Inside The Golfer’s Mind
Golf is a game of confidence and competence. I am not about to tell anyone that a player who lacks physical skills can transform overnight into a winner by changing his thinking. If you trust a bad swing, it’s still going to produce bad shots. (Though it will produce fewer of them than if you don’t trust it.) You have to attain a level of physical competence to play well.
Having said that, I believe it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the mind in golf. There is no such thing as “muscle memory.” Your muscles have no capacity to remember anything. Memory resides in your head. Therefore, no matter how long you practice a golf swing, no matter how skilled you become, your muscles alone can’t remember it and execute it when the need arises on the golf course. Your muscles and the rest of your body are controlled by your mind. Unless your mind is functioning well when you play golf, your muscles are going to flounder. If your head is filled with bad thoughts, your scorecard is going to be full of bad strokes.
Having control of your mind and using it properly can separate you from the competition, whether it’s at your club or on the PGA Tour. I believe every golfer has the potential to be much better than he or she is, and that using the mind is one essential way to improve. You will never know if you have the ability to be the best player in the world, or the best player in your club, unless you commit yourself to developing both your physical and mental skills.
1. Play to play great. Don’t play not to play poorly.
There’s a fine line between playing to play great and playing recklessly. Reckless players hit driver off virtually every tee. They fire at sucker pins they have no business aiming at, because they’re convinced that’s what playing to play great is all about. It isn’t. Golfers who are playing to play great love a great drive more than they fear the rough. They like making putts more than they care about three-putting. They love chipping it in more than they loathe not getting up and down. But they may have a conservative strategy for certain holes. The conservative strategy is what permits them to always make a confident, even cocky swing. When the moment is right, when they’ve got a scoring club in their hands, they take dead aim at the hole. But only when the moment is right.
Players who play to play great understand that good can be the enemy of great. They know that if they get too concerned about not being bad, they might not free themselves up enough to be great. They don’t care very much about making cuts or top-20 finishes. They play to win.
‘Every golfer has the potential to be much better than he or she is, and using the mind is one essential way to improve.’
If they do this, they control their destiny as a golfer. I want clients to understand this. They have free will. The choices they make with that free will determine the quality of their golf game and the quality of their lives. If you consistently make the right choices, you’re destined for greatness. I’m not suggesting that this means you’re going to win all the Grand Slam tournaments or all your club events or even all your Saturday-morning nassaus. I’m saying that if you make the right choices, you will someday look back on your life, or that part of your life that was devoted to golf, and say, “Wow! That was great.”
2. Love the challenge of the day, whatever it may be.
Golf is a game of mistakes and unpredictable fortune. If it were not, no one would ever miss a fairway, a green or a putt. On top of that, there would be no sudden gusts of wind, no unfortunate bounces, no imperfections in the turf. Every ball would go exactly where you wanted it to go, and the winning score in a golf tournament would be something like 50 strokes per round.
If you truly love golf, you must love the fact that no one shoots 50, that golf is an inherently imperfect game. If you spend your time fighting the fact that golf is a game of mistakes and trying to make it a game of perfect shots, you’re really saying that you don’t like golf. You want it to be some other game–billiards, maybe. No one has ever perfected golf–not Ben Hogan, not Jack Nicklaus, not Annika Sorenstam. I don’t believe anyone ever will.
Golfers who understand and love the game accept it rather than fight it. They realize the essence of golf is reacting well to inevitable mistakes and misfortunes. They know they can separate themselves from their competition not by perfecting their games but by constantly striving to improve. I tell players that if there’s one thing they should always be proud of in their games, it’s how well they react to mistakes. I tell them that they will never have complete control of the golf ball. But they can control their attitudes.
3. Get out of results and get into process.
There’s a goal that I speak of often. It’s called a “process goal.” Success comes from patiently and persistently doing the right things over and over. Process goals are the “to-do lists” of players striving for excellence. The process is what gives you a chance to find out how good you can be.
Here, for instance, is a set of process goals for a round of golf. If you follow them, you’ll give yourself your best chance to find out how well you can play in that particular round:
• I will trust myself and my swing on every shot. I don’t have absolute control of where the ball goes. I do have absolute control of whether I trust myself.
