Mental Game

mulligan, 14 November 2005, Comments Off on Mental Game
Categories: Uncategorized

As an amateur golfer, at least once in every round you probably hear one of the guys in your regular foursome announce, “I’m taking a lesson next week to fix my driver/long irons/chipping/putter.” Then they go through a session or sessions, perhaps even come back to the course with a strong start to a round, gravitate towards their old golf habits and swing flaws, and proceed to make a snowman on that same par 3 they usually butcher. They assume the instructor was not worth a second session, try a different instructor, and begin the same circular route all over again.
For most amateurs, having the ability to question an instructor about a developing swing flaw on a regular basis just isn’t available. Also, most amateurs will follow the practice instructions prescribed in a lesson for a few weeks, and then slowly go back to their original practice routine. Lastly, most amateurs never realize that their body type, personality, and swing is unique, and can not perform on the same plane, pendulum, and speed as any professional golfer. Have you ever gone to a lesson, had your swing superimposed onto Tiger’s, and had the instructor show you where your plane and head position are different? Guess what…you just wasted $60 and an hour of your life. Congratulations. So what can an amateur golfer over 30 years old with a single digit handicap do to get that slight advantage over his foursome and win that coveted $10? Forget the physical aspect of the game and recognize what the professional have in the last ten years. The six inches between your ears make a huge difference on your golf score.
Granted, as an amateur golfer, you don’t want to pay for a psychiatrist for your weekly golf match any more than you want to pay for a regular swing coach. Unless of course, you followed the advice of the broker you share with Martha Stewart, sold a ton of Webvan stock short, and have a few extra houses the instructor could live in. But for most amateur golfers, a psychiatrist isn’t even needed. All you have to do is develop your mental game on the golf course with a few tips that you can practice in every round.
So, Master Bubba, how do I get to the Dark Side? Do I practice “Zen Golf,” Hypnosis, “Finding the Zone,” or a lobotomy as my foursome suggested? Funny thing is, they are pretty much all the same, even the lobotomy, as you will see. They all focus on clearing all the junk out of your head to force the mind to focus on a specific target.
For example, when Brad Faxon, one of the best putters in the current era, is asked what he thinks about while he is putting, the response is always the same. “Nothing.” When they measure his heartbeat, timing, and putting stroke, there is no other player that is as consistent.
When a profession baseball pitcher takes the mound, most will admit that their body somehow blocks out the sound of the crowd and their surroundings. In fact, some have even said that their vision is limited to a small space around the point that they are aiming. And the same can be said for batters. Their vision is so focused on a small area, that they can read the spin of the ball by the seams as it comes out of the pitcher’s hands, indicating the type of pitch and likely position it will end up at the plate. In fact, batters often admit that when they hit a ball well, they cannot feel the impact in their hands.
Sounds easy enough, right? But you always have swing thoughts swimming around in your head. And then there is that perfect drive down the middle of the fairway that takes a bounce off an anthill and shoots into a lake. Ok, so maybe it isn’t too easy.
First things first. Think about the last great round you had score wise. Whenever I have one, it always seems to be the hardest round to recall despite the fact that I had the fewest number of strokes. Not only that, but when you think about the round, you are likely to say, “Boy, I could have shot a lot lower.” When Johnny Miller shot his jaw-dropping 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, his first response to the press was, “I’m not complaining, but I didn’t get a lot out of the round. It wasn’t like I was making chip-shots and 30-footers.” And the same is true when I shoot my low rounds. The target you shoot for on the green is smaller, and you hardly worry about those 30-footers because you hardly miss by that margin. As another example, I remember a round where I went 14 straight holes with 0 or 1-putts. By six holes into the stretch, I no longer even looked at where the pin was located and made a swing solely to put the ball on the green. On the 15th hole of the stretch, my playing partners started talking about it, predicting on whether I might have less than 9 putts on the back nine, and I promptly 3-putted the hole. Thus confirming the emphasis on the concept of clearing your mind of outside thoughts.
So why has reaching “the Zone,” become a major factor for the professionals, and the sole teaching point for some coaches? Professionals have always conceded that the mental side of the game makes up 50 to 80 percent of the game of golf. And yet hardly any players, outside of Gary Player, ever spent more than 10% of their practice time on it. And when you look at professional players, almost every swing is uniform and similar. The mental game is the one item that can give one the edge. In addition, Eastern philosophy has grown increasingly popular in almost every aspect of the Western world, whether it is exercise (yoga), eating (vegetarians), Literature (Golf in the Kingdom), or entertainment (Martial Arts movies). And lastly, the notion that the zone was a short lived spurt that may occur randomly throughout a round is no longer the belief. Scientists have come to the conclusion that with highly developed physical and mental skills, an athlete can will himself into the zone or close to it for extended periods of time (Michael Jordan claimed he was in the zone 2% of the time in his career, but this ignores the large portion of the time that he was at 90% or better of his potential).
