NO DOUBT YOU'VE heard the old saw, "Golf is 90 percent mental," a catchy, if slightly exaggerated, phrase. You've also probably thrown away enough rounds out of anger, impatience, or fear to believe it holds water. Why, then, do we still equate golf ability with physical skill? In truth, some players are more definable by the way they think than by the way they swing.
Take the big hitter who blisters the ball but throws a tantrum every time he hits one out of play: Yes, he's got power, but before long his emotions are boiling over. Then consider his alter ego, the guy who bunts it 180 down the middle: He has half the physical gifts of the power player, but he knows his game and plays within it. The point is, physical abilities only create potential in golf; it's how effectively you apply them that makes the difference.
So why are golfers measured by their physical skills? Because they are more obvious than the mental ones. You never hear someone say, "That was a fabulous club selection," or "You have the most beautiful preshot routine." These factors get little credit, yet they clear the way for success, sometimes having a greater effect on a shot's outcome than the swing itself.
That's good news for most golfers. By thinking better, you may be able to immediately shave strokes off your scores. One thing is certain: Without an effective mental game, the rest of your game will never be at the level it could be. Get started with the points that follow.
Play in the Present
SOCIETY TODAY IS SO fast-paced and results-oriented that it's hard to stay "in the moment" and focused on what you're doing. In golf, the tendency is to look ahead or dwell on holes you've played. Both clog your brain with distracting thoughts.
If you have trouble putting mistakes behind you, it's time for a reality check. Many golfers are shocked by the errors they commit; for instance, they top a drive and let it preoccupy them for three holes. If this sounds like you, look at your track record. If history shows you occasionally top the ball, don't be blown away when it happens. Stick it in your memory bank as something to work on and play your next shot.
A good way to stay in the present is to focus not only on individual shots, but on pieces of shots. For example, if you're facing a tough drive, concentrate on the preparation process. Pick a safe target, aim the clubface and align your body, key on one swing thought, and then let it go. If you get lost in the process, thinking positive, constructive thoughts, your performance will improve.
FOR MANY players, golf is an obsession. It's what they do in their free time; what they read about and watch on television; what they daydream about at work.
You may be thinking this is miles from where you are mentally, but consider a few of the warning signs. Does a bad round ruin your entire day? Does how well you play affect your relationships at home? Are you always saying you don't play as much as you'd like to? These could be indicators that golf is out of proportion with the rest of your life. As I tell my Tour players, you need an out, something that makes you feel good about yourself -- and has nothing to do with golf. Try fly-fishing, or take up tennis; getting away from golf will do wonders for your perspective.
On the other hand, maybe your perspective is fine, but when you play, you try to be someone you're not. For instance, you may want to be like John Daly, swinging out of your shoes and chasing every pin. But if your personality is more conservative, acting aggressively puts you at odds with yourself. The key is to be honest. Figure out what the game means to you, and periodically make sure you're staying on track.
Also, realize that you have limitations and your golf game has to fit with your physical make-up. Anything else doesn't last very long.
Use Your Emotions
EVERY ROUND YOU PLAY has highlights and lowlights -- shots you dream about, shots that haunt you. This sets the stage for an emotional roller coaster, which is no state to be in when consistency is your goal.
But with some practice, you can learn to benefit from your emotions. For example, anger can be an energizing force. It increases the flow of adrenaline and raises the body's energy level. Learn how to tap into that boost without letting it turn your swing into a mad lash. At the other end of the spectrum is exhilaration, which seems positive but also can take you out of your element. Let it charge you up, but then quickly return to your game plan.
When poor shots snowball and you feel your emotions taking hold, draw on positive experiences you've had. Recall the round you started with two double bogeys but finished strong, or the time you witnessed a player overcome an early slip and go on to win. Remember, whether good or bad things come along, there are usually plenty of opportunities for them to go the other way. Don't get too up or too down -- a steady burn wins the race.
Out of Excuses?
Most Golfers spend their lives saying they don't have the time to work on their games. So what happens when they retire and have all the time in the world? Often, golf goes from being a relaxing pastime to being a complete obsession. Many seniors see their handicaps rise simply because they put more pressure on themselves. They can no longer say, "If I only had the time."
My advice to retiring golf nuts is to have a plan. Playing your same old game four more times a week will do little for your handicap. Use your extra time wisely: Get some professional instruction, work on those weak spots you've been avoiding, and have a back-up hobby for the days when the game gets the best of you.