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This week we are aiming at the tricky topic of “mental toughness.” I say tricky because it is something mostly misunderstood, and also very complicated. If you want a short, succinct description of mental toughness think about staying calm, composed and with steely nerves when the game is on the line and it’s your turn.
Think Jack Nicklaus; think Bernhard Langer; think Tiger Woods. Now, let’s explore three areas where you can be mentally stronger.
We will start with the business of focus and concentration, which for many weekend golfers is a major problem. I’m not going to blame cell phones, mainly because these days many golfers would not even be able to be playing golf if they weren’t connected to business or family. Mostly it’s distractions, which can be howling winds, loud playing partners, barking dogs or myriad other things. Or they may be inside your head, with negative, self-deprecating thoughts, or even just letting your mind wander elsewhere (what stuff am I supposed to pick up at the store later?) When we are preparing to hit a golf shot we need a few private moments, free from noises and mental distractions, available to collect yourself. We do this by sizing up the situation quickly (lie, yardage, hole location, wind, hazards ,etc.), getting yourself in position to have the best chance possible of executing your shot or putt. Do what’s necessary to not feel rushed.
Your second priority for making yourself mentally tougher is the challenge of course management and decision-making. This is a huge aspect of mastering golf but one not easily summarized. For starters “course management” is mostly playing within your capabilities and keeping your ball in a decent position at all times. It involves deciding where to aim, how far to hit your shot, planning a shot to make your next one easier, and staying out of trouble. Play the course not your opponent. There are two books I highly recommend on this topic. One is Smart Golf by Hale Irwin, who won 20 PGA Tour tournaments including three U.S. Opens, and won 45 tournaments on the PGA Champions Tour. The book’s subtitle is “wisdom and strategies from the ‘thinking man’s golfer with invaluable tips on managing the course and managing your game.” What I really like about Irwin’s approach is the emphasis on managing yourself and your own game. Here is a special quote: “Most amateur golfers gamble by trying to hit a high-risk shot that, if pulled off successfully, will result in a miraculous recovery. The problem is miracles come few and far between.” In my view it goes even deeper; most high-handicappers don’t recognize true risks, and don’t know how to size up the risk-reward comparison appropriately. My second favorite book is also titled Smart Golf by Dr. Dan Kirschenbaum and the late Dr. DeDe Owens. The subtitle here is: “How to simplify and score your mental game.” They take a more scientific approach to planning shots and strategy, including numbers, grids, diagrams and charts.
A third problem involving mental toughness is the failure to go through a regular, practiced, disciplined pre-shot routine. While it’s true that most recreational golfers have some sort of practice swing and waggle routine that they perform pretty consistently, most do not have a mental routine. What is going on inside is what really counts. There needs to be a pre-shot mental routine which can be repeated precisely and exactly to the nanosecond on command. This triggers your comfort zone – your way to make each shot and putt feel like you are in control. Sighting the target, getting lined up, and waggling the club all make up a pre-swing ritual or a rehearsal of sorts. During your automatic rehearsal you should be visualizing your shot and getting only one swing thought fixed in your mind. It should take no more than ten seconds and should be like a “broken record” before each shot; exactly the same. Make it uncomplicated.