A common saying in golf is that the game is 90% mental. That is, 90% of what's required to be successful comes from how you think and manage your way around the golf course. I don't think that's true. I think it's 100% mental.
Consider the fact that you have, at one time or another hit a perfect golf shot. Clearly you're capable of making solid contact. So why can't you do it all the time?
One reason, of course, is that a lot can go wrong in the golf swing; another, more likely reason is that your mind often impedes. Whether you think too much (about swing technique or a water hazard) or don't picture the shot at hand or fail to build a repeatable routine, simple course management and mental game techniques can help you not only play smarter, but also swing better.
Being mentally tough doesn't mean you have to have a killer instinct with you at all times, but it does mean you have to know how to manage your game, from warming up before your round to bouncing back after bad holes to goal setting.
Golf is such a terrific game because it's subtle. For some folks, those nuances have reduced grown men to tears and fits of rage; for others who manage it well, it has catapulted them to another level of performance, and they've become better players and better people because of it. Read on to become one of them, too.
THE PRESHOT ROUTINE
Emotionally charged events or information (whether good or bad) burn a more significant imprint on the brain than nonemotional events. So every time you react with frustration to a mis-hit shot, you make it harder to concentrate in the moment.
Most golfers think a preshot routine involves only taking a practice swing, aiming at your target and then swinging, but it has a bigger purpose: to prepare a golfer to hit his shot successfully. This demands both a mental and physical routine.
During the mental routine, take in your environment: the lie, hazards, wind, yardage and target; then analyze what the shot requires. Say you're 142 yards out, your ball is in the fairway, and the pin is tucked over a bunker. There's a 10 mph wind into you. At this stage, you need to make a decision, based on your skills, about which club and shot is required.
Next, rehearse the swing you plan to make. If it requires a __ 7-iron, take a __ practice swing so that it simulates your actual shot. I call this the feel stage of the preshot routine. Its purpose is to help you commit to your shot.
Once you've rehearsed your swing, it's time for the real thing. Set up to the ball and shift your focus to the target. This is the time to quiet your mind and react to the target. Finally, make a swing with your target in mind.
THE POSTSHOT ROUTINE
After most players hit a shot, they usually take a moment to react to it (often verbally and not always with words that I can repeat here) and either walk away pleased or frustrated. Riding an emotional roller coaster like this can do damage to your confidence. A proper postshot routine, however, will minimize your emotional reactions and help to prepare you for your next shot.
After you hit a poor shot, first figure out if it happened because of a mental or physical error. Mental errors include being distracted, lacking confidence and never committing to the shot. Physical errors are swing flaws such as bad alignment, an open or shut clubface, poor weight transfer and incorrect swing path.
If your shot happened because of a mental error, remind yourself that you, and only you, are in control of when you make a swing. Don't swing until you're ready. If it were a physical error, understand the cause and effect of the shot pattern. If the ball went right, then simply say to yourself, I left the clubface open. Then rehearse the swing you wanted to make. The goal is to walk away from your shot and understand what happened.
The problem many golfers suffer from is that they get mad after a poor shot and don't learn from it. This makes it more likely that the poor shot will be repeated. By making a practice swing after a poor shot, you'll forget about the shot and shift your focus to the next one
HOLD YOUR FINISH
After your swing, hold your finish for at least three seconds without reacting to the result. Don't talk to the ball, call yourself any names or use any negative body language. Just watch the ball and hold your finish. Reacting to a shot's result wears on your emotions.
If you have a hot temper and complain about every shot, compose yourself. Start by doing this postshot routine. Hold your finish without a reaction. It'll take some time, but you'll play better and have more energy at the end of your round.
RISK VS. REWARD
Many golfers let one bad shot ruin a hole because they try (and usually fail) to pull off a difficult shot to get out of trouble. The next time you find yourself with a difficult shot, ask yourself if the reward is worth the risk. Is it worth trying to save one shot, when you might add on a couple more? Consider your skill level and honestly assess what your chances are of pulling it off.
Consider the situation I'm in here. My ball is behind a tree, and there's a small gap under its branches. I could go directly at the pin, but I might hit the branch, or I could hit a little to the left and avoid trouble altogether. The safer play to the left might leave me with a 20-foot putt, but I'll be on the green with my putter in hand. If I risk it and go at the pin and hit the tree, I'll have to hit another pitch shot, and the chances of getting up and down decreases.
I ended up playing it safe. The risk was not worth the reward. I'll leave the green feeling confident and hope to bounce back on the next hole.
Your putting routine should start when you're 100 yards from the green. From there, it's easier to see how the green slopes. Too often, people start to look only after they've marked their ball. Here's how to do it.
First, look for the general slope–the high and low points of the green. When you get on the green, use your eyes and feet to tell you how the putt breaks. If time permits, walk the low side of the putt and feel the slope under your feet. Many times, our eyes will see one break, and our feet will feel a different one. As you take one last look behind your ball, it's time to pick a target and see the entire line, including where the ball will enter the cup. Your practice stroke should replicate how hard you plan on stroking it.
WHAT'S YOUR TARGET?
The average player should aim for the middle of the green. If you have a normal shot pattern like a fade, then play for it. You should rarely aim at a hole that's tucked on one side of the green, especially if it's tucked behind a bunker or other hazard.
Imagine if your ball finishes in the middle of any green. The longest putt you'll probably have is 30 feet. When you aim at the middle of the green, you minimize the chances of hitting it in trouble areas on the side of greens. Also keep in mind your skill level. What's your average dispersion rate with the club in your hand? Unless you're a low handicap, you'll be better off playing to a target in the center of the green.
WHAT'S YOUR CLUB?
