Tag Archives: mental game

Better Golf Through Better Simulation

Perusing the shops in downtown St. Augustine, FL

Regular readers know that I’m a big fan of simulation during practice.  Exercises using this technique have been a great stroke saver because it preps your mind for real course action, gets you out of mechanical thinking mode, focuses you on shot making, and is an exceptional time saver.  Either full round simulation or short game simulation is beneficial. 

This morning, I had two hours to practice and devoted most of my time to a simulated 18-hole round at my home course of Blue Mash.  The whole exercise took about an hour and that included time warming up with about 20 balls.  The best simulations are when you are focusing intently on each shot and do not rush.  Today, I took 30-60 seconds between swings, wiped down the club head and grip after every shot, took an occasional sip of water, and chatted up my neighbor a little.  We were hitting from the absolute front tee on our large grass range and weren’t allowed to use drivers since the last target flag was only 230 yards out.  I resorted to using 3WD on all the tee shots where I’d normally use driver and may have stumbled upon something.

Have you ever thought how much better you’d score if you left your driver in the bag most of the time?  I found this out after only missing one tee shot with the 3WD, and not badly enough so that the ball went into trouble.  Upon reflection, I normally hit driver on 11 of our 18 holes but only need to on five.  You can certainly leave driver in the bag on the par-5s unless you think you can reach the green in two.  I’m not long enough to hit any of our par-5s in two and driver only serves to occasionally get you in trouble.  Just put a 3WD in play and hit one more club on the layup shot and you alleviate a lot of risk.  Anyway, I hit all these 3WDs and shot a solid simulated 2-over round with 13 GIR.  Very encouraging.   

Tomorrow, I’m playing the course for real and am thinking of only hitting driver on the five necessary holes.  This is very important because when you keep the ball in play, your mind remains engaged at a much higher level than when you fight wildness.  The last two times I employed this 3WD strategy in competition, I met with very successful outcomes.  I think I’ll give it a try.

Tee shot on #17 at TPC Sawgrass. Pretty tight!

On a side note, in my recent jaunt to St. Augustine, FL and TPC Sawgrass, I sampled some Jambalaya at Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grille in downtown St. Augustine.  It has vaulted up our Jambalaya rankings into the #2 position!  (Rankings are in the left margin of the All About Golf home page).  Harry’s is a New Orleans Cajun style seafood restaurant and is excellent.  If you’re ever in St. Augustine, stop by for a heaping plate of this goodness!

Play well.

You Can benefit from hard practice

If you can break 90 with regularity, you are an advanced player.  One of the hardest things advanced players struggle with is transitioning from practice to play.  If you can steel yourself during preparation the game will come so much easier to you.   If you are in this group, your fundamentals are sound and you have good control of your golf ball around the green.  Follow these practice techniques and you will find transitioning to play is much easier.  Those who don’t usually break 90 should focus their practice on mechanics and not attempt these techniques until achieving a higher level of consistency.  The last thing we want to do is try something that will breed uncertainty and frustration. 

As an advanced player you can pitch, chip, hit bunker shots, and putt with reasonably solid technique.  You’ll need them all in this exercise.  To start, find a short game practice area that allows you to land shots on a green and putt.  Ideally, your practice green has some slope around the edges or is built on a small hill.  My home course has a putting green and chipping/pitching green, but you cannot putt on the chipping green so, I’ve located an alternate facility that satisfies the requirement.  For those in Montgomery County, MD, the venue is Poolesville Golf Course.

This session should take about an hour.  First, warm up your short game.  Take some pitches, chips, and putts from various distances.  Use a variety of clubs.  Next grab two mobile targets.  A lot of courses are using the practice pins that stick in the ground and can be moved.  These are best.  If not available, use two colored golf balls.  Next, place these targets at the top and bottom of sloped areas on the green, so getting a short shot close to either will be extremely difficult and there are no straight putts in close unless you manage to be directly above or below the targets.  The faster the surface the better.  For a visual, think of #15 green at Augusta National at The Masters.  The more difficult the better.

Green Markers; photo courtesy of paraide.com

The drill:

Now play 18 holes of up-and-down.  Throw a golf ball into a greenside lie and don’t improve the lie.  Hit the appropriate short shot to the chosen target and putt your approach until holed.  Use a variety of uphill, downhill, long and short-sided situations.  If you have an old scorecard it often helps to record your score on each hole.  Par is two strokes for each hole.  You will find even your good short shots end up considerably outside of gimme range.  As a reference point, when I play this game at my local muni with flat lies, I usually shoot 42-44 or between 6 and 8-over par for 18 holes.  Today’s session on my difficult setup left me at 50 strokes or 14-over par and I felt I played well. 

Why involve yourself in this masochistic activity?  You’ll find the difficult shots will force creativity into your mind.  It will help you focus on your landing point, the trajectory, spin, and club selection.  Everything but mechanics!  Training your mind to “paint a picture” of the shot is the key to becoming a good feel player around the greens.  This drill is more like playing real golf than dumping a bag shag of 50 balls and chipping each with the same club to a flat target. 

Let’s level set expectations:  You may get frustrated, you may get a little angry, but you will get very satisfied when you hit a great shot, and as you transition to the real course, you’ll notice very few short shots are as challenging at the drill.  Making practice harder than the real game is the secret sauce.  Give this drill a try, then play a real round of golf the next day and let me know how you made out.

Play well!      

Your Best Friend

You are on the golf course hitting great shots and scoring poorly.  How frustrating.  Has this ever happened to you?  How you handle depends on your abilities to observe, adjust, and most importantly, how you treat yourself. 

Last weekend I was playing an afternoon round at my club, Blue Mash, where I have an expectation for a score between a 73 and 78, on a normal day.  I noticed something was off from the first tee box where the markers were pushed back, and the hole was playing into the wind.  My tee shot was well struck and barely cleared a fairway bunker which is normally an easy carry.  I had 5-iron in where I usually take 8 or 9 and made bogey.  It became clear from the setup and conditions that the course would play long and difficult.  I bogeyed the first five holes and could safely say that I hit a great shot on each of those holes.  At this point, I had a decision regarding how I would approach the remainder of the round.

