Inside the Golfer’s Mind

10 things a player must do in a competitive round

Golf is a game of confidence and competence. I am not about to tell anyone that a player who lacks physical skills can transform overnight into a winner by changing his thinking. If you trust a bad swing, it’s still going to produce bad shots. (Though it will produce fewer of them than if you don’t trust it.) You have to attain a level of physical competence to play well.

Having said that, I believe it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the mind in golf. There is no such thing as “muscle memory.” Your muscles have no capacity to remember anything. Memory resides in your head. Therefore, no matter how long you practice a golf swing, no matter how skilled you become, your muscles alone can’t remember it and execute it when the need arises on the golf course. Your muscles and the rest of your body are controlled by your mind. Unless your mind is functioning well when you play golf, your muscles are going to flounder. If your head is filled with bad thoughts, your scorecard is going to be full of bad strokes.

Having control of your mind and using it properly can separate you from the competition, whether it’s at your club or on the PGA Tour. I believe every golfer has the potential to be much better than he or she is, and that using the mind is one essential way to improve. You will never know if you have the ability to be the best player in the world, or the best player in your club, unless you commit yourself to developing both your physical and mental skills.

1. Play to play great. Don’t play not to play poorly.
There’s a fine line between playing to play great and playing recklessly. Reckless players hit driver off virtually every tee. They fire at sucker pins they have no business aiming at, because they’re convinced that’s what playing to play great is all about. It isn’t. Golfers who are playing to play great love a great drive more than they fear the rough. They like making putts more than they care about three-putting. They love chipping it in more than they loathe not getting up and down. But they may have a conservative strategy for certain holes. The conservative strategy is what permits them to always make a confident, even cocky swing. When the moment is right, when they’ve got a scoring club in their hands, they take dead aim at the hole. But only when the moment is right.

Players who play to play great understand that good can be the enemy of great. They know that if they get too concerned about not being bad, they might not free themselves up enough to be great. They don’t care very much about making cuts or top-20 finishes. They play to win.

‘Every golfer has the potential to be much better than he or she is, and using the mind is one essential way to improve.’

If they do this, they control their destiny as a golfer. I want clients to understand this. They have free will. The choices they make with that free will determine the quality of their golf game and the quality of their lives. If you consistently make the right choices, you’re destined for greatness. I’m not suggesting that this means you’re going to win all the Grand Slam tournaments or all your club events or even all your Saturday-morning nassaus. I’m saying that if you make the right choices, you will someday look back on your life, or that part of your life that was devoted to golf, and say, “Wow! That was great.”

2. Love the challenge of the day, whatever it may be.
Golf is a game of mistakes and unpredictable fortune. If it were not, no one would ever miss a fairway, a green or a putt. On top of that, there would be no sudden gusts of wind, no unfortunate bounces, no imperfections in the turf. Every ball would go exactly where you wanted it to go, and the winning score in a golf tournament would be something like 50 strokes per round.

If you truly love golf, you must love the fact that no one shoots 50, that golf is an inherently imperfect game. If you spend your time fighting the fact that golf is a game of mistakes and trying to make it a game of perfect shots, you’re really saying that you don’t like golf. You want it to be some other game–billiards, maybe. No one has ever perfected golf–not Ben Hogan, not Jack Nicklaus, not Annika Sorenstam. I don’t believe anyone ever will.

Golfers who understand and love the game accept it rather than fight it. They realize the essence of golf is reacting well to inevitable mistakes and misfortunes. They know they can separate themselves from their competition not by perfecting their games but by constantly striving to improve. I tell players that if there’s one thing they should always be proud of in their games, it’s how well they react to mistakes. I tell them that they will never have complete control of the golf ball. But they can control their attitudes.

3. Get out of results and get into process.
There’s a goal that I speak of often. It’s called a “process goal.” Success comes from patiently and persistently doing the right things over and over. Process goals are the “to-do lists” of players striving for excellence. The process is what gives you a chance to find out how good you can be.

Here, for instance, is a set of process goals for a round of golf. If you follow them, you’ll give yourself your best chance to find out how well you can play in that particular round:

• I will trust myself and my swing on every shot. I don’t have absolute control of where the ball goes. I do have absolute control of whether I trust myself.

• I will execute my pre-shot routine on every shot.
• I will stay in the present. I won’t speculate in the middle of the round about what my score will be, or where I’ll stand in the tournament.