Many players fall short of their target at least 80% of the time because they overestimate their skill level. Just because you once pured a 7-iron 150 yards doesn't mean you'll do it on every shot. Instead play what I call the 10% Rule.
Take the best shot you've hit with a club and deduct the yardage by 10%. Never take a club you feel you have to hit perfectly to get to your target. If your best 7-iron goes 150 yards, then deduct 10% (15 yards) and plan for a 135-yard 7-iron. You'll swing smoother and make more consistent contact.
The worst-case scenario is that you'll hit it too flush and end up on the back of the green, or have to chip from just over the green. Most courses are designed with trouble in front of and to the side of the green. You'll take those hazards out of play by playing within yourself.
THE HOLE YOU HATE
Playing a hole you hate can send your scores soaring. You might hate a certain hole because it doesn't set up to your eye or because it challenges your weaknesses. Don't worry, because you have options:
Play a different shot. For example hit a 3-wood off the tee instead of your driver.
Remember a similar type of hole you've played well to boost your confidence.
Use visualization to focus on what you want to do instead of fearing what you don't want to do.
VERBALIZE YOUR SHOT
A common technique used by Tour professionals during their preshot routine is visualization. By imagining their shot's shape, they see a clear picture of the shot they intend to play. This mental rehearsal promotes focused, confident decisions–and that leads to good shots.
Unfortunately many amateur golfers have a hard time pulling this off. While some see where they want the ball to end up, they don't see the path of the entire shot. If this sounds like you, or if you have trouble visualizing your shot, then verbally describe the shot you want to hit. For instance, tell yourself, I'm hitting the driver toward that palm tree with a 10-yard draw, and it will roll past the bunker on the left. Saying it out loud will help you create pictures and clarify the shot shape. Another benefit is that it places your focus on what you want to do, not what you don't want to do.
HOW TO BUILD A PREROUND ROUTINE
During the time you prepare to hit a shot, a hemispheric shift should take place in your brain. From the analytical left side (measuring your shot, accounting for the wind), to the creative right side (visualizing your shot).
The goal of a preround routine is to get your body warmed up, your mind focused and your swing ready to go.
Here are a few quick ways to get ready before your next round:
Do light stretches for five minutes that concentrate on the lower back, hamstrings, hips and shoulders.
Take at least 10 minutes to hit about 25 balls on the range. Start with a sand wedge and make some half swings, then progress through your set, skipping a couple clubs each time. Finish by hitting a few drivers. Use this time to develop your rhythm and balance for the day. When you hit the last three balls, go through your preshot routine to get your mind focused on targets instead of swing mechanics.
Next, give yourself five minutes to practice putting on the practice green to develop speed control. The last few putts should be from four to six feet so you can feel confident standing over some short ones.
Finally, go to the first tee with a positive attitude. Don't fixate on your score, but rather stay committed and focused on every shot. This will minimize pressure and get you focused on what's in your control. Then go have fun.
HOW TO BOUNCE BACK AFTER A BAD HOLE
The definition of mental toughness is the ability to handle adversity, and nothing puts your toughness to the test more than blowing up on a hole. Golf can be frustrating when a shot result (or a bad hole) doesn't match our expectations.
The first thing you need to know is that all golfers hit poor shots and get bad breaks. How you react to these situations says a lot about your character.
Here are some tips on how to bounce back from a bad hole:
Put the shot into perspective–it's just a golf shot.
Use whatever frustration you feel to refocus on the next shot.
Remember the rounds when you hit poor shots and had bad holes, but still scored well.
Shift your focus from outcome to process, and to what's in your control (namely the next shot).
Become aware of excess tension that creeps in when you get frustrated or angry. Take some breaths and begin to walk a little slower to relax yourself.
WHAT YOU SHOULD THINK WHEN YOU SWING
Ideally you shouldn't think about anything when you swing. I suggest you picture or visualize or imagine your target, but most golfers have a hard time doing that.
Don't use technical swing thoughts like, my right elbow should point down at the top of my swing. This disrupts your flow and disconnects you from your target. If you have trouble picturing your target, use swing thoughts that focus on tempo, balance or finish. Keep your thoughts simple and tailor them so you can swing through the ball.
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM WATCHING GOLF ON TV
Golf is one of the few sports you can watch on television and imagine hitting the same shots pros do. You might not hit it as far or as consistently as they do, but you've had to get up and down to salvage a par to beat your buddy.
Watching the best in the world can benefit your game if you focus on a few key areas.
First, observe their swing tempo. Yes they hit it a mile, but they look smooth and in control while they're doing it. The average player hits it shorter but with more effort and swings out of balance.
Second, study how pros play around the green. As talented as they are, they still keep it simple. For example, pros treat chip shots like putts. They read the slope of the green and plan for the break. They pick an intermediate target where they want to land the ball, and then they visualize the ball rolling into the cup. Their chipping motion has very little body motion allowing them to be consistent on these short shots.
Third, watch their routines. It might seem as though they take forever to hit a shot, but they stick to a routine in which they make a decision, set up and fire away. Most average players just guess and rush their shots. Take an extra five seconds to think before you hit it, and you'll notice a huge difference.
If you've been playing well recently, then you may be excited that you'll put together a great round. If you've been playing poorly, you might fear a bad round. The key is to not feel too much pressure on your first shot. If you stripe it down the middle or cold-top it, your first shot doesn't determine whether you'll shoot 80 or 100. What determines your success is your ability to shift your focus from a bunch of what ifs to what is in your control. Stay focused. Play to your strengths, eliminate your expectations of what you think you'll shoot and develop a plan for the first hole.
With first-tee jitters usually comes a feeling of discomfort. Change that through proper breathing and a solid preshot routine. If it makes you feel more confident, hit a club (3-wood or even a hybrid) that'll have you playing your second shot from the fairway.