Ever wonder what separates the top golfers in the world when they all appear to have a picture-perfect swing? Or why your buddy who is a single-digit handicap can’t help but make a double-bogey every time he goes in a water hazard? Filmmaker Erik Anders Lang is attempting to demonstrate why “mind over matter” is a key for success in golf from the professionals to your weekly foursome.
The film, BE THE BALL: A Golf Documentary, proposes that mental fitness is more important than skill or physical conditioning in golf, and that honing mental acuity can take players “into the zone.” Lang spoke with Golf.com about the idea and process of making this one-of-a-kind movie.
Give us some background on what this film will try to prove.
The film is about a question: What is the most important element in sports? The idea is we’re going to answer that by a comprehensive scientific experiment with pro golfers. Golf is the best way to show this interesting experience. It’s the most isolated and longest sport. There are a lot of elements you can’t control. Basically it’s the best sports science experiment. The idea is to see what separates athletes at the top of the game. Is it physical ability or mental stability?
How would you describe your early results?
We’re still very early on. The experiment is the movie. I have a lot of great interviews that led to my discovery of my ultimate thesis. I have footage of minor league baseball players using the FocusBand [which measures brain activity] and doing a version of the experiment, and it’s so fascinating on camera. When the casting is complete, the pros and amateur golfers would convene and do some tests in their normal routine. Then via the FocusBand and other technology, while they’re living their life, we’ll monitor and track where they are at in their ability to recover from difficult situations. Then we’ll know it took 30 minutes for them to get over this difficult situation or you got really out of the zone when you went in the water on this hole. As time goes on, we can decrease the level of stress and increase the ability to "get in the zone."
You’ve spoken to golfers such as Rory McIlroy, Bernhard Langer and Nick Price. How would you characterize their responses thus far?
The interviews with athletes have pretty much completely agreed. Everyone has a different way of talking about the same thing. When he won at the Honda Classic, Russell Henley said he just counted when he walked down the 18th fairway. He was using a spiritual technique to get out of the results and get back into the process, hence, locate the zone. Which is easy to do on the range, but not on the 18th hole of a tournament. Every golfer knows it though. They all need it. Early on with the PGA Tour, I visited with a Friday night prayer group. It was some of the best golfers in the world, just hanging out and celebrating their faith. It ended with a quote: I hope you play with the joy you had as a child and may the wind always be at your back. And I thought that’s a great way to deal with the emotional difficulty.
What would you say to someone who thinks there aren’t any shortcuts to playing good golf except hard work on the practice range?
I would say three things. One, Scott Cranfield, who’s a PGA Master Professional in the U.K. who teaches pros how to teach golf, and his whole thing is that people don’t go to the range properly. They just go and ingrain bad technique. When you go to the range, you need to be very specific about how you should get better. I don’t think that anyone can go out and shoot 79 with only a strong meditation game. But when you get a level playing field of people who have devoted their lives to golf and are all in the top 20 or a group of people who have the same level of skill, a lot of the people who are there have a major drawback and it’s usually in his head. That’s what I mean. Maybe it’s proportionate, but we don’t see it that way. Have you heard of the legend of Major Nesmeth I don’t know whether it’s true, but it was told to me as it was true. It was about a Vietnam War POW who loved golf. He was in the 100s and 90s his whole life. Then he was in a Vietnamese prison for seven years with nothing to do, so in his head, he went over a round of golf every day. The first round he plays when he gets out, he shoots a 74. The mind is something we don’t understand very well. That’s the fundamental point of the film. The mind is much bigger than we understand.
What made you decide golf was the sport to test this experiment with?
I didn’t know what golf was about my entire life until I turned 28. I had never tried it. I was convinced by my brother, who was a die-hard golfer, to pick up the game. I never took him up on it. We never played for so long. But the first second I hit a shot, I thought, “Whoa, this is it.” I was sold for life. The next day I bought clubs. He also gave me a copy of “Zen Golf.” I was surprised, but I read it while I was playing all of the courses on the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama during the 2010 Masters. I had been playing for four months, and I had my first birdie and was reading "Zen Golf" and watching Masters highlights, and it was a little coming of age. I found out about the "Legend of Bagger Vance" and then the Caddyshack Dalai Lama quote. That’s when I thought, “Oh, this is very interesting.” I started researching that and interviewed the director of Bagger Vance and years went by when I was filming with Tour pros and I decided I needed to do an experiment.
Lang is also supplementing the making of the movie on Kickstarter.