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Thinking golf swing thoughts can be hit-or-miss


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 1 of a two-part column. Part 2 will publish Sept. 23.

As a young man I had always believed that one of the most profound small books ever written was “As A Man Thinketh,” first published in 1903 by James Allen, loosely based on the biblical passage of Proverbs 23:7, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” It’s a famous book and a famous message.

What does that have to do with golf? The idea that our thoughts control our actions seems to be generally true in life. But in golf it’s more complicated.

The complications first arise when golfers tend to over-think what they are doing, and then change swing thoughts on the slightest whim, and then do it randomly. Tour pros abide by short swing thoughts – or swing keys. Davis Love III relied on “be comfortable with the shot; For Judy Rankin it was “take it back in one piece.”

My grandfather, an excellent golfer, had swing keys I still have to this day, in the form of hundreds of small handwritten notes stored neatly in a cardboard box. Grandpa used to come to our house in Lyndhurst, Ohio, with practice balls in a canvas bag and chip in our backyard, while explaining the latest “secret” for the golf swing. This was in the late 1940s and 1950s, when most recreational golfers really did believe there was a true secret to a “correct” swing, which was closely guarded by golfing professionals, and avidly sought by weekend amateurs. That idea was partly spawned by the popular Ben Hogan who spoke often of the secret to his swing.

The common mindset was not unlike today when glib motivational speakers and promoters of self-advancement CD packages want us to believe there is a secret to “success.” As with most everything there are principles, grant you, but no secrets.

Despite my appreciation of swing keys and swing thoughts, I have found they are usually fleeting. Some keys like “right leg firm,” or “turn your shoulders,” or “stay down on the ball,” may work for a little while, but not indefinitely.

I wondered why. 

Then I found a marvelous tome by Dr. Tom Dorsel, an expert in golf performance (a title I appreciate), who wrote “Golf: The Mental Game; Thinking Your Way Around the Course.” I see a lot of golf books and a lot of stuff on the mental game, much of which I dismiss. But a funny thing happened in the case of Dr. Dorsel’s book. I began leafing through the 350 pages and remarkably stopped at a section he called “The Half-life of Swing Keys” on page 126.

“It is the dream of every golfer to find that one key that will put his or her swing on automatic and never have to be changed again. Forget it! Swing keys do not last forever,” Dorsel writes.

It was an “ah-ha” moment, confirming what I sensed all along – that my favorite swing thought fades soon after it works so well – but I hadn’t articulated it exactly like that. Like a drug, it has a half-life, remaining in the mind for a steadily diminishing length of time, until finally becoming ineffective and useless.

According to Dr. Dorsel, there are two main reasons our swing thoughts have a short-lived potency. The first is satiation.

“Any time you experience or do something repeatedly, it tends to lose its effectiveness … (and) after a period of time you may find yourself not paying any attention to that swing key anymore,” he writes.

I call it habituation: like the feeling of a new putter that starts to fade after a few rounds. He says the second reason is overconfidence.

“You may become comfortable with your swing key … taking it for granted. You may even assume you are implementing the swing key when, in fact, you are ignoring it.”

It’s like flossing our teeth: if we get lazy, after a while we might forget altogether. I totally agree with Dr. Dorsel when he advises us to “prepare to be constantly tampering” with our swing keys. But certainly not to the point of getting overwhelmed and confused. You may change a key here or refine another one there, or find a good old one stored in your memory bank.

Charlie Blanchard