When you are not rewarded for good effort, you get upset.  Dr. Bob Rotella says that when distracted by bad play or bad scores, you need to be your best friend out on the course because nobody else is there to help you.  I agree and have learned that positive self-talk is key and to not get down on myself.  I also understand that you can’t confuse effort with results.  Imagine how the tour pros felt on the final day of the 2020 US Open.  Only one (Bryson DeChambeau) managed to break 70 in the final round.  These guys were clearly scoring 5-10 strokes worse than a normal day and were grinding terribly.  They were frustrated and you could see how their scoring affected their game.  De Chambeau didn’t let it alter his attitude and approach and was victorious.  The guy is comfortable in his own skin and despite being a bit of an odd duck, is clearly his own best friend.

The temptation after a bad start is to press and try to save the round.  Last weekend, I had to resist by using positive self-talk and to try and focus on the next shot.  I was partially successful and finished with an 11-over 82.  Normally, after shooting a poor score, I’ll stew about it for a day or two, but I honestly felt that was the worst I could have scored for the way I played and the conditions that presented themselves.  The previous week, I hit the ball horrendously and carded an 8-over 79 on a different track, which was the absolute best I could have shot considering my ball striking.  Still, I took some positives away from that round and felt that my short game saved me from carding a round in the mid 80s.  The key in both situations is to understand and adjust to the current conditions and not get down on yourself.  Be your own best friend!  If you can do this, you will be mentally tough to beat.

Obviously, I have some areas of my game that need work.  I’ve got a tournament coming up a week from Monday, and a trip to the eastern shore to play on some tough venues.  I’m off to the course to practice. 

Do you confuse effort with results?

Are you your own best friend?

Play well!      

Playing Great Golf on a Time Budget!

On #13 tee at Arthur Hills – Boyne, MI

Is work/life getting in the way of your golf?  How do you play your best if you can’t tee it up four times a week or visit the driving range on a daily basis?  Time is a precious commodity and it depends on how you use your available hours, but you can shoot low scores even on a constrained schedule.  Here’s how.

Use the correct combination of play and practice.  My preference is for more play than practice, but first you must measure how much you do of both.  Today is Sept 8 or day #253 in the year.  I’ve played 21 full rounds and practiced 41 times.  My 62 days of golf divided by 253 indicate I have my hands on the clubs only one out of every four days.   I’d consider myself a dedicated player but not a frequent player, with a 1:4 ratio.  What is your ratio?  If you can get your hands on your clubs every other day, your ratio is solid.  You need both play and practice, but given a short supply of time, favor play.

Meaningful practice is essential and doesn’t require the same time commitment as play, which is why my practice days are double my play days.  In season, I’ll generally practice twice per week and play once.  Off season, I’ll practice more and play less.  A general rule about practice:  The closer you are to playing a round, the more you should practice your mental game.   This is the best way to ease the transition from practice to play.  Have you ever overheard players out on the course saying, “I don’t understand why I’m playing so bad; I was hitting it great on the range.”  That’s because they haven’t practiced correctly by focusing on their mental game.

The key to mental practice is to mirror game conditions.  Many coaches in other sports utilize this technique.  Football teams pump crowd noise into practice.  Teams also script their first 15-20 plays and rehearse that script over and over in preparation to implement in games.  I try to script my golf practice by playing up-and-down in the short game area and working with only one ball.  I’m getting my mind ready for the pressure of difficult green-side shots.  Sometimes I’ll putt 9 or 18 holes alone or against a friend, varying the length of the holes.  Always play a match with a goal.  The key is to build pressure on yourself.  On the driving range, don’t rake ball after ball with the same club.  Vary your clubs from shot to shot.  Play a simulated round at your favorite course.  All these activities insert small doses of pressure and condition your brain into play mode.  Finally, when warming up before a round, do not work on your swing.  Just get loose.  Reserve the last half dozen balls and hit shots to simulate the first three holes of the course you are about to play.  This will give you the best chance of getting off to a great start.

Mechanical practice is necessary when trying to make swing changes and should not be attempted too close to a scheduled round.  Golf is a difficult game.  Playing golf swing when you’re trying to focus on scoring just makes it harder.  A big challenge amateurs face is playing a round immediately after a swing lesson because the plethora of swing thoughts can quickly get your mind off the business of scoring.  Has this ever happened to you?  Tour pros are often seen working with their swing coaches at a tournament site and are simply good enough to execute mechanical changes into their game immediately.  Forget them.  Sometimes you cannot avoid playing right after a lesson.  In this case, work with your pro to distill the lesson content into at most two swing thoughts.  And try to keep them as simple as possible for easy replication on the course.

One final though.  Lately, I’ve been working the Dead Drill into my Mon-Wed-Fri gym workouts and found this is a great way to build good mechanical habits without focusing on swing changes.  A couple weeks ago, right after introducing, I enjoyed a great ball striking round just thinking about the movements of the drill, and they’re really quite simple.  Give it a try and play well!

 

 

 

Are You a Good Putter?

How do you measure putting success?  Do you track putts per round?  I do but am rethinking that approach.  A conventional rule is that putting takes up 43% of the strokes in a round of golf.  Is that a good measurement?  If a pro shoots 70 with 30 putts, does he have a better day than me if I shoot 77 with 33 putts?  They are both 43%.  Hard to tell because the input for putting stats hinges on many factors not related to putting.  The most valid metric is Strokes Gained Putting, which is hard to capture.  SG measures the distance and result of all your putts plus the performance of your opponents on the same course.  Rather complicated and only available to tour pros.  So, as amateurs, what to measure?