I’ll stop worrying about breaking 90, 80 or 70. I will not critique or analyze the shots I’ve taken. I will focus on each shot as it comes, and that will be the only shot I’ll care about. When it’s over, I’ll see how I did.
• I will refuse to allow anything that happens on the golf course today to bother me or upset me. I will accept bad breaks and mistakes and be tough in adversity. I am going to be in a good mood and a great state of mind for the entire round today. I’ll enjoy playing.
• I will trust my instincts and be decisive and committed.
• I will get looser freer and more confident as the round goes on, resisting the urge to get tighter, more careful and doubtful.
• I will love my wedge and putter today.
• I will let it go to my target on every shot.
• I will maintain a constant, ideal level of intensity on every shot.
• I will play to play great.

In setting goals, you need to take an honest inventory of your game. Maybe your ball-striking needs improvement. Maybe it’s chipping and pitching or bunker play. Maybe it’s something in your mental game. You might need to have a better attitude toward putting, or you might need to be better at staying in the present. Obviously, no one is perfect in any of these areas. But most players are better in some than in others. Give your inventory the form of a report card. If you’re giving yourself B’s and A’s in most aspects of the game and D’s in one, you know how to allot your time and energy. Your inventory will guide you in setting the process goals that are correct for you.

4. Know that nothing will bother or upset you on the golf course, and you will be in a great state of mind for every shot. When I see a golfer showing anger or irritation over a mis-hit shot, I know one thing immediately–the player is not staying in the present. The player’s mind is in the past, focused on a shot that’s already been played.

I view anger and frustration as impediments to playing the game as well as you can. For starters, if you’re angry, you’re not focused on the only shot that matters, your next one. On top of that, anger introduces tension into the body. Tension damages rhythm and grace. It hinders your effort to get your mind and body into the state where you play your best golf.

I prefer my clients to practice a virtue that’s not fashionable at the moment. I want them to accept whatever happens to a shot and move on. Most people have been brought up in a culture that views acceptance as a weakness rather than a strength. It’s viewed as giving in, giving up, not caring. It’s definitely not very macho. We live in a society that talks proudly about “zero defects” and “zero tolerance.” To an ambitious golfer, the natural tendency becomes refusal to accept mistakes. But in golf, because humans are flawed and the game is so difficult, mistakes are going to happen. Accepting them is not a weakness. It’s an important part of getting stronger and mentally tougher, a part of resilience, of being able to hang in there during a round, of recovering from errors and finishing with a good score.

‘Nothing will bother or upset you on the golf course, and you will be in a great state of mind for every shot. ’Padraig Harrington tells me that he’s performed better since he made acceptance part of his preshot routine. As he prepares to hit a shot, Padraig reminds himself that whatever happens to it, he will accept it and go from there. This allows him to focus narrowly on his target and swing freely.

Acceptance, of course, is to be practiced on the course, during a round of golf. After it’s over, it’s fine to make a quick assessment of where you made your mistakes. It’s fine to lay out a plan to improve your weaknesses. I’m not advocating accepting mediocrity and poor results. Acceptance doesn’t preclude thorough preparation and practice to improve our skills.

5. Playing with a feeling that the outcome doesn’t matter is always preferable to caring too much.
The biggest mistake most people make is to let how they play dictate their attitude. If the ball is going where they want it to go, they have a good attitude. If it isn’t, their attitude is bad. They start thinking badly. When you’re playing well, it’s fine to go with the flow. But when you’re playing badly, you need the discipline to control your thoughts and think only about the way you want to play.

Mastering this concept goes a long way in determining two critical outcomes. One is how good a player is going to get at golf. The second is how much fun the player will have along the way.

Of all the concepts I teach, staying in the present is perhaps the simplest. Yet it’s one of the most difficult to practice.

I have clients who tell me staying in the present is no problem for them. But then they say something like, “I came to the 16th, and I’m thinking, this is a birdie hole …”

I have to stop them and point out the implication of what they’ve just said. If you step onto the tee thinking, “This is a birdie hole,” you’re already thinking two or three shots ahead of the present. Players who are truly in the present step onto the tee and think only of how they want to hit the tee shot. They don’t think about what they ought to or will make on the hole. They think about the tee shot. They hit it. They accept it. They find it. They think about the next shot. They repeat the process until the ball is in the hole or until they have run out of holes.

If your mind is truly in the present, you don’t evaluate how you’re playing, because that would mean you’re thinking about the past. You don’t judge or critique for the same reason.

Nor do you keep a running tally of your score, thinking as you do that if you can par in you’ll break 70, or 80, or whatever. That would mean thinking about both the past (the score is, after all, the sum of the strokes you’ve made in the past) and the future (the total you’ll have at the end of the round).

