This game will make you crazy. Golf has so much time in between shots — so much time to think about all the bad things that can happen. I compare it to shooting a free throw in basketball. Nothing to stop the free throw; all the time in the world to think about what could go wrong. Many times, a professional basketball player is a great scorer, but has a dreadful free throw shooting average. This player does well reacting to the defense and makes the plays with their athleticism. Put them at the free throw line, though, their athleticism becomes fragile. We have to make the game reactionary so our athleticism can take over in pressure situations.
Notice when golfers play golf by themselves, they always have their best rounds. They have so much more time to think about the negatives, yet they are more relaxed. There are three reasons it is easier to get “in the zone” when playing golf alone. First, when no one is watching, breathing evenly and keeping the heart rate normal is an easy task. When people watch and have money and pride on the line, it gets our blood flowing.
If you struggle with keeping your heart from beating out of your chest, take normal breaths in and deep long breaths out. Jack Nicklaus said under pressure he would take deep breathes, look around and think to himself, “Isn’t this fun?” He found his own personal way to relax and slow down his heart rate. Jack enjoyed the moment, but he worked at a process that allowed him to enjoy the pressure. It is a lesson to all golfers that handling pressure — self-inflicted or outside pressure — takes a method and hard work.
Secondly, when golfers play alone, they go through a productive thought process because no one is watching or distracting them. If a golfer knows what to think about, this productive thought process can happen when playing with others and in a timely manner. Golf courses offer many obstacles. Golfers must be aware of these obstacles but not scared.
When it is our turn to hit, the thought process needs to be complete. So what should you be thinking about before it is your turn? What is going to be our target: the flagstick, a tree in the back ground, right or center of the green? What is the desired distance? What are the factors that affect ball flight? What is the slope of the ground where the ball sits: uphill, downhill and/or side hill? How is the ball sitting: on the fairway, up in the rough, bad lie in the rough? What direction and what strength is the wind?
With that information we need to pick a target. Example, if we have water on the left, flat lie, bad lie in the rough and wind blowing in our face, the decision should be to play the ball to the right/center of the green with two extra clubs than normal. Respect the obstacles, but do not be scared. Now, we will take an aggressive swing to a conservative target. When the thought process becomes second nature, it should take five to 10 seconds. Like any swing change, this process takes practice. The thought should not be: I hope I do not go in the water or how many over par am I or five swing thoughts. Going through a productive thought process, makes us focus on the task at hand, not on the possible outcome.
Third, when we are playing alone, we handle the bad results, and move on quickly from any negative emotions. When we play with others, the fear of embarrassment makes us react with much more emotion. Golf is a game; for most of us, it is a game of more misses than accomplishments. It is okay to be upset with a bad shot and to feel embarrassment, but it is not okay to dwell on bad golf shots or the embarrassment. Pressure makes us dwell and wonder why the bad moment is happening to us. The most positive way to handle a bad shot is to reflect on what happened and then move on to the next shot as soon as possible. If a golfer is dwelling on the last bad shot, he cannot go through the correct process on the next shot. If the golfer is someone who usually is emotional and animated, he should be the same on the golf course. I am not saying slam clubs after the shot, but let it out and then move on.
When you are on the 18th hole and you have a chance to beat your friends in a friendly wager, remember to breathe, enjoy the moment, go through a productive thought process, and be ready to move on from whatever happens. Go see your local PGA professional for a playing lesson to see what process works best for your game.
Todd Elliott is the PGA Head Golf Professional for Hideaway Beach. Todd is TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) Certified as a golf professional. This gives him the ability to give golf specific physical screening to detect any physical limitation that might affect the golf swing. Todd is an active Student Mentor at FGCU; a volunteer with the First Tee program and was presented the 2010 and 2011 PGA’s President Council Awards on “Growing the Game.”