It’s almost become a cliche: the mental game. Every pro seems to have a mental coach, a psychologist who advises them on…what? Not really sure. The players don’t talk much about the advice or what, if anything, they talk to their mental coaches about. Nor do golf writers or reporters ask players much about it. But this past Ryder Cup highlighted the importance of the mental game as it was obvious that a screaming, ranting, just about raging home crowd affected the final outcome. The American team was rattled mentally, and that translated often to less than effective golf. The European team on the other hand was inspired and energized by the adoring throng. Nothing wrong with that as that the “home court advantage” present in all sports. It’s the norm for competitive games.
But most of the golf you and I play is not competitive. Yet still, the game, as Bobby Jones once said, is mostly played in the brain that sits between the ears. We approach a shot either with trepidation or confidence or doubt or aggression or fear, all states of mind generated by the chemicals and neurons and past experience in the brain. Sure, we need to be physically prepared and ready for the golf swing, but you realize the power of the mind when you compare your performance at the range to your performance on the course. It’s a whole different ball game.
Why? One simple fact. At the range you get basically unlimited chances: At the course, you get one chance each time you address the ball. That fact alone introduces the crux and cry of the mental game. When you know you only have one chance at each shot, tension, worry, fear, doubt, all the beasties of Pandora’s Box, creep into the brain like ants into an open jar of sugar. And now that I’ve scared the pants off you, that begins our deep dive into the mental game.
It essentially comes down to what musical performers often feel: performance anxiety. For a singer also only has one chance at getting a song right on any given night at any given venue. So what does he or she do? As Dylan wrote, you know your song well before you start singing. And what does that take? Practice. With golf, the more you practice, the luckier you get, as I think Hogan once said, or was it Trevino or was it or was it Chi Chi or Rocco?
And the more shots you have in your quiver, the sharper your mental game becomes. We simply get nervous with this game when we are unprepared for a particular shot. So when you come upon a 40 yard pitch over a bunker, you’d better know what club you’ll need, the technique you’ll apply, and how hard you’ll swing before you address the ball. Otherwise, you’re Barney Fife.
Exactly how to prepare to play this game is frankly a challenge. Practice facilities, other than at the swankest country clubs, are often abysmal. You’re on worn out mats, in cold stalls, on dirt where there should be grass, without a chipping area, a practice bunker, and sometimes not even a practice putting green. My buddy Jim out on the coast, doesn’t even have a driving range of any kind, let alone a Tin Cup, armadillo variety. If you do have decent facilities, count your blessings, and improvise and devise ways to simulate shots you will encounter on your favorite course.
For the more variety of shots you prepare yourself for, the more confident you will be and the stronger and more effective will be your mental game.
The Ryder Cup showcased a team that knew how to play this game as a team, and they were unbeatable from the very opening drive, going 4-0 in the opening Foursomes. The Europeans had more going for it other than the home crowd. They played almost like a military unit fights: one for all and all for one. It was truly impressive. The American squad, which will probably be similar in two years, should study the Europeans closely and try to match what they do mentally. It made all the difference.
A new book will soon appear by Sports Illustrated writer Alan Shipnuck called Liv and Let Die. From preliminary excerpts, it should be a corker, and a controversial corker at that.