If your mind is truly in the present, you don’t play “tight and scared.” You don’t get overly excited or discouraged on the golf course. Excitement would suggest that you’re thinking about the outcome of the round. Discouragement would suggest that you’re both mired in the past mistakes you’ve made and worried about the final result. You don’t pay attention to how others in the field are playing, and if you happen to see a leader board, it means almost nothing to you. Thinking about how others are playing is another form of thinking about the future, because the only reason you could care about how they’re playing is a premature interest in how the tournament will end–the result.

Golfers who stay in the present just keep playing the shot at hand until they run out of holes. Then they add it up.

6. Believe fully in yourself so you can play freely.
If you need a definition of confidence, try this: Confident golfers think about what they want to happen on the course. Golfers who lack confidence think about the things they don’t want to happen. That’s all confidence is. It’s not arrogance. It’s not experience. It’s simply thinking about the things you want to happen on the golf course.

Given two players of equal skills, the more confident one will win nearly all the time. I don’t know exactly why that’s the case. I only know that our bodies react to the degree of confidence we’ve nurtured in our conscious and subconscious minds. Play a shot confidently, and the body performs at its graceful best. Play a shot while doubting your ability to pull it off and the body more often than not loses its rhythm, grace and timing. Confident golfers play like athletes. They walk onto the course as if they were going to a party that is full of people who like and admire them. Golfers who lack confidence step onto the course the way an anxious, uptight nerd would walk into that same party.

7. See where you want the ball to go before every shot.
When players are properly into the target, it’s as if there were a laser beam linking the mind and the spot where they want the ball to go. Nothing else exists for them. They’re single-minded. Hazards such as woods and water don’t distract them. Once they have picked the target, they think only of the ball going there.

I recall talking to Davis Love III after he won the 2003 Players Championship. One of the many great shots Davis hit that day was a 6-iron out of the trees to the 16th green, where he made a putt for eagle. If you’ve played the TPC at Sawgrass or seen it on television, you know that the 16th green is perched on the edge of a lake. It’s protected on the dry side by mounds, rough, bunkers and a tree. On the day of the final round, the hole was cut very close to the lake, and Davis’ shot ended up very close to the hole. I asked him whether he had aimed for the middle of the green and pushed the shot.

“Doc, I was so there and so into the target I could see nothing but the flag, I promise you. I hit that exactly where I was looking,” Davis said.

That kind of focus on a target greatly improves the prospect that the ball will go to it. The more you’re consumed with your target, the more your instincts and subconscious will help you find it. It’s as if you have an automatic guidance system, like a heat-seeking missile. Not all missiles hit their targets, and you won’t always hit yours. But if you’re into the target, the ball will go there more often. You’re less likely to mis-hit a shot, and your misses will be more playable. I don’t know why the human organism works this way. I only know that it does.

8. Be decisive, committed and clear.
Trust is a must.

When we hit a golf ball in competition, we want as much as possible to govern our bodies with our subconscious mind. That’s because, in sport, the human body works most effectively when the conscious mind is shut off. Call it instinct, or intuition or the right side of the brain if you’re more comfortable with those concepts than you are with the notion of the subconscious. Whatever you call it, you want it in control when you play golf. You want to swing thinking only of your target.

To go unconscious, to play instinctively and intuitively, you must trust your swing, you must believe that it will work. That’s easy to preach. It’s harder to practice. I work with other players who can trust as long as they’re hitting the ball well. As soon as they mis-hit a ball, their trust evaporates. They try to fix their swing, and they start thinking mechanically. There’s a certain logic to this. If your swing produces a bad shot, it’s obviously flawed. Why should you trust a flawed swing?

The answer is that everyone has a flawed swing, at least occasionally, and thinking mechanically is not going to make it better. It’s going to make it worse. Few players know their own mechanics well enough to make an accurate diagnosis of what went wrong in a golf swing, particularly if it occurs on the course.

More important, thinking about and trying to fix mechanics will usually produce a worse result than trusting in your flawed swing. The correct response to a bad shot is to forget about it. On the next shot, execute your preshot routine. Swing unconsciously. Trust it. If you feel the need to fix your mechanics, wait till after the round and go to the range to do it.

