I heard Trevor Immelmann say on GC the other day that practicing golf on the range and playing a round on course are really two different games. The former Masters champion’s reasoning had to do with confronting many different situations and conditions and consequent challenges which the course presents and the range does not. He’s right, of course, but he left out the most important factor that accounts for golf being pretty easy and fun to play on the range but pretty tough and frustrating on the course. And that is on the range you get a whole bucket worth of balls to hit and no score to keep, while on the course, if you play the game as the rules dictate, you get only one attempt for any given shot and a result that must be marked on a written-in-stone scorecard. No Mulligans, no take overs, no “go ahead, hit another one”, no “I’ve gotta play another”, no “this is just a practice round, right?” no “I was distracted when you talked during my swing”. No nothing. Unlike many other sports–basketball tip-ins and offensive rebs, tennis second serves, baseball three strikes and three outs, football four downs, soccer multi-penalty kicks and multi-shots on goal, bowling two shots per frame, cricket God-only-knows–in golf, you get just one try per every shot. That produces a tension and anxiety that can and does drive many away from the sport, and aficionados a stiff drink after the round.
What causes this tension in mind and muscle is pressure which translates into performance anxiety. This is a kind of mental fatigue that occurs when the brain becomes overworked via anticipation of something negative about to happen. So the golfer who has not done the necessary practice to insure a solid base of confidence and skill level is most susceptible to this kind of anxiety when confronted with the vicissitudes of on-course challenges. And without the needed confidence to play this game well, the mind is unbalanced and easily triggered by uncertainty. If there is any sport more uncertain than golf, I’m not aware of it. In this year’s Hero Challenge, a come-back Tiger Woods shot 73 the first day and 65 the next. Go figure. But Tiger had the plasticity of mind to overcome the first day’s result, not allowing performance anxiety based on the first day’s score to enter his consciousness. He knew he had the ability, and therefore the confidence, to come back and shoot a bogey-free, birdie-binged round the next day. That’s something most amateurs lack. But Tiger also deals with uncertainty, particularly around the condition of his back, which could again flare up as he ages and continues to explode into the impact zone. That may or may not linger in the back of his mind. We don’t really know. But as he gains confidence that his back is intact and strong, watch out.
So what can we mere mortals do to minimize performance anxiety when faced with that one single chance for every shot we play? For one, we can take a few more practice swings, and not just to loosen up. We can use the practice swing to rehearse our mind and our body for the live performance ahead. This is the interim step between the range and the course. You see just about every touring pro do it, some even rehearse the specific swing thought they’ve been working on. Swing thoughts, just like dress rehearsals for an actor, can be carefully worked out on the range, but we must reinforce that thought or those thoughts just before the live performance. Importantly, amateurs tend to change swing thoughts during the round based on how the round is progressing. If you’re encountering trouble, like poor scores, missed shots, or lapses in concentration, the tendency is to find a way of out of your suffering condition, as the Buddhists might put it, and find a way out now. It’s embarrassing to play poorly, and no one likes to be embarrassed in front of others. So we try something different than what we practiced on the range since what we practiced is not working. And we assign a different swing thought to that change during the round. This can lead to big trouble and, often, continued poor results. Course conditions are just too unpredictable to expect a swing change during a round will be successful. A pro might be able to pull this off, but not a mid or high handicap player.
So I would suggest something I wrote about in my book: applying the Law of Mutual Exclusivity. This means that every shot on course is, in effect, mutually exclusive of every other shot, regardless of result. In my book, the relevant chapter is called “How to Make a Hole in One.” For my last hole in one (I’ve had three) was preceded by a nasty double bogey. But realizing that it is only my mind that says the results of one hole affects the results on the next, I quieted my thinking mind, made a good swing on the next tee shot, a par three, and after one bounce, the ball dove into the cup. As Ben Hogan once said, “The most important shot in golf is the next one to be played.”
Playing good, tension-free, golf has as much to do with focus and concentration than any specific technique. If any doubt or lapse in confidence enters the mind as you prepare to swing, you will probably miss-hit the shot in some way. And in golf, it doesn’t take much to miss-hit a shot. So to counteract the “toughest thing about golf”, you’ll need to find a way to train your mind to approach each shot as a kitten approaches each leaf as it falls from a tree–with something one Zen master called “Beginner’s Mind.” This is a mind unburdened by judgement or doubt. This is a mind that sees each moment as new, as an opportunity to begin again, as a way to wipe the slate clean like a teacher wipes the blackboard clean with an eraser, clearing the way for the next fresh idea or formula. In golf that next fresh idea or formula is the next shot, untainted by anything that came before, thus preventing performance anxiety from intruding upon your on-course golf game.
To everyone who has supported and shown interest in this blog and my book, a deep bow of gratitude in this holiday season.
Congratulations to American Harold Varner III, winner of the 2016 Australian PGA. Watch this guy. With his talent, his easy smile, and his friendly ways, he may do more to draw African American golfers to the game than Tiger Woods ever did.
Eternal Vigilance says
Very prescient commentary! In my view, certain aspects of the game and mind dictate success or lack of it on the course. The only way you can “practice” all the shots is not at the range but at the course under a different range of circumstances. The normal driving range affords no bad lies, no variations in contours or even the foregoing with a 20 mph wind. Then you have on-course wet / dry grass and soggy / hard landing areas. Confrontation with an unusual condition is usually a blow to the confidence. In turn, this can and usually does lead to an indecisive swing. Doubt is always there in the back of your mind and it is amazing how long you can remember the really bad shots under similar circumstances. You do not usually change your mind while addressing the ball! It is just that you did not have your mind made up before stepping up to the ball which can as previously stated create indecisive swings.
If you have doubt, step away and firm up your thought pattern. Better yet, knowing the course you are about to play go over the holes in your mind with a view to anticipating where your most difficult shots will appear. As driving to the course, review your mechanics, review critical shots and how to take advantage of opportunities that you know are there!
One last thought! Most of us are occasionally in non-competitive golf situations on the course. Take advantage of that to try various shots on the course where you have encountered difficulties.
Good post Stephen. Personally I hate hitting balls on the range. But I am lucky because here in Santa Rosa we have the Fairgrounds golf course which a little over 1500 yes but is set up in a way that makes it a superb practice course. So I go out in the middle of the day where I have the course virtually to myself and hit 2,3 or 4 balls and can hit most of the clubs in my bag. Even driver on 2 of the holes. I find this kind of practice more valuable to my game than hitting balls on the range.
Other than the aforementioned differences mentioned between range and competitive on course golf we must not dismiss the power of concentration necessary and fatiguabilty that inevitably creeps into the game over the course of 4 hours plus. Competitive golf requires both sustainable mental and physical strength for both professionals and amateurs alike. It is no surprise that the tournament players are dedicated athletes with a team of fitness trainers and
nutritionalists behind them. Amateurs would do much better if they recognised these aspects of the game that need to be addressed to succeed as well as the obvious.