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Secrets to conquering golf’s mental game


Years ago Yogi Berra offered us this piece of wisdom: “Half of the game is ninety percent mental.”  Maybe it’s even more than that. All competitive sport has a strong mental aspect, since thought and imagery are fundamentally required. I’ll give you my take on the “mental game.”

First of all, I don’t believe it’s really possible to compartmentalize the physical from the mental skill in any human endeavor. That would be like separating mind and body; or thought and spirit. The two are inexorably connected, whether we’re talking about an NFL quarterback, a concert violinist or a professional golfer. Over 120 years ago, James Allen wrote the small but profound book As A Man Thinketh in which he explained that all of behavior, including personally perceived conditions in life, is connected to thought, and with the proper attitude anything is possible. “Thought and character are one, and as character can only manifest and discover itself through environment and circumstance, the outer conditions of a person’s life will always be found to be harmoniously related to his inner state,” Allen counseled.

Many beginners and struggling golfers on the practice range attempt to swing the golf club and hit the ball seemingly without a clue as to how they are supposed to do it. They seem oblivious to the brain work and mental image resembling a vaguely correct golf swing, and the results show it; still they persist in trying and trying in vain. It’s like they are trying to disengage their brain from their body and it isn’t working. It’s axiomatic that you can’t do golf all by yourself. One of the true keys to the mental game is knowing how to learn, how to think and how to practice. The mentally alert golfer is one who recognizes his or her shortcomings, and is smart enough to ask for help, take lessons and get some feedback.

In my view, the most underestimated aspect to the mental game happens to be the ability and determination to bounce back from a set-back. A set-back may be anything from a quadruple-bogey on an early hole in an important tournament , or a devastating loss in a match because of a dumb self-imploding emotional mistake. On the very first hole in this year’s Masters Jon Rahm four-putted to a double bogey. That start might have sunk a lesser player, but not Jon Rahm. Rahm responded and went on to win the Masters by four shots. It’s called emotional resiliency.  Winners have it; losers mostly don’t.

The mentally and emotional competent golfer is someone who sets specific goals and keeps the expectations realistic. You can’t get anywhere in life without having goals.  Goals and a plan. There’s a true saying about having a purpose and making plans: “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.”  Maybe your long term goal is to get to a single-digit handicap; a medium goal might be to win a net tournament this year; and a short term goal could be to increase driving distance by 20 yards. Those require specific plans of action. In the words of James Allen, “until thought is linked with purpose there is no intelligent accomplishment … that strength can only be developed by effort and practice.”

Raw talent will take an athlete only so far in any sport. Coachability, constantly striving for improvement, a super-positive attitude and the heart of a champion will produce a winning performance, even when talent is seemingly underrated. When I was a freshman in 1960 at Notre Dame I was a complete unknown as a swimmer. I came to the Irish to swim but without a stellar talent resume. But I was highly coachable, I knew what I was doing, had a passion for excellence and a total commitment to winning. From 1961 through 1964 I won over 90 percent of my races. As a result I set a dozen varsity records, was elected captain in 1963, and won MVP awards in 1963 and 1964. On April 1, I presented the 59th Charles W. Blanchard Award to two Irish swimmers.