Inside each of us are two people, the first is a strong-minded confident person. The second is a person filled with self-doubt, self-conscious and unsure about their abilities. One of the amazing attributes of the game of golf is that it tests your mental fortitude just as much as your physical skill.
I have encountered plenty of competitors, friends, and teammates with near “perfect” golf swings, who simply cannot get the job done when it counts. There were numerous times that I would be playing in a golf tournament and one of my friends tells me mid-tournament that he really needs to go get a lesson because he has no idea what he’s doing wrong. Here we are playing college golf, and my buddy who played well enough to qualify for the tournament just told me that he is totally lost. After the tournament we would look over our rounds and fill out a stat sheet and usually compare stats and laugh at our good and bad stats over dinner. After that tournament my friend would go on to tell me that he actually hit 15 greens on a fairly difficult golf course in the first round in route to shooting 2 over par, and 3 over par in the second round. The real problem was rooted in his distance control, which left him few realistic birdie attempts. The final round he combusted and shot in the mid 80’s hitting barely any greens in regulation.
What happened was that he had self-talked his mind into a damaged corner. After repeatedly telling yourself that you are messed up and need help, you most certainly will fulfill that statement. There are also a healthy amount of competitive golfers that will hit their first 7 fairways and then snap hook their 8th teeshot into the water. They immediately go into panic mode and try to figure out what they just did wrong. If this sounds like something you do consider looking at this situation from a wider, more mature lens. Through assessing the situation you will realize that you were perfect for 7 holes until you put one bad swing on the ball. Most of you guys are making this mistake nearly every round you play. The player will hit a snap hook even though they have a great round going and absolutely explode. The next tee shot they hit is a slice. The slice wasn’t caused by physical error, it was caused because they overcompensated their swing to not hit another hook. By doing this they totally disregard the fact that they had previously hit 7 great tee shots. This is mental weakness, but to be fair the majority of people think this way because they simply don’t know any better.
The reality is that golf is not a game of perfection, and you will most certainly hit the snap hooks into the water during a near perfect round. Everyone that has picked up a golf club has experienced the feeling. It’s what you do to respond that defines your mental strength though. I have felt times of mental weakness where I had no confidence in certain parts of my game, and looking back I realize that while they can’t be totally avoided, they most certainly can be managed by thinking correctly.
My senior year we were heading to the National Championship, my favorite event of the year, and also my last event as a college athlete. I had been playing very solid that spring season and trending towards a great tournament. There was always just one facet of the game that was holding me back from having a really great season, but I had managed to piece together my game enough to where I felt really good going into postseason. After a solid conference and regionals I entered nationals hot shooting 3 under on the front 9, only to lose a ball in the rough off the tee on a par 4 due to the heavy rain and balls plugging, and hitting a horrible bunker shot on the closing hole which led to another double. Just like that I had closed with a 41 on the back nine to finish the first round of the National Championship with a 74. It was just one of those rounds where it could have been really special, but a few unfortunate events and a physical error on my part held me back. I wasn’t really concerned with how the round turned out, I was more so excited to wake up the next day for the second round because I knew I was going to play a great round. My game had gotten to a point that felt like I was on autopilot. All I really needed to do was make solid decisions and plot my way through the course. I shot 66 in the second round to be only two back from the leader with one round left. I have personally blown up when I was younger in junior golf after ruining a good round in a tournament, but I learned from my adolescent mistakes and didn’t allow myself to make those mistakes anymore.
Through practice and experience I became aware of these situations and the way to think your way through them to give yourself the best chance at rebounding and success. There’s plenty of stories I can tell you about people thinking positively and succeeding. Unfortunately, I have even more stories about people mentally exploding due to improper thinking. The mind is an asset if you use it correctly in the game of golf and in life, but the reality is that for the majority of people, the mind is their greatest fault holding them back from achieving their goals. You have to feed the confident personality inside of you through positive self-talk. You cannot cave into your insecurities and feed the self conscious side of you.