Let’s first look at the seven inputs to good putting:

Line

Speed

Weather

Difficulty of the green (grass surface and undulations)

Nerves

Quality of short game

Course management

Line and speed are the traditional factors players work on because they are most easily controlled.  Those of us who play in different weather conditions and on several different courses can have wider variances of putting performance.  Players who loop the same course get comfortable with the speed and reads and often “know” where the putts are going.  They appear to be very good putters on their track but can struggle during away rounds.  Nerves are hard to control and very problematic for folks who exhibit the yips (choking under pressure).  Course management is essential.  On fast greens, it’s much easier to putt uphill and critical to leave the ball in good positions.  Lastly is short game.  If you can chip and pitch to within three feet, you’ll one-putt far more often no matter how good your stroke is.  So, what to measure?

The answer is to measure what you can use or don’t measure anything.  Approach your improvement on and around the greens holistically and attempt to address what you feel is off for a round or set of rounds.  For example, I had been struggling with controlling my line.  Putts were starting left of my intended target.  So, I started to spot putt (align the putter with a point six inches in front of the ball) and my alignment problem was solved.  Last time out, I struggled with controlling the speed because my course had let the greens grow out a bit to preserve them in the hot weather.  I don’t think I need to make any adjustments here because the weather could change at any moment along with their mowing patterns.  You get the point.  If you play enough golf, you’ll become familiar with your shortcomings and can use these anecdotal observations as the genesis of your practice plan.

If you’re a beginning golfer, invest in a putting lesson.  A pro will show you how to grip your putter, execute the basics of a good stroke, and read the greens.  For the intermediate and advanced players, make sure to mix your technical practice with game simulation exercises.  Try putting practice with one ball and play 18 holes of different length putts.  If you have room on your practice green, a 9-hole game of up and down is a great tool to teach yourself how to perform under pressure.  Throw a ball off the green and play it as it lies.  Use the short game shot of your choice and play the ball until holed.  Count your strokes.  This type of practice works very well for players who struggle to take their practice games to the course.  If you’re having trouble on and around the greens, give these a try.

How do you measure your success on the greens?

Play well.

 

 

The Amazing Power of Concentration!

photo from azquotes.com

Did you know good concentration techniques can save you five strokes per round?  How many of you have setup to hit a golf shot and sensed something wasn’t right and pulled the trigger anyway?  Did you hit a good shot?  Doesn’t happen.  That “not right” feeling is caused by either a breakdown in concentration or a faulty address.  If we can eliminate both, we’ll drastically reduce our mistakes and improve our scores.

Address errors usually fall into two categories.  Either your alignment is off or your posture is bad.  The fix here is simple.  Restart your pre-shot routine and get comfortable before you hit the shot.  Of course, you can hit a bad shot from a completely comfortable starting point, but thinking that something is not correct before you swing is a sure fire way to misplay.  Lately, I’ll find myself a little uncomfortable looking at the target and wondering if I’m slightly closed.  This never results in a good shot and I need to work to reset.

Concentration errors come in many flavors.  Anything that pressures you to deviate from your natural rhythm and cadence is an issue.  In my last round, I was paired with two beginners.  There were a lot of swings and misses from these two and I told myself early on to be very patient.  But alas, the extra waiting between shots started to preoccupy my mind and my game suffered.  Something as small as a playing partner stepping on your putting line or playing out of turn, or someone standing in the wrong place, can mess with you.  If you are preparing to hit a shot and thinking about anything other than the specifics of the shot, you are susceptible to a concentration error.  The situation with the beginners put me in a tough spot.  Golf is a social game and I love meeting interesting and new players.  The only measure of control I could have had was to schedule a game with a foursome I was comfortable playing with.  Again, the best antidote is to pause, perish the negative distraction, and reset.

Physical errors are more easily excused because we are human.  Concentration errors are tougher because they’re preventable.  It takes discipline to reset if you’re not ready to swing and do so anyway because you don’t want to hold up play.  It just takes a few seconds to reset and will be worth your while.  Give it a try and watch the extra strokes disappear!

Play well.

First Tee, Fast Start!

You get to your golf course early.  Hit a large bucket of balls, work on your chipping and pitching, then then putt for 20 minutes.  You’re fully warmed up, mentally comfortable and step to the first tee.  You then proceed to knock one out of bounds or cold top your tee shot.  Or worse yet, you hit the fairway and lay the sod over your approach shot.  What went wrong?  Why are you so out of kilter?  Has this ever happened to you?

A lot has been written about the first tee jitters, but this is more than combating nerves. It’s about conditioning your mind.  Most of last season, and early this year, I was plagued by these poor starts, but I’ve learned there are several tricks you can play on yourself to ease the transition from warm up to game time.

Don’t discount the need to warm-up physically, and you should experiment to learn how many swings you need.  When I was younger, I would often start my round just as the sun was coming up but without the benefit of any warm up.  I’d notice that it took about four holes until I had my golf senses fully activated and I was in rhythm.  Doing the math, I figured this came out to about 12-15 full swings.  Now, I’ll stretch, and hit a minimum of 15 balls (five sand wedges, five 7-irons, and five drivers) and that’s what I require to get loose.  Then, I’ll start work on the mental side by simulating play of the first two holes of the course using my full pre-shot routine.  I’ll sight targets with my range finder, check wind direction, pull the right club and hit.  In essence, I’m getting my brain into game mode from warm-up mode.  This is an important concept because most folks rake range ball after range ball when practicing or warming up.  When you rake, there’s little focus and no consequences.  Hit a bad shot and just pull another.  During the simulation, you pressure yourself to hit a good shot.  This is what most players struggle with on the first hole because their brains are in rake mode, not consequence mode.  Get to consequence mode and you’ll feel more relaxed.  You should feel like you played your course but reversed the nines.  You want to feel like you are hitting your tee shot on #1 with nine holes under your belt.

