How to Play Golf (or Ping Pong or Catan)

By: Jim Murphy


  • Amazingly, the path to maximizing your performance as a professional athlete in golf is incredibly similar to winning in ping-pong or Catan (a strategy board game).
  • The goals are similar and so is the strategy, no matter what sport, game or hobby you’re pursuing.
  • The key to extraordinary performance in any endeavor, over the long-term, is getting clear on how you want to feel in your life, how you want to live, and the type of person you want to become… then, devoting your life to maximizing the development of that person.
  • Extraordinary success in any pursuit is the result of developing yourself from the inside out, so you can be the type of person that loves (and enjoys) challenges no matter what level, whether it’s a practice putt on Tuesday, or a putt to win the US Open Sunday afternoon… a board game or the biggest game of your life.

Note: This article is dedicated to my sister, Naomi T. Murphy, who’s fighting for her life in the hospital. She’s had cerebral palsy and epilepsy since she was two. Her life has been an extraordinary example of how to live and the type of person I hope to become.

“We change the world not by what we say or do, but as a consequence of what we become… If top performers are imbued with the belief that their excellence isn’t a personal accomplishment, but a gift belonging to all of mankind as a demonstration of man’s potential, they’ll go strong and remain so through any event… It isn’t what they have, nor what they do, but what they have become that inspires all of mankind, and that’s what we honor in them.” David Hawkins, Power vs. Force

Imagine that you love playing games and you’re in the middle of a ping-pong match. Say the other person is a professional athlete and you’re not (at least not anymore–imagining for a friend of mine). You love to play, you love to compete and you love to win. And you would especially like to win this match, because of who you’re playing.

What I’ve noticed (my friend has noticed), is that if I’m in the middle of a match, when I think about the score and how much I want to win, my performance has tended to go down.

That’s because in order to perform your best in any situation, there’s one thing that stands out as the key component in extraordinary performance: being fully present.

By definition, the score is not a present thing. In fact, every goal you ever set, every result you ever get, is all in the past and future. Most of us spend most of our lives in this past/future scenario, wishing we’d have done better in the past, and hoping we’ll do better in the future.

Now imagine you’re playing a strategy board game. If you’re playing to win, the strategy and solution is the same: you’ll play your best when you’re fully present, not thinking about the outcome.

Now ask yourself, why are you playing this board game? To have fun, right?

This is where the interesting overlap with professional athletes comes in. You might say, well there’s a big difference between playing ping-pong and playing professional golf, because one is for fun and one is for their career. And this is where I show you how little the difference actually is.

As I’ve shared before…

The path to extraordinary performance under the most pressure, and the path to the best possible life, is the same path.

It’s a wholehearted path.

Think of it this way. Everybody wants to maximize their lives. We all want to have amazing experiences, deep, enriching relationships, we want to do meaningful work, and we want to love our lives.

This is where the ping-pong/Catan playing strategy overlaps pro athlete strategy. If you think about why you want to win any game, isn’t it because you want to enjoy it? But isn’t that part of a larger picture, which is that you want to have great experiences in your life? You want the highest quality of life, and part of that is displayed by your results. In everything you do. It’s all a test.

That’s one way to look at it. OR… Everything you do is to learn and grow, no matter what you’re doing, it’s all to develop the person you’re becoming, so you can become the type of person who has the heart (spirit) of a champion, a heart that’s grateful and joyful independent of circumstances, a heart that walks in love and is therefore selfless and fearless, a heart like my sister’s.

You might recall my conversation with Phil Mickelson at the 2016 Ryder Cup about two athletes who loved snow skiing, and on the last run of the day, realized they had the mountain to themselves, in perfect conditions. One says to the other, “Wanna race to the bottom?” So you race, in and out of trees, over jumps, and it ends at the bottom in a photo-finish, with both of you high-fiving and hugging each other at the most epic ski run ever.

Then a photographer comes out of the woods and says he got a picture of the finish and says, “Wanna see who won?” You both say yes, and you see your buddy beat you by an inch. So what happens next? You storm off and slam your helmet because you “lost?” So now the whole experience is wasted because when it was over it wasn’t the future result you were hoping for? That would be ridiculous wouldn’t it?

You both know that you love hanging out with your buddy, you love skiing, and you loved racing to the bottom. Whoever wins is something for the fans to cheer or boo. For you, the performer, that’s none of your business. Not if you want to give yourself the best chance to have an extraordinary career, and the most fun.

What you can do

  • Next time you’re golf or Catan, ping-pong, or pickleball, ask yourself, “Why am I playing?” Then think it through. Are you playing because what you want most is to have some sort of status after you play, that says you won or lost? Will this make you feel better as a person? Or are you playing because you want to have fun, and you want to learn to have deep contentment, joy and confidence in any situation?
  • Remember How to be on Vacation? Going on vacation is like playing golf or a board game. Don’t play (or go on vacation) to escape your life, play to enhance your life, to learn how to have peace and joy in any situation.
  • Realize that this moment, reading this on your phone or laptop, wherever you’re at, is the most important moment of your life. Today is the most important day of your life. Realize that the most important thing in your life is who you become, which is the by-product of what’s in your heart. Because what’s in your heart impacts how you approach everything in your life, whether it’s a board game or the US Open.

Let me know how it’s going.

Love Jim


Power vs. Force. Hawkins, David. 2014.


I’m in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico as I write this. On Wednesday I golfed at PGA Riviera Maya, in the Akumal area (just north of Tulum). I’m thinking of moving to the area. If you have any experience over here, please let me know (or of purchasing real estate in Mexico).

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