Professional golf is a lifelong journey, full of pitfalls, learning experiences, and more than its share of moments of pure joy. When I decided to go all in on my professional golf career, I knew it would be hard. I knew that success would be far from a linear path, and that I would have to break down everything I think I know about myself and the game in order to put it back together in a way that made me a better player.
Last week, I competed at 1st Stage of Q School for the Korn Ferry Tour. It was my first try at the grueling series of tournaments that make up the most direct path to the Tour, and in hindsight I don’t think I was fully prepared.
I shot 72-75 in the first 2 rounds. At 3 over par, I was in yet another self-dug hole that I would have to find a way to climb out of. The afternoon after I finished that second round was a difficult one, but also maybe the most important growing opportunity I will ever encounter. It was also the perfect example of why golf really is a team sport, even if the rest of the team can’t help me hit the shots.
As with Pre-Qualifying, my dad caddied for me at first stage (and he was a trooper lugging my sticks around a hilly, 8000 yard golf course). After I shot 75 he got real with me. I have all the tools to play world class golf. I’ve known that for a while. And he’s told me in the past that my mind, my mental game, was always going to be my biggest obstacle; the tallest hurdle that, if I could get over it, I might just have a shot. I won’t share the details of that afternoon, because I went to a dark place. But by the time I went to bed that night, I had a different goal in mind.
I was going to flatline for the rest of the week.
I have a brain that responds well to catchy taglines. “Iron Sharpens Iron.” “Sacrifice or Regret.” Those are the things that keep me moving forward. On Wednesday night, “Flatline” was the newest addition to my bank of motivation. The idea was to have zero reactions. Whether I holed out from the fairway, or spun a wedge off the front of the green; made 4 birdies in a row or was over par early, there would be no wasted energy.
The thing is, I’m a closet perfectionist. Accepting less than perfect performance has always been a challenge.
I was successful in playing like that for the whole round on Thursday. Low and behold, a 6 birdie 67 was my reward. That was eye-opening. I felt like the same player, and the only difference was that I didn’t let my mind become an obstacle.
On Friday, I took a step backwards on the front 9. I knew I was playing near the cutline, and I let that pressure impact my mindset. It wasn’t extreme, but it was enough that I found myself making 4 bogeys and shooting 38. On the way to the 10th tee, dad reminded me of what we were trying to do. “Play the game. Flatline.”
The result? Flawless golf. 2 birdies and 6 pars on holes 10-17, and I was back to 2 under par for the tournament. In my head, the cut was most likely going to be -5, but -4 might just have a chance. 18 is a 470 yard, uphill par 4. And all I could think was “2 good shots.”
There was no pressure. There was no stress. There was just me, and my goal. I was flatlining.
I hit a perfect drive. High fade right into the middle of the fairway. 144 yards, uphill, to a pin cut just on top of the false front for the second shot. And all my focus was on putting the damn thing in the hole.
The shot came off exactly how I wanted it to. Dead straight, knockdown 9 iron. Right at the hole. The ball landed 2 feet short of the hole and stuck where it landed. So close. I tapped in for birdie and finished the tournament at 3 under par, -6 in my last 36 holes.
I ended up finishing 2 shots off the cutline, which stung, but in the span of 48 hours from Wednesday afternoon to Friday afternoon, I felt like I had learned how to harness the power of my mind, and redirect all of the emotional energy that comes with being me into deepening my focus.
Yeah, I failed. I missed my goal. I’ll have to wait a whole year to play Q School again. But I failed up in a big way. The next 11.5 months are about learning how to flatline every single day. How to take the emotional energy that bubbles up during a round of golf, harness it, and use it as an ally. And that is worth so much more in the grand scheme of my life and career than any week I have ever had on the golf course.
I was right back to work, deeper into it than ever, on Saturday morning. I’m smarter now. I know I have it. The next opportunity isn’t going to be left up to chance, and I can’t wait to get back out there.
Michael VanDerLaan is a professional golfer from Southbury, Connecticut. He is currently competing on mini tours throughout the United States and chasing his goal of being the world's number 1 ranked golfer. Michael currently resides in Jacksonville, Florida.