There are multiple ways you can fall apart during a tournament, but just about every one of these instances are avoidable if you think your way through the situation. For example, just because you three putt the first two greens doesn’t mean you are going to three putt every hole and miss every putt you hit inside 6 feet. Would you be surprised if I told you I had played with a kid who shot 80 after starting his round with back-to-back three putts, and then the very next week I played with him and he started the opening round making a 50 foot bomb for birdie which propelled him to shooting a 11 under 60? What happened here? He didn’t get 20 shots better in less than one week, I can promise you that. What happened is that this person let the beginning of the round dictate how the entire round was going to go. After the back to back three putts he played the rest of the round tentatively and safely because he was afraid of taking risks due to the lack of trust he had in his putter. He started to lag 15-20 foot putts to the hole, leaving them short most of the time so that he wouldn’t run the risk of three putting. He was afraid of missing greens because he didn’t think he could get up and down with the current state of his putting. The very next week he was a totally different person. He ran in a 50 foot birdie putt on the first hole and you would think he was Tiger Woods in his prime based on the amount of confidence he was exuding through his play and body language. You simply cannot play golf or live your life this way. You cannot experience consistent success with mania as one of your character traits.
Understand that one of the greatest parts of the game of golf are the mental challenges that it presents each of us every time we tee it up. You will improve drastically as a player once you understand and accept that mindset is simply another part of the game that you can improve on, rather than ignore it and keep letting your emotions control you. Assess your physical errors in practice and tournaments and draw a conclusion on whether they could have been stemmed from mental errors. What I mean by this is that many people will pull an 8 iron and then feel a gust of wind at their back and realize that maybe they should swing a 9 iron instead. Rather than back off the shot, they decide to swing the 8 iron. They fat or thin the shot a little bit and end up with a poor result, but why do you think this happened? Sure the person hit a poor golf shot, but was the root cause from a physical error, or a mental one? The correct answer is that the bad swing was caused from clouded vision. The player wasn’t certain that they had the right club in their hand for the shot they were about to play. In the player’s mind they were either hoping that the wind would die down, or they wouldn’t hit the shot dead perfect so that their ball wouldn’t sail past the pin. What happened here is that the player is now standing over the ball about to hit a shot while mentally hoping they don’t hit a “perfectly” struck golf shot. The average competitor will make this mistake multiple times throughout a round.
Some of the time it will be like I just explained, other times it will be found in situations like tee shots with danger on one side of the hole which causes the player to hit a poor shot to the extreme other side of the hole. These are examples on how to play average at best golf. No great player has ever been successful playing golf with an uncommitted mind over the ball.
Here’s another question. A player is about to hit a shot into a green with a back pin. He has an 8 iron in his hand and he feels a little bit of wind into him while he’s making his club choice. It is a perfect 8 iron distance and he would have to hit it perfect to get the ball back to pin high with the wind that he is feeling. He commits to hitting the 8 iron because he would rather attempt to hit a solid shot and accept the result, rather than attempt to hit a 7 iron that he knows he cannot hit afford to hit perfectly. Did the player make the correct decision? Yes the player did make the correct decision because the player assessed the situation and committed to a shot. He would have also been correct if he would have COMMITTED to hitting the 7 iron. Whatever shot you hit, choose to hit it and try to hit the best quality shot you are capable of hitting. Rather than focusing on where you don’t want the ball to go and all of the bad places you could hit the ball, focus on where you are trying to hit it and then execute. I tell people all the time that if I put you on the hardest golf hole on earth and you hit every shot solid and the way you planned to, you would never need to worry about the island green, or the out of bounds on both sides of the 20 yard wide landing area.
Although golf isn’t a game of perfection and you most certainly will hit poor shots, you cannot play the game at a high level if you are thinking about all the places you DON’T want your ball to go. If you find yourself standing over the ball or going through your pre shot routine with these negative thoughts, step off and restart. Similar to your golf swing, your mental game needs to be exercised and sharpened in order to be a great player.
Christian Anderson is a contributor for Junior Golf Hub, dedicated to helping junior and amateur athletes accomplish their goals and achieve their true potential. He has trained with some of the most decorated coaches and sports psychologists in the world, including Mike Bender and Dr. Robert Winters. Originally from Ocala, FL, Christian was a member of Florida Southern College’s Men’s Golf program from 2015 to 2019. As an NCAA All-American and 2018-2019 team captain, Christian competed in four consecutive NCAA Division II National Championship tournaments, helping the Moccasins win the national title in 2017. Throughout his collegiate career, he played 141 rounds and recorded a 74.3 scoring average.