How to Come Back After a Bad Hole

There you are, playing along nicely, your game on cruise control, when suddenly it strikes -- the big number. Whether it's a double bogey, a triple, or one of those insidious "others," you're taken by surprise, shocked and appalled. And with your mind spinning and your heart racing, only one thing is for sure: You have to continue playing. You have to find a way to peel yourself off the canvas and bounce back.

Be honest: Are you any good at doing this? Most golfers could use a little help with their recovery skills. They often follow a bad hole with an even worse one, then start wondering why they didn't stay home and mow the lawn. But the ability to bounce back from a bad hole is an admired quality at every level of the game. Nobody likes a crybaby, and everyone envies a player who can shake it off and soldier on.

Even the PGA Tour has taken note. The Tour keeps a statistic called "Bounce Back," which tracks how often a player follows an over-par hole with an under-par hole. (See sidebar, next page.) Jim Furyk "bounces back" nearly 40 percent of the time -- in other words, more than a third of his bogeys or worse are followed by birdies or better.

You may not have that many birdies in you, but there's no reason every golfer can't improve in this area. Whatever your skill level, the following tips should help you prevent one bad hole from turning into a disastrous day.

Your Second-Serve Swing

When tennis players fault on their first serve, they hit a more conservative second serve to better their chances of getting the ball in. Consider developing a similar technique for tee shots after disastrous holes -- when you need to "stop the bleeding." Grip down on the driver an inch, maybe even go to a fairway wood, and try to make a smooth, three-quarter swing that advances the ball down the middle with minimal risk.

Analyze, Don't Criticize

When most golfers have a bad hole, they start with the self-bashing and the name-calling, and wind up either getting furious or feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, try to separate your self-image from reactions to your performance. That double bogey doesn't define you; it's just something you did. Be objective, as if you are above yourself looking down.

The trick is to be a coach, not a critic. Identify the reasons you made the big number; maybe you sliced your drive out of bounds or four-putted because you rushed the shorties. Try to address such problems by exploring the causes instead of your self-worth. Players who recover well are skilled at analyzing situations without getting too emotionally involved.

Stick With the Plan

Always have a game plan for how you want to play each hole. What will you hit off the tee? Which side is best to come in from? These are the kind of decisions to make during relaxed, off-course moments when you have your full rational faculties.

Then, when you do make a big number, don't change your plan. Get back in your comfort zone by going through the same preshot routine, in the same amount of time. Its familiarity will help you regroup. And trust those choices you made beforehand, while remembering there's usually plenty of time left to make up for a bad hole.

Call a Mental Time-Out

When football and basketball coaches see their teams on the wrong side of a rally, they often call a time-out to halt the bad momentum. That's precisely what you need to do after a bad hole. Perform a simple physical task, such as taking off one shoe and shaking out an imaginary pebble, or changing gloves. These actions provide a momentary break from the situation, and help clean your mental slate before the next shot.

Also, develop a socially acceptable "lightning rod" to help diffuse your emotions; for example, clench and slowly unclench your fists to release anger (it's better -- and safer -- than hurling clubs). Whatever your release, have it ready when disaster strikes. It's difficult to cope in tough times if you haven't prepared and practiced your emergency procedures. Surviving is largely about being ready.

Strong Rebounders

(The percentage of time a player is over par on a hole, then under par on the next hole.)

Player Bounce Back %
1. Jim Furyk 38.2
2. Paul Goydos 37.6
3. Mark Calcavecchia 35.9
4. Ernie Els 35.1
5. Jason Gore 34.5

Note: Year-to-date PGA Tour stats through the Bay Hill Invitational.

Channel Your Emotions

One great example of a player packaging and using emotion is Ben Crenshaw's 1995 Masters win just a few days after losing his mentor and teacher, Harvey Penick. Instead of letting his emotions distract him, Crenshaw turned them into a weapon. You can do this too, by creating little challenges for yourself, such as trying to simply hit the fairway after making a triple bogey. Start small and let the positives build.

The key to using emotion is self-awareness, knowing your emotional warning signs. Do you get mad after a bad hole? Do you become fearful? Once you peg yourself, try to predict how you will react. For example, angry types tend to grip too tightly and swing fast; nervous types over-control and restrict their motions. Knowing how you respond emotionally and physically to adversity will allow you to head off impulsive decisions and steady your game.

Choose To Be Confident

Attitude is a choice, and confidence is an attitude; therefore, confidence is a choice. It's easy to get shell-shocked by a disastrous hole, so you have to make a conscious choice to be confident even in the absence of any reason to be.

The best way to boost your confidence after making a big number is to recall good tee shots you've hit on the hole you're about to play. Or, if you're on an unfamiliar course, try to equate it to a similar tee shot with which you've had success. Another good idea is to think about times when you've performed well under similar circumstances, e.g., a hole when you followed a triple bogey with your best drive of the day. With these things in mind, always watch your good shots -- burn them into your memory -- so you can think back on them when you need a psychological boost.

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