Why Golf is Much More than a Physical Game

You might have heard that half of golf is played, not on the greens, but in your head. Why do you think most of the pro’s on the Tour hire psychological coaches to help improve their game? Images of professionals laying on psychiatrist’s chairs probably come to mind, but that’s not what we’re getting at here. This is about bringing your best mental game to the field, as golf is as much about physical skill as it is brain power. One of golf’s greats, Arnold Palmer said “success in golf depends less on strength of body than upon strength of mind and character.” It’s this steely sense of mind that we should all attempt to emulate and here’s how.

Visualisation is a common technique that some pro golfers use including current world No. 1 Jason Day. Watch for his signature ‘eyes shut’ pre-shot routine before stepping up to the tee. At this point he is preparing himself for the shot he is about to play. Using mental imagery can greatly help you prepare your body for the action you want it to achieve. Many players go through the motions on the course without taking a moment to truly convince themselves of what they are going to do with the ball. This is paramount to playing well and reducing your scores. One of the worst things a player can do is approach a shot without a plan or as Bernhard Langer put it “A wrong decision is generally less disastrous than indecision.”

DORAL, FL - MARCH 05: Camilo Villegas of Colombia lines up a putt on the tenth green during the final round of the Ford Championship at Doral March 5, 2006 at Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Doral, Florida. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

DORAL, FL – MARCH 05: Camilo Villegas of Colombia lines up a putt on the tenth green during the final round of the Ford Championship at Doral March 5, 2006 at Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Doral, Florida. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

If you thought Jason Day’s visualisation technique was odd, you should have seen Camilo Villegas (Spiderman) back in 2006 when he pulled this move for the first time.

Visualisation is something that should be taken seriously, especially at amateur level. What we can learn from the pros can only benefit our game, and if the world No. 1 uses mental imagery in his then surely so should we. To be the best you must learn from the best, right?

The key link between your mind and your body is visualising the action you want to execute. Brad Bryant said “The clearer you can visualise a shot, the greater chance your body has to produce it.” Simply thinking you’re going to hit a good shot is not enough, as most hit-and-hopers would agree. Actually imagining yourself playing a 100 yard bump and run shot to land on the green may be hard for your brain to believe, but picturing where you want the ball to land along with the ball’s trajectory and the final roll will give you a greater feel. Try to imagine specifics in your visualisations, like flight path, lie of the green and ultimately where the ball is going to land. We’re not saying shut your eyes and start swinging your club in all kinds of directions from the tee, but a short five or six seconds of mental imagery could make all the difference to your shots. Particularly when chipping, visualisation is key to pick where your ball will land and subsequently run.

You can also improve your focus by blocking out distractions. This can be the difference between good and great players, those who crumble in competitive play and those who block it out. You may not be playing in front of thousands of eager paying fans like the pros, but be it your boss or your buddies, simply playing with others can be enough to put anyone off. Imagining you are in a bubble where it is just you, the fairway and nothing else can help when preparing to take a shot. A great tip is to place your point of focus correctly. Quite often when faced with a hazard a player will try to either avoid it or shoot over it. This is the wrong approach as it often ends in getting nearer to the thing you are trying to avoid. If your point of focus is on the green or something positive then you will find yourself ignoring obstacles completely and hitting your target more often.

For many shots it’s a case of seeing is believing, so if you dread putts, then you must have a clear depiction in your mind of the ball rolling from your stroke on line and into the hole. Even listening for that satisfying sound of sinking a ball can give you the confidence to execute a putt.

None of this ‘be the ball’ nonsense, we’re talking about real, committed focus. Many of the pros past and present talked of being ‘in the zone’, a mental state of untouchable-ness. Nick Price once said “The zone is the ability to give 110 percent of your attention and your focus to the shot. When I’m on the tee, I’ll see a divot in the fairway and try to run my ball over that divot — and succeed. That’s the zone.”

golf shrink

Here’s a few things you can try to enhance your mental golf game:

Finding a mental balance

When you’re on the course it’s easy for your mind to drift to that sliced tee shot you played the hole before, or that three-foot putt you should have made earlier. Dwelling on the past or thinking too much on the future is a common mistake and not progressive to your game. A good mental balance allows a player to only focus on the shot they are playing. Going from one shot to the next with the same strength of mentality is essential. Try to only think about the present when you play, and tally the number of times you think about anything other than the shot at hand, then try and get that number to zero in future.

Avoid unnecessary stress at all costs

Any round of 18 worth its salt will challenge you mentally and emotionally. The key is to limit these moments to a minimum, as stress and nerves cost you valuable mental energy. Your goal is to stick to your game plan and playing style. If you are a fast player and you’re leading a round, stick to that pace, and don’t ease up because you’re playing well. Likewise if you are behind a few shots but never hurl balls at the pin, don’t start to because you’re losing.

Another attribute of mental prowess is flexibility

This is the ability to adapt to tough situations and be creative in your thinking. A great way to test your minds flexibility is to hit as many different shots, high, low, soft and hard from varied positions around the practice green. Then the time after, use every club in your bag to hit one type of shot.

Golf can get the best of anyone sometimes, just look at Rory McIlroy throwing his club in the lake at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Keeping a strong mental focus around the course and developing a pre-shot routine could change your game, and you’ll be forgiven for a post-shot routine like Rory’s if it still goes wrong.

Written by John Lines, a PGA Advanced Professional with over 20 years of playing experience and the managing director at GolfSupport.

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