• I will execute my preshot routine on every shot.
• I will stay in the present. I won’t speculate in the middle of the round about what my score will be, or where I’ll stand in the tournament. I’ll stop worrying about breaking 90, 80 or 70. I will not critique or analyze the shots I’ve taken. I will focus on each shot as it comes, and that will be the only shot I’ll care about. When it’s over, I’ll see how I did.
• I will refuse to allow anything that happens on the golf course today to bother me or upset me. I will accept bad breaks and mistakes and be tough in adversity. I am going to be in a good mood and a great state of mind for the entire round today. I’ll enjoy playing.
• I will trust my instincts and be decisive and committed.
• I will get looser freer and more confident as the round goes on, resisting the urge to get tighter, more careful and doubtful.
• I will love my wedge and putter today.
• I will let it go to my target on every shot.
• I will maintain a constant, ideal level of intensity on every shot.
• I will play to play great.
In setting goals, you need to take an honest inventory of your game. Maybe your ball-striking needs improvement. Maybe it’s chipping and pitching or bunker play. Maybe it’s something in your mental game. You might need to have a better attitude toward putting, or you might need to be better at staying in the present. Obviously, no one is perfect in any of these areas. But most players are better in some than in others. Give your inventory the form of a report card. If you’re giving yourself B’s and A’s in most aspects of the game and D’s in one, you know how to allot your time and energy. Your inventory will guide you in setting the process goals that are correct for you.
4. Know that nothing will bother or upset you on the golf course, and you will be in a great state of mind for every shot.
When I see a golfer showing anger or irritation over a mis-hit shot, I know one thing immediately–the player is not staying in the present. The player’s mind is in the past, focused on a shot that’s already been played.
I view anger and frustration as impediments to playing the game as well as you can. For starters, if you’re angry, you’re not focused on the only shot that matters, your next one. On top of that, anger introduces tension into the body. Tension damages rhythm and grace. It hinders your effort to get your mind and body into the state where you play your best golf.
I prefer my clients to practice a virtue that’s not fashionable at the moment. I want them to accept whatever happens to a shot and move on. Most people have been brought up in a culture that views acceptance as a weakness rather than a strength. It’s viewed as giving in, giving up, not caring. It’s definitely not very macho. We live in a society that talks proudly about “zero defects” and “zero tolerance.” To an ambitious golfer, the natural tendency becomes refusal to accept mistakes. But in golf, because humans are flawed and the game is so difficult, mistakes are going to happen. Accepting them is not a weakness. It’s an important part of getting stronger and mentally tougher, a part of resilience, of being able to hang in there during a round, of recovering from errors and finishing with a good score.
‘Nothing will bother or upset you on the golf course, and you will be in a great state of mind for every shot. ’Padraig Harrington tells me that he’s performed better since he made acceptance part of his preshot routine. As he prepares to hit a shot, Padraig reminds himself that whatever happens to it, he will accept it and go from there. This allows him to focus narrowly on his target and swing freely.
Acceptance, of course, is to be practiced on the course, during a round of golf. After it’s over, it’s fine to make a quick assessment of where you made your mistakes. It’s fine to lay out a plan to improve your weaknesses. I’m not advocating accepting mediocrity and poor results. Acceptance doesn’t preclude thorough preparation and practice to improve our skills.
5. Playing with a feeling that the outcome doesn’t matter is always preferable to caring too much.
The biggest mistake most people make is to let how they play dictate their attitude. If the ball is going where they want it to go, they have a good attitude. If it isn’t, their attitude is bad. They start thinking badly. When you’re playing well, it’s fine to go with the flow. But when you’re playing badly, you need the discipline to control your thoughts and think only about the way you want to play.
Mastering this concept goes a long way in determining two critical outcomes. One is how good a player is going to get at golf. The second is how much fun the player will have along the way.
Of all the concepts I teach, staying in the present is perhaps the simplest. Yet it’s one of the most difficult to practice.
I have clients who tell me staying in the present is no problem for them. But then they say something like, “I came to the 16th, and I’m thinking, this is a birdie hole …”