We golfers are a weird lot. When we experience success on the golf course, we try to reverse engineer our process, thinking, mechanics, and whatever else happened during the round and attribute it to something we deliberately did. Then we have the secret sauce. Once captured, we simply replicate for every shot in every round and presto! We are a better player. So, here’s mine from today 😊
It started on the range last weekend. I had watched a lesson with Lee Trevino where he stood conventional wisdom on its head and recommended to the student to, “not aim at anything and just get a consistent ball flight. Once you see that, you can start aiming.” Have you seen this video circulating? I love the Merry Mex and tried this for about 10 balls before dispensing. That tip is for the birds. . .you should always be aiming at something. After a reset, I tried a visualization exercise in my pre-shot routine. From behind the ball, I tried to envision the exact ball flight I wanted. I held it in my mind’s eye, and astride in my setup, continued to visualize the ball flight. This was the only thing I was thinking of. As soon as I looked down at the ball, I pulled the trigger. Results were impressive. 11 GIR and a 4-over round after five straight weeks of not touching a club. I used this technique for full swings and all short game shots.
After the round, I thought about how relaxed I felt all day, and determined it’s related to swing thoughts. The number of swing thoughts you retain is directly proportional to the amount of tension in your body. Kill the swing thoughts; release the tension. It works.
Playing without swing thoughts is not easy and requires practice. Go hit a bucket using these simple techniques of shot visualization and practice your short game focusing only on the trajectory and landing point for your shots. See if that doesn’t free you up for some great golf. Let me know how it goes.
Over the last four rounds, I’ve twisted myself into a psychological swing pretzel. I’ve had this happen before. I go to the golf course with a swing thought I’m going to work on for the day and usually strike the ball poorly, but sometimes find a new thought late in the round that allows me to finish strong. Then the new thought becomes the focus for the next round. This perpetuates a viscous cycle of bewilderment as I travel through the swing thought wilderness. Does this happen to you?
Not sure why I do this but it’s usually late in the season, and it happened again last weekend. After a predictably frustrating ball striking day, I decided to go back to what my pro and I had worked on in our last lesson, and bingo. It was late in the round again and I had just debunked all the solutions and fixes I had been working on for a month, with some common fundamentals passed down my instructor’s trained eye. I’ll chalk this up to COVID because I had a lesson left on my 2019 package, and rather than taking it in the early spring and following up every month during the season, I took my first and only lesson in the summer, after restrictions were loosened at our courses. Rather than signing up for more lessons, I tried to self-medicate. Some people can do this but there’s a reason we pay good money to these trained professionals and why most of the instruction on the internet is free. YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.
So where does this leave me? There is more playable weather forecast for the DC region in November, but I’ve shut my game down. It’s time to empty the mental recycle bin and not refill it for a while. I’m hoping this year’s winter is as mild as last year because I was able to practice and play in January and hit the ground running for my February Myrtle Beach trip. That trip is planned again this year, but I’m wondering if it’s going to happen with the current state of the virus.
Sometimes it’s best to give your game a rest and recharge your physical and mental batteries, even though you can keep playing.
Do you take time to refill your psychological tank? Have you shut it down for the year?
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.
Are you suffering from quarantine fatigue? COVID stay at home orders driving you nuts? Over-saturated from news, on-line meetings, Zoom sessions, and virtual happy hours? It’s truly difficult to stay motivated with no end in sight and I saw the worst of myself on Thursday of last week.
Fatigue had set in from staring at the same four walls and I was in a deep mental funk. On Tuesdays or Thursdays, I try to get to my school field after work and hit balls, but this week I was sulking and had no interest in working on my game. I am normally highly motivated to practice and my lethargic state was a serious concern. I imagine most people are suffering like this from time to time and I wanted to share my outlet.
The solve is to change your scenery. Get out of the house! It’s amazing how a different view will broaden your outlook and perk motivation. In Maryland, our stay-at-home directive is very restrictive. It encourages us to only leave the house for food, medical care, exercise, or other essential business. I decided my mental health was essential business and jumped in my car for a 1.5 hour drive with some hard rockin’ blues and a tour of closed golf courses in western Montgomery County. My drive took me by the muni in Poolesville, Bretton Woods Country Club, and past Congressional Country Club in Potomac. I was a little saddened driving by “Congo” and seeing the world renown facility shuttered and wondered if grounds crew were even being let in, but I snapped out of it by the time I got home.
Today, despite a little morning rain, I journeyed to Reston National and had a tremendous short game practice session. I forgot how peaceful and tranquil a wet day (but not too wet) at the golf course can be. I also can’t overlook the gratitude I am feeling for the Commonwealth and how they’ve managed to retain some of the civil liberties for their citizens that we in Maryland currently don’t enjoy. That I can swing on over in 20 minutes is a great thing, and I’m not sure what I’d do without you Reston.
Virginia, my brain thanks you and my golf game does as well.
How are you doing with your mental outlook? Play well!
As I monitor events from the GVOHQ (Golf Virus Organization Headquarters) in the 3rd floor bedroom/office of my home overlooking the golf course at Lakewood Country Club) I am deeply pondering the thought: Can I crush this virus or is it crushing me? I’m an IT jockey and am trying to concentrate for work, and of course am very thankful to be employed, but am stuck in the isolating world of work from home (WFH). Yesterday was day seven in our business continuity plan, and I was starting to get antsy on Thursday. I had the same feeling back in the blizzard of 2010 when I worked six straight from the house. You know, you get cooped up, gotta get some outside air and are tired of looking at the inside walls. But this is different. Every TV channel you turn to provides ample anxiety building virus coverage – “Practice safe this, don’t go here, don’t go there, close businesses, and socially distance yourself from everyone.” I am one of those guys who distrusts the media and understands they thrive on this stuff and will run it as long as people consume. “If it bleeds it leads, ” so why am I consuming? Remember how long the news cycle lasted for OJ and Malaysia Air Flight 370? They just couldn’t let it go and this is 50 times worse, plus there are no sports to distract us.
From a human physiology and psychological aspect, isolation can be damaging. Taken to the extreme, it can be viewed as cruel and unusual punishment (solitary confinement). The mental and physical damage of isolation is real and everyone has different limits. We as humans isolate ourselves more and more every day with our text messaging, internet connectivity, and on-line social networks. Let’s be clear, connecting over devices may feel like connecting but it’s not the same as connecting face to face. We are social beings and need direct interaction with our fellow man. Not saying it cannot be done in this climate, just that I am struggling with it. What to do?
Thursday, I had enough, and after work, went out to my home club for some practice. Wow how refreshing! The parking lot was ¾ full as was the range and there was a steady stream of groups going out to play. In short, it seemed like business as usual, if you ignored the closed snack bar and lack of rakes in the bunkers. I asked the guy behind the desk how the tee sheet looked, with all this virus stuff, and he replied in one word, “packed.” I have to admit, that the glimpse of normalcy filled me with optimism and I thoroughly enjoyed the couple hours spent working on my game.
My concern: Every day restrictions on the area courses are getting tighter. Our local group of nine municipal courses had removed bunker rakes, coolers, and closed food service – all good. Yesterday, they notified that no carts would be used for the foreseeable future – still okay with that. They also notified that cups would be set to prevent balls from going in the hole (raised) and that flagsticks could not be removed. I viewed this as excessive and sent them a note detailing my concerns. Another course on the eastern shore (Baywood Greens) had sent an email detailing their restrictions which included removing flags. I sent them an email complaining that without flags, we wouldn’t be playing golf, and they relented, but are playing with raised holes. Where to draw the line? You need to let common sense take over. Unless the state shuts all the courses down, you still gotta let people play golf at their own discretion and keep the game recognizable.
I realize the situation is fluid and is only getting worse. If they close all our courses and mandate a shut in strategy with marshal law (hopefully it doesn’t come to that), my strategy is to walk to the adjacent school field, and pound pitching wedges at my bag shag. I’m sure we’ll be allowed outside for trips to the grocery store, to walk the dog, and exercise.
In the meantime, try and cut our leaders some slack and know that they’re trying to balance the tough dichotomy of protecting the public health and maintaining our economic well-being. We’re all going through this for the first time, including our leaders, and the blame first mentality helps nobody.
Can you think back to a time when you played a golf shot that was completely out of character for you? We’ve all done it, but can you also recall a situation where someone else’s behavior, strategy, or club selection, caused you to change your plans for the worse? Whether we compete in a friendly game or a serious tournament round, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. Why? Because we don’t play to our identity.
Recently, I was playing a match in Myrtle Beach at the Barefoot Fazio course. The driving range was closed and the fellas agreed to take “breakfast balls” on the first tee. Personally, I am not a mulligan guy and never have been. I’ve always prepared myself mentally to put my full energy into my first shot and live with the result. I have nothing against mulligan guys but that’s not me. So, everyone was taking a breakfast ball on their first shot unless they struck one pure (and most didn’t). My first shot went in the right rough but was in play. Since everyone was taking a mulligan, I did too. I hit it poorly and into a wet fairway bunker. The rule is that if you take a breakfast ball, you must play it. I took two to get out and chopped my way to a 7 on the first hole. My original tee shot was sitting decent about 110 yards from the green – aarrrggg!
I could have avoided this situation and played to my own identity. The key is to have total self-awareness. Understand your capabilities and what you want to do for a given situation. Understand that opponents may try and get in your head – but deny them entry. Understand that you can work this to your advantage as well. A reverse example: Several years back, I was playing a stroke play round in my club championship. The third hole was a 175-yard par-3 that was playing into a freshening breeze. I was hitting second or third in the foursome and made up my mind that it was a 4-iron. I rushed to the tee box, got there first, and pulled a 3-wood and started taking practice swings. I got some strange looks from my fellow competitors, but the first guy took too much club and blew his shot over the green into trouble. I had influenced his behavior because he was paying attention to me rather than his own game. Yes, this works – if you are discrete and don’t overuse it.
Self-awareness is essential. Know what you do well, what weaknesses you should stay away from, and try not to fix those weaknesses on the golf course under pressure. Some folks think they know their strengths and weaknesses, but they don’t. Try this. After a round, review your scorecard and jot down single shots that caused you to have good holes or bad holes. This exercise can be revealing. Last week, I pushed a drive on my par-4, 2nd hole way right. I hit a nice punch with a 5-iron to get back in position about 110 yards from the green. I hit a decent wedge to 25 feet and struggled to two putt for a very lucky bogey. I was frustrated with my poor first putt, but during the post round analysis, I recognized it was the poor drive that had set up the hole. My notes also showed that I struggled on a couple par-fives with long iron layup shots.
I was fortunate enough to make three birdies. My notes included: 50-yard lob wedge, 80-yard sand wedge, 133-yard knock-down 7-iron. An indication that my partial iron shots were working. With this data, I have something to work on in practice, and something to try and lean on in future rounds that may yield better scores.
Admittedly, I am a metrics freak but this small amount of data is easy to capture and can improve your focus and concentration. Give it a try, learn your identity, play and practice to it, and let me know how it goes.
I have one goal for 2020 and it’s process oriented. Before detailing, I’ve been drawing a tremendous amount of inspiration from the book: The Score Takes Care of Itself, by Bill Walsh. The Hall of Fame football coach details his controversial approach to leadership and building a world class organization, but the underlying takeaway is to get immersed in the details of process and good results will naturally be forthcoming. While a common theme from most sports psychologists, I needed to read his specifics about not confusing effort with results and found it inspiring.
Last season, I stumbled on a process-oriented adjustment in September and rode that to higher confidence and better performance in the Fall, and over the Winter. The experience was so positive that I will try to leverage for 2020. In 2013 I had experimented using the nine-shot drill that Tiger Woods made famous and found that difficult to implement. The drill requires you to hit low, medium, and high trajectories with straight, draw, and fade shot shapes. I couldn’t do them all but last Fall, during practice sessions and warm-ups I began hitting low, medium, and high straight shots with each club in the bag (lob wedge through 4-iron). Suddenly while on the course, I felt comfortable calling on any of these trajectories, which allowed me to play more aggressively and with greater confidence. To execute, you simply move your ball position from back to middle to front with each club. I practiced this way and warmed-up this way. The advantage, especially during warm-ups, is that on some days I’d find only one trajectory was working but I could take that one to the course with confidence.
Granted, this is somewhat of an advanced technique and you should have your swing mechanics in pretty good order. During a lesson last year, my instructor had me hitting full wedge shots using my lob, sand, and gap from the back position, and we really liked the ball flight. He recommended that I add the shot to my arsenal, and I did. I then added the other ball positions after experimenting.
Fast forward to this year. My goal is to get comfortable working the ball. Do I need to add all six other trajectories in the nine-shot drill? No. I’d just like to be able to control a draw or fade with the most comfortable trajectory. I know my biggest challenge will be with the fade because I hit a little natural draw and I can’t remember fading a ball on demand, but think I can learn this using the same approach. First up, some experimentation on the range, then off to my instructor to dialog the plan. If I can work the ball with the same level of confidence, great things are going to happen!
Whether you are a beginner or a life-long enthusiast, there are three keys you need to play better golf. Depending on your skill level, the percentage of your time spent on each will vary. If you continue to work them all, I guarantee your golf journey will be an enjoyable one. I use the word “journey” because you never have anything permanently solved in this game. It’s a constant process of reaching peaks and valleys, and working the Keys will ensure an upward curve of improvement. Your goal of maximizing the peaks and minimizing the valleys is doable so let’s get started.
The Three Keys:
Mastery of fundamentals
KEY 1 – Mastery of fundamentals:
Most highly accomplished players are ground in a solid understanding of the fundamentals. These include: grip, aim, posture, conditioning, and learning the proper physical sequence to make solid contact. There are players on the world stage that are unique in their approach to fundamentals, but one commonality is they almost look identical at impact. They are particularly adept at learning the proper body sequencing to get them to strike solid shots. To illustrate, look at the similarities of Jim Furyk and John Daly down-the-line at impact – amazingly similar, and such different players!
A commitment to solid fundamentals is essential. Many self-proclaimed hackers stay at their current level because of a reluctance to make this commitment. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is time consuming, but think of anything you are trying to gain a mastery of. Doesn’t that require a deep understanding of fundamentals and a commitment to improve them? Golf is no different.
For the average amateur, fundamentals are best learned early, and under the watchful eye of a professional instructor. Improvement can also be made by the seasoned player at any point by seeking professional help, but the deeper bad fundamentals are ingrained in a player’s swing, the more difficult they are to break.
I took my first lessons 42 years ago and my instructor provided a lot of the fundamentals I needed. However, he missed on a critical one, and I’ve been working very hard with my current instructor to break the bad habit and re-learn a good one. I’ve made the commitment and it’s difficult.
Instruction is a lot different today than when I first learned. The explosion of materials on the internet can confuse a student to the point of reverse productivity if the student doesn’t know how to filter the incoming data. My recommendation is to find a qualified instructor, take an honest look at your fundamentals, and develop a focused learning improvement plan. (Generally, the fewer fundamentals you try to fix at once, the better.) A big side-benefit is that when you make a mistake on the course or during practice, you’ll have a better way to identify anti-patterns, and will stop trying too many different fixes. Reduce confusion, work your plan, and reap the rewards.
KEY 2 – Purposeful practice:
It actually takes practice to learn how to practice. Purposeful practice means getting a method to help you learn and retain skill that you can use to execute on the golf course. Most amateurs don’t practice correctly. They buy a bucket of balls and head out to the driving range for an hour of banging drivers as far as possible. This will build ample callouses on your hands, and maybe a good sweat, but will do nothing for your golf game.
Start by seeking out a good practice facility which might include a driving range, practice green for short game, separate putting green, and maybe a bunker. A lot of serious golfers keep a shag bag with some good quality practice balls nearby. Mine lives in the car trunk. You’ll never know when you arrive at a practice facility if there are no balls to work with in the short game area. Most shag bags have a picker contraption to collect balls without making you stoop over – a must have if you practice a lot of short game.
Beginning players should spend about 75% of their practice time working to improve their basic fundamentals – that means full swing. One school of thought is to learn the game backwards (putting first, moving back to short game, and then full swing), but I am not in favor. It’s very hard for a beginner to gain enough satisfaction just knocking in three-foot putts. You need to build enthusiasm with the novice player and golf is an athletic activity. The thrill of hitting a flush shot is a powerful force. I remember when I made my first good contact, how amazed I was to be able to hit the ball so far.
As players gain more experience, the percentage of their practice time should begin to favor the short game because of the intricacies of greenside shots. The spectrum is limitless and the more you can practice a core set of go-to short shots, the more confident you will be on the course and the lower your scores will go.
I have different types of practice routines depending on what I want to work on, but I also have a stock session I use the day before I play. It takes about 90 minutes and covers my full game. It works like this:
Start with 30 minutes of short game. I work on chipping with my lob wedge, pitching wedge, and 8-iron. I’ll try to hit three different chip shots with the lob wedge (low, medium, and high) and I do this by varying the ball position. Then I’ll hit some stock chips with the PW and 8-iron. Next, I work on pitching with my lob wedge and sand wedge and I try to vary the distance from the hole. Finally, I wrap up with a few lob shots and if the practice green is clear, a half dozen bunker shots.
Next is 30 minutes on the range. I’ll hit three balls with each of my lob wedge through 7-iron (low, medium, and high trajectories). Then I’ll skip to my 4-iron for three, and finally take three stock 3WDs and three drivers. Next I’ll play three simulated holes which uses six or seven balls. Great things happen in groups of three 🙂 This helps to get my mind off mechanics and in game mode. The low-medium-high iron shots are a recent change that I’ve found very beneficial and I’ll often repeat this shot pattern warming up the day of a round. It gives me an excellent feel for the trajectory I’m most comfortable with for that day. Note how few drivers I hit. I picked this up after reading an article on how Dustin Johnson practices. He saves energy and focuses on the shorter clubs which has helped his scoring.
The last 30 minutes is for putting. I’ll frame a hole with my alignment sticks and take five groups of 10 putts within the sticks. This grooves my stroke incredibly well and boosts my confidence within five feet. I’ll take three long lag putts between the groups of ten, just to break up the routine. Finally, I’ll finish with two rounds of the 5-star drill. This is where you place five balls in a star pattern around a hole and try to make all five going through your full pre-shot routine.
KEY 3 – Self-accountability:
Golfers fall into two camps. Those that play for fun and those that are more serious about their games. There is nothing wrong with either and you can certainly have fun while being serious about your game. If you play for fun, enjoy yourself, be courteous to your playing partners, mind the pace of play, and leave the course better than you found it. That’s all the accountability you’ll need. But if you are a serious player, you need to exhibit an honest approach regarding scoring. Being accurate with your score means playing by the rules, taking your penalty shots, and putting out the shorties. You will find that if you hold yourself accountable during the casual rounds, tournament play is much less of an adjustment. You’ll be surprised how many players get thrown off their game when they must hole every three-foot putt. Bang ‘em in during practice, bang ‘em in during casual play, and you’ll have a much better shot when it matters.
For those that carry a handicap, accountability means keeping an accurate index. You also need to pay off any gambling losses immediately. Once you get caught playing to a lower handicap in a tournament (sandbagging) your reputation will precede you in a bad way. Welching on bets or worse, being labeled a cheater because you’ve taken other’s money unfairly, can stay with you forever. If winning a small side-wager or even a large tournament purse is more important than playing fairly, you need to find another endeavor. Just do the right thing and you’ll be fine.
As a life-long enthusiast, I have been afforded the luxury of excellent professional instruction. It’s a great way to get introduced to the game if you’re just starting. I’ve also had the opportunity to try new things (and fail a lot), and to work hard to understand the psychological aspect of the game. It all adds up to a tremendous experience framed and punctuated by the Three Keys. Work the Three Keys and enjoy the journey.
What makes him tick? As we approach the final major of the season, my intrigue continues to grow with his amazing success. He is extraordinary in the big events but rather ordinary in the regular tour stops. How does he turn on the mental supercharger for the majors? Few athletes in history have been able to turn it on in big events to the same extent. Great golfers like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods demonstrated fantastic ability to concentrate, but their performance was more evenly distributed across all their events.
Sports fans old enough to remember the Hall of Fame running back John Riggins, recall Riggo hated to practice and almost never did. He was often in the hospital injured during the week, or out carousing and making trouble, but come game day, he could turn on an amazing level of focus and concentration and performed brilliantly. Football is a sport where you are very dependent on the performance of others. Golf is not. Koepka has no offensive line to run behind which makes his majors performances even more remarkable.
In perhaps his greatest book on sports psychology (How Champions Think), Bob Rotella sites “single-mindedness” as the most important key. The greats demonstrate it time and again and sometimes at the cost of other important aspects in their lives. Tiger certainly had single-mindedness and learned it from his dad. Maybe his personal failings later in life were a cry for help due to the strains of single-mindedness at an early age. Michele Wie’s parents tried to enforce single-mindedness before she was ready and may have ruined a great golf career.
Koepka doesn’t appear to be single-minded at all. He doesn’t sweat the majors any more than you or I would going to an important meeting at the office. He does abide by a corny half-baked idea that it’s easier to win the majors because he has fewer opponents that will be in contention for a variety of reasons. Does that really work; can you trick yourself into performing better by simply believing you are superior? For example, could your son or daughter excel in an important event like taking the SAT and expect superlative performance by thinking half the other students in the class will choke under the pressure? There may be some truth to it.
More importantly, is there something we (the average amateur) can adopt from his approach that will help our games? Think back to a time when you put on a great performance for a big event. A couple months back, I presented at a professional conference and was rather nervous at the thought of getting up in front of my peers for an hour. What if I stumbled or said something stupid? But, I nailed the presentation. How? I practiced the heck out of it until I was so sick of it I could do it forwards and backwards. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to mentally trick myself into performing better on the golf course by playing without any swing thoughts, but that doesn’t sustain for more than a few holes. The only tried and true method I’ve found is consistent practice, but it’s important to get feedback from someone other than yourself during the practice. I did that presentation alone and for family members and got constructive feedback that made it better.
So next time you’re on the practice tee or working short game, ask for feedback. In the best case, get it from a professional instructor. Learn the right way and practice.
And yes, Brooks Koepka is my pick for the 2019 British Open. I’ll ride him until he bucks me off.
It’s been hard to miss if you’ve been watching end-to-end Masters coverage this week. Every interview with Brooks Koepka inevitably zeros in on his “think of nothing” swing strategy. I love it and find the psychological aspects fascinating. Having tried myself, I found it tremendously difficult. Nick Faldo said that he doesn’t believe he can do it. Readers, like Vet4golfing51, claim to be able to do it without issue. Can you do it?
Playing with no swing thoughts implies that you have 100% trust in your swing. Bob Rotella, famous sports psychologist, advocates for the “Train it Trust it” method. In Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect, he draws on examples of athletes throwing away mechanical thoughts and just thinking of shooting at a targets to free up their bodies for better performance. Makes perfect sense.
If Koepka can truly play and only focus on where to hit the ball, he has a tremendous advantage. The guy certainly has no lack of confidence and is building a track record of success. Maybe there’s an overabundance of some brain chemical that allows him to play that way, or maybe he’s not telling the truth, but the results speak for themselves.
On the occasions I’ve dabbled in the strategy, I’ve either made a conscious effort to just “think target” or have been so frustrated with my game, I threw out all swing thoughts just attempting to relax. The one planned effort lasted 16 holes during a round in Myrtle Beach. The experience was weird, as if I had lost all control of my game but was rather successful. I didn’t feel like I could control my shots but never hit one terribly off line. Then the inevitable swing thought crept in on the 17th hole and I returned to a normal state. Normal state would constitute working with a single swing key, and possessing enough knowledge about your own game to make mid-round adjustments. Jack Nicklaus was a proponent of this approach and certainly has the record to back it up.
How close can you get to playing with zero swing thoughts?
Have you ever wondered how great golfers acquire feel? I’ve always tried to increase my feel but yesterday after reading an article in the June 2018 Golf Digest called “The battle of dumb versus smart,” I think I figured out how. As you know, golf is an inherently mental game. Most players are either artists or scientists in their approach. The gist of the article was that unless you are extremely bright and have an analytical mind, like Phil Mickelson or Bryson DeChambeau, you shouldn’t try to play with analytics.
A few years back, I made a decision to go with more art and not think about my score as I played. I wanted to get more process oriented and stay in the moment. This worked for a brief period but I still couldn’t get the extra feel. I realized that I was playing with too many statistics even if I was just counting greens in regulation and total putts. Sometimes I’d start to worry about my stats during the round. I was beating myself up instead of thinking about getting the ball in the hole. Not good!
In yesterday’s round, I decided to play without stats, and noticed I was very relaxed. I simply thought to get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes possible. Method didn’t matter. I recalled my shots after the round and noted that I had hit eight of nine greens on the front, which had not gone unnoticed by one of my playing partners. After I chipped in on #10, for the next two holes, this fellow had the questions coming hard and fast. He wanted to know about club selection, handicap, equipment choices, set makeup, and fitting recommendations. Finally on #13, he whipped out his phone and asked me if I tracked my ball speed like he did, as he had been introduced to TrackMan recently. He wanted to show me this program but I wouldn’t have any of it. I think he was a little disappointed when I told him I was playing old school and writing my scores down on a card with no analytics, and that my phone would remain in my golf bag for the round.
Seve Ballesteros was the greatest feel player I ever saw. His imagination and touch on and around the greens was incredible. In 1990 he four putted #16 at the Masters and when asked to describe what happened he replied, “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.” No stats, no analysis, no paralysis. Love the mindset.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why can’t I play this sport to the level that I’d like?” Have you also observed folks very proficient in a particular sport and noticed that they have no life outside the sport? This two-way phenomena is known as opportunity cost. From our Economics 101 text book, opportunity cost is defined as: “The loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” It is the chief reason why people underachieve in recreational or competitive activities, and why some who excel in those same activities, may suffer from the failure to take care of themselves in other areas of their lives.
Opportunity cost is not good or bad, it’s just a judgement call each of us make every day about many things. The opportunity cost of an avid football fan who watches 15 hours of games every weekend might be that he has a poor golf game. The opportunity cost of a mom or dad shuttling their kids to youth soccer games, practices, and tournaments every hour of every week might be the inability to work, socialize, or exercise.
To get more clarity, I’m reading Dr. Bob Rotella’s “How Champions Think.” This book gets in the minds of competitors from several sports who’ve made it to the top and identifies some common recurring themes. Single-mindedness is huge. These folks dedicate a good portion of their lives to mastering a craft and it often comes with significant opportunity cost. There are ruined marriages, neglected children, repetitive stress, and burnout, and they are a bit disturbing to read about. If you’re looking to become a champion, this book provides an uncommon but necessary view. Rotella advocates for single-mindedness, but points out it takes very special individuals to manage the competing factions that this level of dedication requires. He cites Jack and Barbara Nicklaus as two of the best in handling them. Unlike a lot of marriages and relationships with tour players and spouses, Jack and Barbara understood how their significant other needed to operate and made it work so that Jack enjoyed the greatest golf career ever, and mostly Barbara raised a wonderful loving and understanding family.
I also just finished Bob Ladouceur’s “Chasing Perfection”. Ladouceur was the head football coach at De La Salle High School in California and led his teams to 12 consecutive undefeated seasons and accumulated a record of 399-25-3 during his tenure. I wanted to know what his secret sauce was. In one passage, he discusses the desires of other kids to transfer to De La Salle and become part of the winning tradition. Most of these transfers washed out when they discovered the level of dedication and demands he placed on his players and coaches for single-mindedness and preparation. These were eerily similar in effort and opportunity cost to the athletes Rotella describes. This book is an eye-opening read.
As an avid golfer, I’ve dedicated more than my fair share of time to gaining and maintaining the skills I need to play to a certain level. I have also suffered the opportunity costs. Let’s face it, golf is a game that requires a lot of time. Each of us has a level of dedication and desire that we need to apply to satisfy ourselves, and mine is more than the average player, but doesn’t come close to the extremes I’ve recently read about. I would be very uncomfortable ignoring key factions of my life to become the best player I could be.
Have you experienced this dichotomy? What’s your level of dedication and single-mindedness? Suffered any significant opportunity costs?
Readers of this blog know that I’ve committed this season to improving my ball striking through a series of lessons and concentrated practice. I’m giving it all year to see improvement, but sometimes I get inpatient trying to get results that don’t happen when I think they should. But a thought came up after my last round: When things DO break right for you, can you manage success properly? In yesterday’s round, I did not.
The day before, I played nine holes in the morning and then went to the range to practice and gather some swings on film. I wanted to make sure that I was correctly implementing the positions my instructor wanted me in. After lunch, I reviewed the film and spotted a couple areas to work on and headed back out to the range.
Yesterday’s outing at Clustered Spires in Frederick, MD started off well. I warmed up on the range and felt loose and comfortable. At 6,200 yards, Clustered Spires is not terribly long and my game plan was to get as many sand wedge, gap wedge, and pitching wedge approach shots as possible, since I’d been practicing those the most. That would require a good day with the driver and it started out great as I was busting it long and straight. The changes I worked on the day before were clicking.
To make a long story short, the true measure of ball striking success is greens in regulation (GIR), and I hit the first 15. While I didn’t see this ball striking bonanza coming, I was thrilled that the changes I had worked on were taking hold, but at the same time, I was at 3-under par and was STARTING TO EXIT MY COMFORT ZONE!
What happened next was where you figure out how good you are at handling success (or adversity). On the par-3 16th, I missed the green right into a bunker with a 3-iron. The streak was over and it threw my equilibrium off – I had been thinking about it the whole day as the round progressed. I played a nice bunker shot but misjudged the amount of fringe I had to carry and played a poor approach putt from the first cut. I struggled to make bogey. I knew I was choking because I hadn’t hit a short shot in 16 holes and wasn’t sure I could. Still, it was just a bogey and I figured a physical error was bound to happen. It was deflating, as my 18 GIR fantasy bubble was busted.
#17 is a medium length par-4 that I usually hit with a driver/8-iron, and I caught a huge break. My drive hit the cart path on the right and catapulted forward another 50 yards shortening the hole considerably. I was between a sand wedge and a gap wedge but got greedy and went with the gap and tried to fly it all the way to a back left sucker pin. I went long and short-sided myself into a bad lie. Again I choked on the chip trying to be too perfect, left it short, and made double.
#18 is a longer par-4 and my drive was solid but trickled just into the left rough, but the lie was deep in three-inch grass. I pulled an 8-iron left into a bunker and short sided myself again. With no green to work with, I blasted out 30 feet past the flag and three-putted for another double. Wow! Now that’s handling success. Went from 3-under to 2-over in the bat of an eyelash.
I learned a hard lesson here and sometimes you need to learn it more than once. Even when it feels like you’re on cruise control, you MUST take it one shot at a time. Forget your score, forget your streaks, forget your fantasies, and focus on your routine. I’m not disappointed about #16 and #18 because they were physical errors. That happens. But the greedy play on #17 could have been avoided by dropping a sand wedge on the middle of the green and two-putting for a routine par.
Despite the mental breakdown, I’m very excited to see the hard work starting to pay off, and for the first time in a while it felt like I was playing golf instead of golf swing.
How’s your game coming? Handling success and adversity equally as well?
Whether it’s golf, computer programming, or learning to drive a car, anytime you try to acquire a new skill, you’ll need to practice. Instruction without practice is like reading the comics. You enjoy it at the time, but don’t retain much in the form of long term benefit. If you’re a dedicated player, one of the great things about taking a series of golf lessons is that it forces you into beneficial regular practice. As I re-engage in regular practice, I’m reminded of a few pointers to make the best use of your time.
Find a quiet isolated spot; it improves concentration. Approach like Vijay Singh. He has it right when he sets up alone down at the end of the driving range. Unless you’re the type who could do your homework with the TV blaring, you’re better off in solitary. Hitting balls at Top Golf with your friends or on the simulator at Dave and Busters is fun but is not practice. Nor is working one stall over from the dad trying to give his young son well-meaning but awful swing advice. Focus on your task at hand.
Move slowly through your basket of balls. Ever see the range rat raking ball after ball, never changing clubs, and hitting one every 15 seconds – usually with the driver? Don’t be that guy. If you want a cardio workout, go to the gym. Warm up slowly and start with a wedge, making small swings. Resist the temptation to quickly hit another ball after a bad shot. Think through your miss and attempted correction. Rushing will only get you tired and frustrated.
Bring your rangefinder and use it. Hit at specific targets and change them often; it will help you to concentrate and stay fresh. This one is difficult because you’re most likely working on swing mechanics, but never forget golf is a target-oriented game. Often, if your swing is somewhat grooved, just focusing on the target will free your body from your mind and allow you to perform your best.
When you finish full swing practice, go putt for 20-30 minutes. Putting is a simple repeated stroke that doesn’t require much physical effort. It’s a wonderful way to cool down and is also 40% of the shots you’ll take during a normal round. Draining putts is always beneficial to your game. If your range session was less than satisfactory, it can take the edge off and remind you that getting the ball in the hole is the objective of all your hard work. Don’t confuse putting after full swing with short game practice. This putting is just about seeing the ball go in the hole. Short game practice (chipping, pitching, putting, and bunker play) should have a completely different time block allocated, and is often more time consuming than full swing.
Keep playing golf – it’s important to stay engaged with the objectives of the game. Shooting at targets, getting rewarded for good shots and penalized for bad, and working on your course management. While you’re trying to make swing changes, this can be very difficult. You need to persevere and not beat yourself up over some bad scores. Know that the more you play AND practice together, it will elevate your overall performance. Plus, when you pull off those shots you’ve been working on during practice, it’s a great feeling.
There you have it. These tips are working for me and I hope they do for you. Right now, I’m off to the practice tee.
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.
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!
What gets you up in the morning to go work on your golf game?
As human beings, we are motivated either one of two ways; extrinsically (pursuit of money, titles, things, etc.), or intrinsically (praise for a job well done, solving a tough problem, or the self satisfaction of simply improving at something). Don’t say “both” because you favor one or the other. Which is it?
I returned from a session at the driving range today, where I was practicing something new, and started wondering why I keep working at this crazy game. I see bits of improvement here and there but basically maintain the same level of competence from year to year. What’s my motivation? I realized that the simple pursuit of improvement (the journey) was providing me the greatest amount of satisfaction. It keeps me going and definitely puts me in the intrinsic camp.
I like where I’m sitting after reading Mark Manson’s new article, “The Disease of More” where he details the travails of the 1980 Los Angeles Lakers and of folks in general who experience success too fast. The “Disease”was originally coined by Pat Riley (Lakers coach) who portended that championship teams are often dethroned not by other better teams but by forces that demotivate within their own organization. The Lakers reached the pinnacle and weren’t content to be a great basketball team. They lost their motivation by pursuing more money, cars, women, endorsements, and other objects outside of basketball, which ultimately led to their downfall. Sound like someone we know in the golf world?
I would love to get inside the head of two individuals and understand their motivation. The first is Nick Saban, head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Nick has the titles, he has the dollars, he has the legacy, but I hear him speak often in very process oriented terms. He sometimes seems joyless in victory because his teams failed to execute on some fine detail of his game plan. Is it possible he is totally intrinsically motivated in his pursuit of perfection, and views all the victories and championships as a simple extrinsic reward that comes naturally with success, but doesn’t particularly excite him?
The second is Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach. We are all fascinated by his level of achievement and the secrecy that surrounds his thinking and operation. Does he want to stick it to the world? Become the greatest coach of all time? Or does he just enjoy the grind of a head-to-head match-up across the field from a peer on a weekly basis? What goes on behind those beady eyes and under that hood? A lot of good secrets for sure. If he ever writes a book, I’ll be first in line.
As a full time desk jockey and a part time golfer, I’m thankful for my intrinsic tendencies and my ability to hold the line on the quality of my game. For me, the joy is in the never ending journey. What about you? Play well!
We 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!
Human beings are predisposed to favor either creativity or analysis in their thought processes. Take cooking for example. We prepare a successful meal by either following a recipe or inventing one on the fly. I am definitely in the latter camp, and believe that when we identify with a trend, it’s probably best to play golf in a similar fashion. I had an epiphany recently. I have always thought I trended scientific, but now believe the opposite is true, and realize my current technical approach may be hurting my game.
Do you play with a laser range finder? I do and my regular golf partner has a GPS device. These are wonderful instruments of precision and we normally share information on most shots, so I have the distance to the flag, the distance to the front, middle, and back of the green, as well as distance to any hazards or hidden course features at my disposal. When I factor in wind direction and speed, condition of the putting surface, and my current swing key(s), it feels like I’m trying to land a 747 on a small runway in a 20 knot cross wind. I’ve been consuming all this information for a long time and have been struggling to hit shots when thinking so precisely. I think there’s a connection because I had more success when I simplified by calculating yardages old school (using sprinkler head distances to the middle of the green and adding or subtracting estimated yardages for front or back pin placements). Lately I’ve also noticed I’ve had good results executing difficult recovery or partial shots where my approach has been very simple.
Here’s two recent shots side-by-side to illustrate. Shot 1: Yesterday I had a short approach into a par-5. I measured 54 yards uphill to a back flag. It was downwind, and the greens were running fast. I had 60 yards to the back. I thought, “lob wedge to 51 yards” but tried to be too precise and shut the face a little and the ball trickled over the green into the fringe about 25 feet long leaving a treacherous downhill putt, which I promptly three-jacked. I’d have been better off playing for the middle of the green. Shot 2: Last week, I drove a ball under a tree with low hanging branches. I had 160 yards left but could not elevate a shot. I thought, “hit a low 130 yard 3-iron then let it run up”. Now who practices that shot on the range? Not me, but I just rehearsed a simple little half flip with the club and hit the shot as planned. My target was much less precise, but I felt more relaxed during my pre-shot routine than for Shot 1. Why? I believe Shot 1 had too many technical inputs and Shot 2 didn’t. It allowed me to take a creative approach that my brain was comfortable with.
So what to do now? It’s quite possible that I’m not using the information at my disposal correctly or maybe it’s just too much information. I’m going to experiment on my upcoming eastern shore golf trip Friday to Sunday. Friday’s round is at Heritage Shores which I have played twice and am less familiar. I’m going to use the laser and GPS. Saturday we play Eagles Landing which I have played over a dozen times and know where to hit it. So I will go old school and pace off yardages and simplify. Sunday at Baywood Greens will be the more comfortable of the two approaches. I will let you know how it goes next week.
Do you over-complicate your approach on the course? Hope not.
This 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?
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!
We’ve all experienced this at some point. You’re on the course and come to the hole that’s always problematic. No matter how well or poorly you’re playing, the hole just cannot be solved and leads to the inevitable big number or the start of a poor run. You’ve never played it well and can’t get it out of your head, and the distraction affects your preparation and subsequent play. What do you do?
Mine is the par-3 16th at Rattlewood and it happened again last weekend. The hole is a typically benign 160-yard play with bunkers guarding front right and left. Golf courses are full of these mediocre par-3s and there’s no reason a reasonably struck short to mid-iron to the center of the green shouldn’t get the job done, but I can never recall making par or better here. So I stepped to the tee and pulled a six. Right away I felt uncomfortable at address. Perhaps I was misaligned or wasn’t in a good athletic posture, but it didn’t feel right. I probably should have reset but didn’t and pulled the trigger on a big push slice. The ball was heading OB but cracked off a tree and caromed into the right greenside bunker. I felt fortunate for the break but very uneasy standing over the long bunker shot from wet sand with the thought of the tee shot still in my mind. You guessed it, I skulled the bunker shot low and right and hit my playing partner in the foot. The ricochet actually prevented my ball from going into the tall fescue behind the green and left me behind a large mound but with plenty of green to work with. After the obligatory round of apologies, I managed to pitch to three feet and hole the bogey putt.
After muttering a few non-printables, I exited the green but felt strangely good about myself for making a nice pitch on the third and saving bogey, where a triple or quad was definitely in play. I finished up par – birdie and the lousy 16th didn’t seem to factor in.
So how do you extricate these demon holes? What strategies have you used? I’m thinking next time to pull a three or four-iron and bunt a little controlled knockdown run-up between the bunkers. Basically, anything to change my thought process and remove all negative thoughts from previous blunders. All suggestions are welcome, please share!
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