Next, I’ll move to the putting green and roll putts of various lengths for about five minutes.  Then I’ll take one ball and start playing holes.  The key is to make it hard on yourself.  Start with a 50-foot putt from the fringe.  Mark your ball, go through your full pre-shot routine on every putt and hole everything out.  Don’t worry if you three-putt because the goal here is not to score but to feel some pressure.  Make all the starting putts difficult.  Use big breakers, downhillers, and long uphill putts.  This is game mode.

Both the physical and mental warm-up are important.  Most courses have a practice putting green where you can do the majority of your work.  But some don’t have a driving range.  The next best thing to driving balls is hitting bunker shots.  It’s essentially a full swing and the impact of club into sand will jar your golf muscles and senses into order.  Hit 10 or 15 bunker shots and you’ll be close to warmed up.  With no bunker, try hitting pitch shots and then playing a short game of up-and-down.

The key is to trick your mind into thinking you are in game mode during warm-up.  These are the techniques I’ve successfully employed.  Give them a try and let me know if they work for you.

Play well!

How To Measure Success in Golf

What are Phil’s standards for success?

In Putting Out of Your Mind, Dr. Bob Rotella says that to judge yourself a success on the putting green, you should measure by how often you were mentally prepared when you struck your putts, and not whether the ball went in the hole.  He adds that once you’ve struck a putt, everything else is out of your control.  Makes sense, and I love this process oriented approach, but let’s face it, most amateurs and probably most professionals are more results oriented than we’d like to admit.

While reading the aforementioned book, I tried out the methods during a round at a local muni.  It was if someone else had possession of my body while I was putting.  It worked great, but the total process oriented approach was very hard to maintain.  For a short period, I even managed to not think about my score during a few rounds, but couldn’t keep it up.

Getting immersed in the process works.  It’s a good idea and is worth the effort.  So, how do you measure success or failure?  Can a 30-handicap player stand on a tee box with a 200 yard carry over water, and hit three straight into the drink, but feel if they put a good swing on each, and think nothing is wrong?  That’s a “Tin Cup” moment and should feel wrong because the player failed to know their limitations and move up a set of tees.  I try to follow Rotella’s mantra and think one shot at a time, but ultimately golf is a game where we keep score.  We win or lose against opponents, or post some number in a stroke play event or round.  As a 5-handicap for the last umpteenth years, when I’m not thinking in process mode, I’m measuring myself by score.  Typically:

Good day – 74 strokes or below

Average day – 75-77

Substandard – 78 and above

The 30-handicap may look at their round differently:

Good day – broke 100

Average day – broke 110

Substandard – lost all their golf balls

We do measure ourselves largely by score and that’s okay.  Recently I overcame this tendency – albeit briefly.  I played a round in the dead of February while working on a swing change.  I told myself I didn’t care what I shot and I was just going to focus on the swing change.  I shot 83 and took like 39 putts, but I left the course very satisfied because I hit 10 greens in regulation and saw good progress with the swing change.  I don’t think this model can sustain over time, but it was nice as I was able to treat the round like a NFL team approaches a pre-season game – totally about the process.  Ultimately, it will come back to score.

So what would success look like for Phil Mickelson?

Good day – Won The Masters

Average day – Finished 2nd

Substandard – Out of the top 10

I know Phil has been working on a swing change and is keen to battle test this at Augusta, (more on that coming in our Masters preview), but at the end of the day does that really matter to him?  Nope; it’s about winning.

How do you measure success?  Process or results, and BE HONEST!

Play well.

 

2016, That’s A Wrap!

2016-report-cardWe started yesterday’s round just after 12-noon basking in glorious sunshine and 70 degree temperatures.  We finished in near darkness with sleet coming down sideways.  The golf god’s message was clear; it was time to put a wrap on 2016.

The golf season never really ends in the DMV but is just suspended by periods of cold and wet.  Last year I finished in December and resumed in February and in some years, we play right through the winter.  This year, transitioning to a new job and handling life’s interruptions didn’t help to stabilize a season that was characterized by ho hum performance.  From a metrics standpoint, my handicap remained at 5.  My GIR average was still stuck between 8 and 9, and putts per round trended poorly, increasing by a stroke and a half per round.  Also, my 29 rounds played were the fewest since 2010.

Despite the mediocrity, I gained three excellent lessons learned:

One:  Mechanics matter.  When you struggle with your swing to a point of despondency, stop trying to self-medicate and go seek professional help.  I’m a big believer in filming my own swing, but when my ball striking fell in the crapper and I couldn’t fix myself, I benefited greatly from a full swing lesson with a PGA professional.  His trained eye helped me and led to an increased sense of satisfaction and belief in self.  I learned that I had the physical ability to hit a golf ball consistently straight, and that age was merely a number and was playing much less of a negative impact on performance.

Two:  Repetition matters.  It should go without saying, but no practice and infrequent play make Johnny a lousy golfer.  Life’s limitations forced this on me for stretches in 2016 and I paid for it.  You can have all the correct mechanics, solid mental preparation, and game simulation you want, but without frequent play and concentrated practice, your will lose your edge.  I took comfort from the repeated reps I enjoyed during my late season golf trip.  I found a renewed confidence that given the time and enough dedication, I could stabilize and improve all aspects of my game.  I can’t wait to have that opportunity, although I’m not sure when it will come.

Three:  Yips are part mental and physical.  You are never fully fixed, just in some state of recovery.  Thank God, I’ve never had putting yips, but have struggled with chipping for years.  Enough early season work around the green provided a mechanical solution, and then a small change to my pre-shot routine helped the mental side.  My only advice for any yippers out there, if you commit to a routine on or around the green of “rehearse – play without delay – accept the result,” you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.

So there you have it for 2016.  Keep your glutes firing and play well!

Victory! Whipped the nemesis course.

From jasonvelotta.com
From jasonvelotta.com

Back in April, I wrote a post about my continuing struggles with Poolesville, and how the course had won again in our most recent battle.  Today, I threw down another challenge and finally whipped it.  Those of you that fight with a golf course know how sweet victory feels once you prevail, and most of you are familiar with the feeling that sets in afterwards when you think, “That wasn’t that difficult,” or “How’d I manage to play so bad there for so long?”  Truth be told this was a mental victory more than anything because Poolesville was totally in my head and I knew it.  I changed my mental approach and it seemed to work.

The first step was to schedule a game when conditions would be in my favor.  I booked the round when the advanced forecast was calling for heat and humidity and no wind; perfect scoring conditions.  Next, I took an honest look at my past performance at the venue.  Over the last 8 years, I played 19 rounds to a stroke average of 80.26 and a paltry 6.32 GIR average.  The last seven rounds were particularly frustrating with terrible ball striking and only one sub-80 score and a 92 mixed in from early 2014.  The propensity to double-bogey the first hole for three straight rounds didn’t set me up for success either, especially when I was trying to overcome all these mental blockers.

My inspiration was the ESPN telecast of The Open on Friday, when they were describing Jordan Spieth and his caddy, and how they develop a game plan for each golf course and don’t deviate.  So I did some hole by hole analysis and scribbled a thought down on a piece of paper on how to play each of the holes.  I folded up this mini game plan and put it in my pocket.  Today, I pulled it out on every tee to re-commit to how I wanted to play the hole.

I don’t know if this is the reason for my success, but it did allow me to focus on playing the game and prevented over-mechanical thoughts from creeping in.  At the end of the day, I hit 13 greens and shot a 2-over 73 which was three clear of my lowest round at Poolesville.

Sometimes you know what you have to do but simply can’t execute it because you’re not fully committed.  It really helps to write it down to cement the commitment.

How’s your focus and commitment coming this season?

Weathering Golf’s Perfect Storm

StormHow do you handle a situation when everything in the game breaks against you at the same time?  My perfect storm happened on Sunday.  These events,  like their counterparts in nature, rarely happen all at once but are a culmination of factors that build up days in advance, and this was no exception.

My problem started Saturday with a very poor ball striking session on the driving range.   I hadn’t played in two weeks, but it was so poor that I grabbed my iPhone, took some swing video, and brought it home for instant analysis.  I caught the culprit, but the seeds of mental discourse were sown because thinking about a mechanical change the day before you play is never a good idea.  I did have a productive short game session and felt confident in my chipping and putting, but I also figured I’d be relying heavily on these since I didn’t expect to catch lightning in a bottle with the swing fix.

Sunday’s warmup started off predictably, with my newly identified swing fix not working at all.  Vet4golfing51 says that you need to find your swing for the day, and this was clearly not mine, so I took the last 10 balls and thought only of hitting them at the target.  Oddly enough, I started striping it.  (I’ve found this an effective technique when you need a pre-round or mid-round correction, but it only works until you see the first of the shots you are trying to avoid reappear.  A true WOOD band-aid.)  Armed with a smidgen of confidence, I headed towards the practice green.  After rolling a few putts, the starter announced the group in front of us had not arrived and we were pushed up to take their place, so we rushed over to the first tee.  #1 at Northwest is an innocuous par-4 of about 370 yards with little trouble from tee to green.  A well struck drive usually leaves me a short iron in, so I’m thinking “driver, 8-iron” but on this day they had the tees all the way back and a stiff two club wind had kicked up in our face.  With the swing fixes, the rushed start, and the toughened conditions, my 1st tee mental state was a bubbling concoction of garbage.  I tried to relax and managed to clip my drive a little off the heel but in the middle of the fairway.  Still 200 yards out and faced with a stiff wind, I had to adjust my thinking from “8-iron” to “knock-down 3WD” and promptly topped the spoon about 70 yards.  I knocked the next one on and three-putted from about 40 feet for a double bogey.

Now in the eye of the storm I took another three-putt double on #2 and a three-putt bogey on #3.  I’ve gotten off to bad starts before but this was ridiculous because my putting had been the best part of my game this season, and was letting me down.  With the prospects of no golf swing and a balky putter, my head was spinning.

How do you recover from these type of starts?  I did what has worked for me in the past, and drew a vertical line after the third hole (my mental restart line) and told myself to forget the first three holes and that there was a lot of golf left to play.  For some reason, this calms me and allows me to refocus.  Second, I recommitted to playing my approaches below the hole even if that meant missing a green short.  Northwest’s greens are huge and sloping.  All of my opening three-jacks had been from poor positioning above the hole.

The ship stabilized and while I didn’t play great coming in, still navigated the last 15 holes in five-over par.  At the end of the day, my 82 was not a handicap round, but the house was still standing.  Have you ever gotten off to a rough start like this?  How did you weather your perfect storm?

How To Improve Focus For Golf

focusThis year I am making a concerted effort to simplify every aspect of my game from my fundamentals to my thinking.  A key component is improved focus during play and practice.  During early rounds, I have met with my share of successes and failures but have noticed that during periods of good play my focus is laser sharp.  During a stretch of poor play, I found my mind wandering and have tried to force myself to concentrate better.  Is good focus a byproduct of good play or can you force it?  The ultimate chicken and the egg scenario appears to be a bit of both.  I have found a few tricks to help me improve my focus and thought I would share.

If you’ve read, Putting Out of Your Mind by Bob Rotella, one of the key concepts he keeps coming back to is focusing on the smallest target possible.  Olympic target shooters have always attempted to “aim small, miss small” and I’ve found this helpful, not just in putting, but for chipping and full swing.

Putting:  On the green and especially for short putts, if you zero in on a blade of grass on the edge of the cup you expect your ball to enter on, and keep focused in on that spot, right up to the point before you pull the trigger, it seems to free up your mind and body to make a better stroke.  Jordan Spieth leverages this concept by looking at his target even while making the stroke and who’s to argue with his results?

The Masters champ focuses in. Photo by wsj.com
The Masters champ focuses in.
Photo by wsj.com

Chipping:  While practicing chipping or pitching, I’ve found it useful to place two tees on the green a few yards apart and work to land my ball as close to each using different clubs.  If you practice chipping without focusing on a landing point, sometimes you’ll hit a poor chip that may end up close to the hole.  May make you feel good at the time but won’t help you out on the course.  By zeroing in on your landing spot, you can use the same club and learn how different swings produce different ball flights and spin patterns.  I’ve got some work to do in eliminating the chip yips that infected me from late last season, but this technique has helped improve my concentration and ability to trust my practice swing.  Side note:  if you have the chip yips, it’s either a technique issue or one of trust, which was true in my case.

Full Swing:  On your full swings, try and zero in on the smallest point in the distance and as high off the ground as possible.  This can be a tree top, apex of a distant building’s roof, power pole, or anything.  Keep that target in your mind’s eye, even while you start your swing, and you’ll free yourself up to make a move free of mechanical thoughts.  I do use an intermediate spot on the ground to set my initial alignment, but always ensure it corresponds to a distant high point I can focus on as a target.  Not sure why the high point strategy works, it just does.

Finally, you’ll find that rehearsing good focus techniques on small targets is not easy, especially during practice.  It’s hard when your mind tends to wander because the shots don’t matter.  But if you can focus on improving your ability to focus, you will play better.   Got any techniques that have helped improve your focus?   Please share and good luck!

 

Dinged By The Donkey

Picture by illinoisreview.typepad.com
Picture by illinoisreview.typepad.com

Do you ever play golf at a course and know before you tee off you’re going to play bad?  Does this happen at a course that is a repeat offender?  It does for me and happened again yesterday.  Why do these nemesis courses hold a spell over us and what can we do about it?  Do you have any strategies?

The Plan:  I ventured out to Poolesville, a seemingly innocuous municipal track in western Montgomery County, where I never play well.  My approach would be to play it while in the midst of a hot streak and hope my good play would carry over for the day.  The game plan was to warm up exactly as I had for my two previous rounds: chip, putt, hit range balls, and go.

I knew I was in trouble after my first chip on the practice green rolled 30 feet past the flag and off the surface.  The greens were lightning fast, and the first three rounds of the season I had played on slow to medium speed greens.  So the entire time I was warming up on the range, I was thinking, “How am I going to handle these fast greens?”  Coincidentally, I didn’t strike it well while warming up.  See anything wrong with this picture?

So off I went and I immediately short-sided myself with my approach on #1.  I flubbed a pitch shot which led to a double.  It seems I double this first hole every time out, which is a source of frustration and is always in the back of my mind.  Fast forward after six holes and I was 8-over with three doubles on the card, and I got downright mad because this meaningless muni was beating me down like a rented mule.  The course was totally in my head.

The adjustment:  When your game goes to crap you can either give up or change something.  Never give up.  Usually, I’ll make one of two types of adjustments depending on how bad the garbage smells.  If my head is full of swing thoughts, I’ll dump them all and just fire at the target, but this wasn’t a swing pretzel day.  I wasn’t hitting it well, but the culprit was poor course management.  The second type of adjustment is to mentally start over.  I quickly recalled a comment a reader once made about a round they had played with Mike Weir.  They said that Mike was playing this particular course for the first time and didn’t make a putt all day, but shot 67 because he never missed a green in the wrong spot.  Exactly the reminder I needed.  So I drew a line on the scorecard after the sixth hole to represent a restart on #7, and scribbled out three words:  “BELOW THE HOLE” on the card.  I find that if you place a visual reminder somewhere, it often works to solidify and reinforce a commitment you need to make and I needed to stop shooting at the flags and ensure that when I missed my targets, they missed in the right spots.

There’s a lot to be said for good course management even if it means playing more defensively.  After the adjustment, I went into stability mode and played the last 12 holes in 3-over par (2-over on the back nine while only hitting one green in regulation).  At the end of the day, the carnage wasn’t too bad but the course had won again.  Next time out, I’ll be armed with some better course management strategies and hopefully will be able to clear all remaining mental baggage.  I’m gonna get you Poolesville!

 

Whipping The Dreaded F.U.A.B.

from pinterest.com
from pinterest.com

You’ve just drained that curling 20-footer for birdie and you’re on top of the world.  Brimming with confidence and positive momentum, you step to the next tee and whack your drive out of bounds.  What happened?  Nothing is more frustrating then the dreaded F.U.A.B., but why do we do it?  F.U.A.B (Expletive After Birdie), as it is known in my playing group, is a physical breakdown caused by an altered mental state.  Your mind has relaxed too far and rendered your body incapable of execution.  The PGA Tour doesn’t track F.U.A.B. for obvious reasons, but the Bounce Back stat is tracked.  Bounce Back is the opposite of F.U.A.B. and captures how often a player can post an under par score for a hole after an over par hole, and is highly valued by tour professionals.

We see the manifestation of F.U.A.B in team sports all the time.  A football team takes a huge lead into the locker room at halftime only to melt down in the 3rd quarter as they relax and think they’ve got the game won.  Or the same team has a lead late and employs the prevent defense (failure to attack and stay aggressive) which is a different flavor of the same disorder.  In either case, the team psyche is devastated.

As I work through my fall golf season, I’ve been employing different drills to help steel my game against these breakdowns and I’ve got a good one for F.U.A.B. avoidance.  The key is to pressure yourself after a good shot and condition your mind against relaxation.

The drill:  Get to your short game practice area when it’s not crowded.  Take two balls, three clubs you like to chip and pitch with, and your putter.  First, play 9-holes of a two-ball, best-ball scramble.  Take two shots from every position alternating clubs and using easy, medium, and difficult lies.  Take two putts from the better of the chips and try to get up and down as much as possible and record your score.  This will get you comfortable with technique and build confidence.  Then play 9-holes of a two-ball, worst-ball scramble.  You’ll notice the pressure get’s ratcheted up immediately as you always have to play the more difficult result.  The urgency of playing good shots AND following up a good shot or putt with an equally good effort is the key to F.U.A.B avoidance.

The results: Yesterday, during the worst-ball game, I chipped in on a hole with the first ball using my pitching wedge.  But the pressure remained intense because the chip-in meant nothing; I had to execute the next shot without relaxing.  I found this aspect of the drill difficult but very beneficial.  Using par as two strokes per hole, my best ball score was one-over par and my worst ball score seven-over.  While seven-over doesn’t sound that great, I was fairly pleased because none of my over-par holes were worse than three strokes and with the exception of the hole out chip, my second chips were usually better than the first.  I concentrated reasonably well on the worst ball game but did let my mind wander a bit on a couple of second putts, after the first putt had been holed – need to work on this.

Today, I get to test this on the golf course.  We’re scheduled to play in 10-20 mph winds so it may not be a great test (I don’t imagine too many birdies will be carded) and I may need a new drill for mental toughness while playing in adverse conditions.  Give this F.U.A.B. Avoidance drill a try and let me know how it works for you.  Good luck!

Solving the Poolesville Puzzle

Ever run up against a course that has your number?  What are your strategies for conquering?  I am playing mine tomorrow.  Poolesville  is a local muni in the western reaches of Montgomery County, and has my number for the last six years.  At par-71 and at a nondescript 6,405 yards, in my last 15 rounds I have never played well, with 76 being my best score (achieved twice) and I’m struggling to a stroke average of 80.31.  Ball striking always seems to be an issue as are slow starts.  It has been impossible to get on a roll, much less threaten to go low.  I did notice that on one of those rounds of 76, I was very comfortable mentally because I had finished reading Putting Out of Your Mind by Bob Rotella the day before and was implementing his techniques.  My ball striking wasn’t great, but I was a peace with myself and not worried about my score or missing any putts.  This leads me to think this is purely psychological.  How do I get past this mental blocker?

I wrote earlier on how I got past a mental blocker hole at Rattlewood by totally changing the way I played it and I’m thinking of taking a similar approach. Normally, at Poolesville, I’m always playing defensive and trying to keep the ball in play with a 3WD off the tee, but that has left me with longer approaches into the smallish crowned greens.  GIR stats plummet and I inevitably leave myself short-sided too often and can’t score well.  Perhaps a total reversal is required, with an attempt to bring the course to its knees by busting driver on every hole,  which should leave shorter irons into the par-4s.  I’m getting inspiration watching Rory McIlroy destroy the field at The Open Championship with the same strategy.

It’s often that when NFL teams go into the prevent defense in an attempt to protect a lead, the lead inevitably vanishes.  Perhaps this is my prevent and I need to get aggressive.  Anyone have some experience handling problem courses?  I’d like to be a horse for this course and I’m all ears.  Thanks!

 

Learning The Same Lesson Over and Over

Golfers, more than athletes of any sport need to be reminded of the old adage that says, “If you keep doing what you’ve done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve got.”  This takes the same form as “practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent,” and today I relearned that lesson the hard way.

For some reason I periodically feel compelled to practice mechanics during my pre-round warm-up and I know you should never do this.  My guess is that today, I felt compelled to catch up from yesterday because I didn’t practice and subconsciously felt unprepared to play.  Or maybe it was the fact that I forgot to bring my golf shoes to the course and was going brain dead in general, but I know that your warm-up is designed to get your body and mind ready to play and you should avoid all mechanical preparation.  Last week, I had practiced the day before and felt prepared to play on game day.  During my pre-round warm-up, I was off kilter and searched successfully for a minor swing key to get me through the round.  This type of adjustment is okay but going out and deliberately working on mechanics is not.  Why do golfers do this?  I know I’m not alone here.

So, today, I hit the range for warm-ups determined to keep my arms and chest connected, and I put a head cover under my left armpit for a dozen swings or so to work that good solid feeling.  On or about the 8th hole, I started to pull the ball.  Struggling to recover as the pull became a pull hook, I managed to make the turn in 1-over 37, but was clearly starting to rearrange mental deck chairs.  Smothering nearly every shot, I bogeyed #10, lost two balls on #11 on my way to a snowman, and continued to fight the hook through the 16th hole.  Having already hit the proverbial iceberg, I finally realized standing on #17 tee that the head cover drill had pulled my hands too low on the back swing and I was attacking the ball from a swing path that was much too shallow and from the inside.  I made the adjustment but the damage had been done and 47 strokes later, I had my 84 and made my way to the parking lot humbled and exhausted.  The only thing worse than having a knock down drag out with your golf swing is doing it when you’re walking and it’s over 90 degrees and humid.

So I take some solace in the fact that I figured out what was going on with my swing, but was left to wonder why I periodically have to relearn the same hard lesson.  Has this ever happened to you and if so, same lesson or a different one?

Golfer And Genius – The Only Thing Common Is The “G”

EinsteinAlbert Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting a different outcome.  I was reminded of this today as I twisted myself into a mental basket case trying to implement too many mechanical fixes during the first eight holes of my golf game.  Fed up with hitting pop-ups and chunks off the tee, I decided on the 9th hole to “screw all these stupid swing thoughts” and just hit the ball hard at the target.  “Bingo!” The flow and rhythm immediately returned and I rifled short irons right at the pin on four of my next five holes and carded three birdies.  Having done the “think target only” thing in the past with great success, I was left to wonder, “Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

The culprits are not just us weekend warriors.  I learned during Saturday that Jim Furyk’s resurgence at the PGA was due largely to some recent work he’d been doing with Dr. Bob Rotella.  Apparently, Furyk’s mind was so twisted he couldn’t get out of his own way.  Watching Furyk reset five times before every putt was starting to drive me insane, but he was making most of them, so he must have been doing something right, and Rotella must be making a boatload of cash off these touring pros.  He has developed quite a reputation for fixing guy’s heads right before stellar performances in the major championships.

Weekly players practice once or twice before a round and latch onto a swing thought that happens to be working at the time and then try to put that into play.  The fallacy in this method is that swing thought momentum is fleeting and inevitably we make a bad swing using the good swing thought and the mistake is a catalyst for a new swing thought.  Every been there?  I think we’d all be better off playing 18 holes and starting the round by just thinking target and attempting to “trust our swing” as Dr. Bob advocates.

I wonder how much an hour of Dr. Bob’s time costs?  How’s your mental game?

It’s Never Too Late To Learn

I went out early on Independence Day for a quick nine holes at my local muni and was joined on the first tee by an elderly gentleman who was walking with a pull cart.  It was clear from the start that this fellow was not in the best of shape but the great thing about golf is that you can play it despite your physical shortcomings,  and play well into your old age.  The thing I enjoy most about playing on this little executive course is the diverse group of players I get paired with.  There are young families, elderly folks, and most are either beginners, novices or retirees and the time spent usually requires a little patience on my part.    I learned that he was 83 and just had some sort of lumbar injection that allowed him to walk more pain free.  He said by walking nine holes he was attempting to strengthen his legs.  I contemplated that for awhile and thought that when I was his age (in 31 more years) I hoped to be able to walk nine holes and have some semblance of a game.   Now he could barely hit the ball 125 yards, but I got a hearty laugh when he boasted how he was “rippin” it past his 90-year old buddies who he plays with in Florida 🙂

So we moved along slowly, and I helped him find his ball and pick up a few errant tee shots when he needed a do-over and we got to discussing the state of the professional game and how players today were so much better physical condition of those from my era (Nicklaus and Watson) and his era (Snead and Nelson) and that now they even work on their mental games.  I mentioned that I studied the mental game and had read most of Dr. Bob Rotella’s books, and had enjoyed Putting Out of Your Mind the most.  I told him that Rotella teaches that you play better when you putt like you don’t care if you make it.  Now he had very little dexterity or fluidity with his short game because of his physical condition but gave it a try with three or four holes left and started rolling the long ones close and short ones in.  He was absolutely thrilled with this tip and I was super pumped that this little mini-lesson helped him enjoy his round that much more.

When we finished, I told him I enjoyed his company and would play with him anytime.  He thanked me again for the tip and it was a good reminder that it’s never too late to learn.

Golf psychology and mental game tips

Been fielding a lot of questions from friends, colleagues, and playing partners on how to improve their golf without a lot of practice.  Perfect opportunity to discuss the mental game because it doesn’t take a lot of time.  I’m not a sports psychologist but have read many books and articles and will share several techniques that work for me and should help you.

What works best:

  • Develop a reliable and consistent pre-shot routine.  Do this for every club in the bag and execute on every shot no matter how important.  Akin to putting your body and mind on autopilot.  Works great to handle pressure situations.
  • Be decisive.  For every shot, carefully decide on your approach and then play without delay.  John Wooden’s “Be quick but don’t hurry,” comes to mind because delay allows indecision to creep in and is deadly.  Build the timing of your rehearsal swings and pulling the trigger into your pre-shot routine and practice them.   Super effective for chipping and putting.
  • Game plan every hole.  Step on the tee and know how you want to play the hole to the finest detail.  Consider these two approaches for playing a long par-4 where you know you can’t reach the green.  Approach One:  “I’ll play a 3WD into the right side of the fairway, layup with a 5-iron to avoid the bunkers in front which will leave an easy third with my sand wedge, that will give me the best chance for a par.”  Approach Two:  “Wail on a driver.”  Which do you think will be more successful?  Game planning improves your focus and will reduce the dumb shots which are usually played out of emotion or indifference.
  • Visualize Success.  Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” says that everything happens twice, once in your mind and then again in reality. It’s easier to execute on what your desired outcome is if you visualize it first.  See the shot in your mind in the finest detail, then pull the trigger.  Also helps to avoid playing those dumb shots like that 3WD off a hardpan lie from the middle of the woods.
  • Identify the smallest target possible.  Helps to focus the mind on where you want the ball to go and less on swing mechanics.  Pick a small target for every shot and you’ll increase your margin for error.
  • Stay in the moment.  Focus only on the shot you are about to play.  The 50-foot birdie putt you just sank or the ball you just hit out of bounds, or the long par-3 over water coming up in two holes are in the past or future and don’t matter.  Let them go and devote your full attention to the current shot.
  • You are your best friend on the course.  This is difficult, but you must not criticize but rather encourage yourself after a bad shot.  The first time I tried this it was awkward but it helps you to forget mistakes quicker.  Thinking positive thoughts and playing with confidence is always preferred, and positive reinforcement helps.

What does not work:

  • Thinking about swing mechanics.  Very difficult to do especially when you’re hitting bad shots.  Your best golf will be played using one swing key and keeping your focus on the target.  When you start hitting the ball badly, resist the temptation to tinker with your swing and just play more conservatively.  Throttle down and use whatever club you need to to keep the ball in play.  Continue making aggressive swings with conservative club selections, but don’t mess with your swing on the course.
  • Thinking about trouble.  Think where you want to hit the ball and avoid thoughts about hitting into hazards or out of bounds.  Always play with your target in mind and you’ll get there more often.
  • Staying angry.  It’s okay to get mad at yourself but let it go and do it quickly.  Golf is an incredibly frustrating and difficult game and you need to play tension and distraction free.  Anger builds tension and is the worst of distractions.  Two things I’ve found here are to think about trying your hardest on every shot and to have fun on every shot.  Know that you are human and will make mistakes.  This will keep your bad shots in the proper perspective and allow you to let go more easily.

What are some of your best mental techniques?