9. Be your own best friend.
I sometimes get a call from a tour player who, for the first time, has to spend Saturday night sitting on the lead in a tournament. Or, maybe it’s someone who is about to start the tour’s qualifying school. Maybe it’s a college player headed for his first NCAA championship. It could be an amateur playing for the first time in his club’s championship flight. Whatever the case, what I usually hear is a variation on this: “Doc, I’ve got butterflies.”

My immediate response: “Great!”

I say that because I don’t think butterflies, or nervous tension, that sense in your stomach that you’re in uncharted waters, are to be feared. I think they’re to be welcomed. You don’t get butterflies on Saturday night if you’re in 62nd place and the only thing at stake Sunday is the few thousand extra dollars they’d pay you if you shot 66 and moved up to 43rd. You get butterflies when you put yourself in position to realize a dream.

The only time butterflies become harmful is when we let our fear of them control us. If you panic at the onset of butterflies, you can set off a very strong physical reaction in your body, the fight-or-flight response. It causes a gush of hormones that can turn the butterflies into demons and your body into a trembling mess.

Learn to love the butterflies, or at least to handle them. One way some players handle them is to downplay the importance of today’s round or tournament and think of all the reasons it doesn’t matter.

Taking deep, slow breaths can be helpful. Visualizing what you want can be helpful. The calmer and clearer you can keep your mind, the more you can keep it focused on what you want, the more the butterflies will fade and fly in formation.

Recognize that the physical sensations you feel are caused by adrenaline, which is a natural product of your body, a friend that will help you play better if you keep your mind clear.

Be into the target and execute your routine. The fight-or-flight response needn’t consume you. In golf, we’re not fleeing and we’re not going to hit anybody.

Make the butterflies fly right.

10. Love your wedge and your putter.
The more I watch the best golfers in the world, the more I’m convinced that what separates the great from the merely excellent is not the length of their tee shots. It’s their proficiency with the scoring clubs. Skill with the scoring clubs is the biggest difference between players who shoot in the 80s and those who shoot in the 70s. It’s the biggest difference between pros and amateurs.

What are the scoring clubs? They’re the ones you use to attack holes, to try to sink the ball. That means, for most players, the clubs from the 8-iron through the wedges and the putter. There’s no substitute for falling in love with these clubs and practicing with them until they become precision instruments for you. A player has to know how to control the distance, trajectory and spin of every shot hit with them.

Recognize that short shots are an integral part of the game you love. Stop berating yourself when you miss a green. Missing a green only means you’ve got a chance to make a birdie or par the adventurous way. Players with good attitudes about their short games don’t get upset. They figure that everyone’s going to miss some greens, and skill at recovering from those misses is one way they can separate themselves from the competition. Instead of worrying about a bogey, think of how much fun it will be to chip in, or save par, and how devastating it will be for your opponent, if it’s match play. Nothing deflates opponents more than losing a hole they’d mentally put in the pocket.

Good putters, meanwhile, never putt out of fear. Whatever length their first putt is, they aren’t worried about how long their second putt is going to be. They’re going to try to make the first one. They may want the first putt to plop into the hole on its last revolution, if it’s a long, slippery, downhill putt.

They may want the ball to bang against the back of the cup if it’s a straight, uphill putt. If you find yourself worrying about three-putting, your mind-set needs an adjustment. If you find yourself thinking, “Unless I make the birdie putt, I’ll have wasted two good shots,” your mind-set needs an adjustment.

From around the green, always chip or pitch or putt to make it. You’re not trying to get it close. You’re trying to hole it. Nothing will give you more pleasure than mastering your own insecurities about the short game and turning it into a facet of golf that helps you score and win.

10 things a player must do in every competitive round:

1. Play to play great. Don’t play not to play poorly.

2. Love the challenge of the day, whatever it may be.

3. Get out of results and get into process.

4. Know that nothing will bother or upset you on the golf course, and you will be in a great state of mind for every shot.

5. Playing with a feeling that the outcome doesn’t matter is always preferable to caring too much.

6. Believe fully in yourself so you can play freely.

7. See where you want the ball to go before every shot.

8. Be decisive, committed and clear.

9. Be your own best friend.

10. Love your wedge and your putter.

Sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella teaches athletes how to use their minds to reach their potential. In addition to being a consultant to more than 20 PGA Tour players, including Davis Love III, Brad Faxon, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke, Rotella has written five other books, including Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, and is a longtime Golf Digest Professional Advisor.

Adapted from The Golfer’s Mind: Play to Play Great, by Dr. Bob Rotella with Bob Cullen (192 pages, $23). Copyright (©) 2004 by Robert J. Rotella. Published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., N.Y. Printed by permission.