.
Has Weir made serious inroads into pushing through the mechanical and mental barriers? There’s reason to believe he’s getting there. The battle continues, with Waite and the Boultons’ FocusBand at Weir’s side, part of the team that believes in him. Weir believes in himself as well, or else he wouldn’t have put himself through the last couple of years. He’s doing whatever he thinks he needs to do. His journey has taken him to FocusBand. We’ll see where it goes from here.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein