Winning Golf’s Mental Game

It sounds overly cliche to say this, but golf is mental. Not necessarily in the sense that you have to be a little sadistic to play it, though that may be true as well. What I mean is that it’s more of a mental challenge than it is physical.

Sure, it’s a sport that requires athletic moves (if you disagree with that, I’m happy to change your mind), but the difference between a top professional and a good amateur player isn’t found in swing characteristics or muscle strength. Instead, it’s in one’s head.

“The game of golf is played on a 5-inch course; the distance between your ears.”

-Bobby Jones

The quote above is from one of the greatest golfer’s of all time. He knew that golf wasn’t, primarily, about physical skill. That’s what made him so great. Not long ago, I saw an interesting tweet from a well-known golf analyst; Brandel Chamblee. Love him or hate him, his words amazed and inspired me to look at this topic some more.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack in that short story. First of all, the guy hadn’t played golf in over 7 years! I’ve talked to plenty of people who temporarily gave up the game for a couple years and decided to return. The frustration in those people is almost unbearable because their skills are completely gone. Golf is not like riding a bike, where you can just pick it back up after taking a decade off.

Second, think about the lowest score you’ve ever shot. Now, subtract 20 shots off of that. Have you ever, in your wildest dreams, thought that would be possible even if you practiced every day for a year straight. A lofty goal that I’ve heard amateur golfers try to tackle is lowering their average score by 10 shots in a year. Ten shots is a lot. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone actually accomplish that in one year of intentional growth.

The fact that the story in Brandel’s tweet is real is more incredible than you might think. The USGA has a chart that shows a player’s odds of shooting a specific score compared to their handicap index. I believe they put it out in order to catch, or scare away, “sandbagging.” Basically, sandbagging is intentionally shooting bad scores, so that you can shoot a really low score in a handicapped tournament and win easily. You might think, who would do that?! I know, right? Believe it or not, it happens all the time though.

Anyway, the USGA puts out this chart and it doesn’t even shot the odds of shooting 20 strokes lower than your best score because it’s so unlikely that they don’t need to address that situation.

So, let’s move on. What’s my point? My point is that almost anyone can play really really good golf. Ben Hogan once said,

“…there’s nothing difficult about golf, nothing. I see no reason, truly, why the average golfer, if he goes about it intelligently, shouldn’t play in the 70s…”

Have you ever shot a round in the 70s? Only 2% of golfers ever break 80 in their lifetime. So, what Ben Hogan is saying is fairly significant. You can shoot in the 70s (or lower), and I can prove it.

Think back to a time when you hit “the perfect shot.” The ball flew off your club face exactly how you pictured it and sailed towards the hole, landing and stopping within a few feet; maybe it even went in! What’s stopping you from doing that on almost every shot? You’re physically able to do it. If Tiger Woods was standing next to you and dropped a ball in that same spot, he might not have even been able to do that same thing.

You see, the difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional does that sort of stuff consistently. They’ve done it before and the can do it again. That’s the difference between you and them. So, how do become a golfer that shoots in the 70s? I’m glad you asked…

POSITIVE TALK

First of all, lowering your scores and winning golf’s mental game requires you to practice positive self-talk. Most amateur golfers don’t act like they are good at golf, so guess what? They aren’t. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We joke with our buddies about how we can’t hit a fairway or make a putt, then that’s exactly what we do for 4 hours.

Maybe you’re in conversation with a co-worker and they hear you play golf. They ask if you’re any good. How do you answer? You probably laugh and say something like, “I’m terrible, but I’m a glutton for punishment.”

We engage in this sort of talk because we don’t want to be viewed as cocky, arrogant, or proud. That’s fine if you want to do that, but it’s hurting your golf game. With each negative comment about your golf skill, you start to believe it. Then, when you step on the first tee, you’ve already convinced yourself that you’re going to shoot a certain score.

The solution is fairly simple. Consider each conversation you have about golf as an opportunity to improve your game, whether you have a club in your hand or not. Each positive comment about your golf skill is another coin in your piggy bank that you’ll be able to cash in for actual skill. Don’t just wait for those golf conversations though, create them on your own. Find time to meditate on your game and tell yourself who you want to be; a great driver, putter, long-iron player, or…golfer.

VISUALIZATION

Next, to go along with the positive self-talk, you’ve got to see the result. Words are great (I’m a writer after all), but most people are visual learners. This can happen in a couple different ways. First, watch pro golfers compete on television. Watch what they do and how they go about their business. Try to imitate them.

Next, visualize your swing and game in your mind. Like the tweet that inspired this article says, the guy visualized the perfect round of golf every day. Then, when he got the chance to do it, he nearly did.

Most of us have a course that we play consistently. Before going to bed each night, play the course in your mind’s eye and make sure that you don’t miss a shot. Every drive hits the fairway, every approach hits the green, and every putt goes in. But don’t just hit your drive straight and walk to the next shot. Think about which side of the fairway would be best to give you the best approach into the green. Make sure you know exactly which clubs it would take to hit each shot. Consider every detail. Convince yourself that the perfect round is possible, and you absolutely have the skill to do it.

RELAXATION

Finally, find ways to relax. One thing I’ve noticed about amateur golfers over the years is that very few are comfortable standing over the golf ball, or even being on a golf course; they feel like a fish out of water. This feeling comes from a lack of confidence and a lack of knowledge. That can be made up for, though, by relaxing. When you’re uncomfortable, your muscles tend to tense up and a muscle that is tense will be tough to move how you want. Loose muscles are absolutely critical to the success of a golfer.

This is a little bit of repetition from earlier, but meditation is a huge help. Yes, you can stretch and make sure you’re loose before a round of golf, but maintaining the loose muscles can be helped dramatically by learning how to relax and ignore those thoughts that make you tense.

Meditation is a lot about recognizing what is causing you stress or anxiety and not engaging with the idea. So, if you are standing over a shot that you are nervous about, we often let that thought (hitting the shot poorly) go much farther than it should. For example, when I’m hitting a long-iron, I know that my tendency is to remember a time when I last hit a bad shot. That resulted in the ball going in the water to the right of the green, I had to take a drop, pitch up, and then I three-putted for triple bogey. I haven’t even hit the shot yet and I’ve already convinced myself that a triple is a possibility. What do you think the odds of me birding the hole are? Probably close to zero.

Instead, recognize that there is a negative thought that causes anxiety. It’s ok to be nervous about hitting a certain club, but don’t let it take you to a place where you are sure that you’ll hit it bad.

CONCLUSION

Be positive. Know you’re a great golfer. Learn from visualization. Relax and don’t engage with anxiety inducing thoughts. You’ll be shooting your best rounds in no time.