So how can you do it? How do you clear your head and get into “The Zone,” achieve “Zen,” or reach a “Higher Plane.” Well, as I mentioned, a lobotomy will clear out your head. Literally. Hypnosis sounds like the lazy man’s way of achieving it, but unless you have your psychiatrist on the bag, a patron might say, “hamburger helper”, and you start clucking around the fairway like a chicken. But as a teenager, Tiger Woods underwent hypnosis, so there might be something to it.
So that brings us to Zengolf and Reaching the Zone, two of the most popular methods out there right now. But these as well as the multiple of other methods out there right now are all based on the same principle: learn how to clear your head in competition to play your best mental golf as often as possible. Michael Murphy described it 33 years ago when he wrote his golf classic, “Golf in the Kingdom,” and commented during the 2004 Masters that he could see Phil Mickelson had reached a higher state during that week. But centuries before that, religions, communities, and even nations have been aware (whether it is through meditation or otherwise) that an individual free of cognitive chatter will perform at an elevated state and experience their true potential as a human being.
As I described earlier and later, every player is an individual. Some will have the mindset to will him or her self into the zone easily, while others may need to work weeks to get there. But if you remember a day where you shot a career round, not even realizing at the time you were doing it, oblivious during the round about your playing partners, and solely engrossed with each shot, you have the ability to take yourself to a higher level of play. Every player has heard that he should picture exactly how he wants his shot to look before he pulls the trigger. Sounds easy enough, but with partners talking about the greenie bet, their poker winnings the night before, and your tendency to pull the ball on a hole where the left side is surrounded by water, visualizing your shot can be difficult. So the first thing you need to do is to remove some of the clutter from the brain. In your next round, make a vow to do three things throughout the next round, no matter how your score is progressing:
1) Limit yourself to only one swing thought. Sounds easy enough, but you’ll be surprised about how difficult it is. For example, if your swing thought is to swing through the ball towards your target, step away from the ball any other swing thought pops into your head. That being the case, you should not have thoughts about grip, stance, or moving the wrists to shape the ball. Every other part of your swing should solely rely on that swing you’ve made thousands of times on the range. When approaching the ball, come up with the shot you want to hit, pull the club, and hit the shot. Try and keep any reservations about your tendencies to pull it on the backburner for one round. This holds true for putts as well. Pick a line and speed and hit it. Only one swing thought is harder than it seems, but it will clear your head of negative swing thoughts.
2) Lessen the chatter outside and you’ll lessen the chatter inside. Try to stay out of as many discussions with your playing partners before a shot as possible. This is especially true on the tee box (assuming you are not waiting for the group in front of you to clear for 15 minutes every hole) and the putting green. Instead, use the time to create a picture in your head of exactly how you want the ball to travel, picking out a square foot spot where you want your drive to land, or a particular piece of grass you want your putt to roll over. As you come closer to reaching the zone, this will become easier and easier to do, and your focus will become tighter.
3) After any bad shot, try to reboot your brain. Sounds silly, but it is a fairly simple process. After a poor shot, as you are approaching the spot of your next shot (or the following tee box), walk with your eyelids so relaxed that they are almost closed. Relax your jaw and tongue to the point that it drops open and it is to the point of almost being unhinged. Focus on nothing. With your eyes closed or almost closed, eliminate every thought from your head so that when you close your eyes it is merely a black screen without a single thought going through your head. As you try this more often, it will become easier to do to the point where you will be able to do it with your eyes wide open.
While these three things will automatically help you begin to limit your focus, you will begin to find small gold nuggets that seem to work best for you as an individual on fine-tuning your focus to the shot at hand. As said previously, each player is different, and no one method will work for everyone. Just as a strong grip would not work for all players. But for some, there will be that one set-up step that gives the player a balanced emotional level despite what has occurred previously that can help them to play at a higher zone on a consistent basis.
Need more help seeing what works on the practice range so you can take the information to the course. Golfpsych has created a golf tool called the Mind Meter, a product the size of a cigarette pack that can read the tension level of a player as he is put into different situations. Have I tried it? No, and for the $399 price tag, I don’t plan to. But for those players that rely on feedback on the range (are you a right brain or left brain player?), this might give you the answer to what is working.
So get out there and try it. Can’t hurt. And who knows, a career round might be right around the corner.


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