Don't Play on Tilt

Every golf shot has a risk/reward, you need to recognize when you are on tilt so that you don’t start taking unnecessary risks.

I used to play poker quite a bit, and I found that skilled poker players share some of the same qualities as great golfers. They are able to stay in the moment, control their emotions, and most importantly weigh the risks and rewards of each hand. Golf is no different. Every time you are hitting a shot is a new hand so to speak. Whatever happened before should not matter. This is obviously much easier said than done. All of us have addressed the ball thinking about that double bogey we made on the last hole, and not allowing the anger and frustration to leave our minds. Staying in the moment in golf is the hardest thing to do.

Many of us know the term “On Tilt” from playing poker. For those of you who haven’t played, here is the definition from Wikipedia:

Tilt is a poker term for a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive

In poker a player who is on tilt usually just lost a pretty bad hand, and all of a sudden he is making erratic bets. His cards are terrible, but he’s going all in on every hand. Everyone around him can see it; he just doesn’t care any more because he has completely lost his composure. Does this sound familiar? It’s happened to me on the golf course more times than I would like to remember, and I have let being on tilt ruin many of my rounds that probably could have been saved.

Recognizing that you are on tilt, and then trying to get yourself out of that mindset is VERY hard. Let me paint the picture for you. Your first 3 holes have been less than stellar. You are more over par than you would like to be at this point, and are already starting to feel the round slip away. You step up to the tee and block your driver about 50 yards off target into a thick set of trees. Now you are fuming! By the time you are addressing the ball all you see is red, and you’re not even thinking about the smart play, which is to get the ball back to safety on the fairway. The green is about 180 yards away, and you have to thread the ball through about 10 sets of trees to get there. We’re talking Sergio Garcia at the 1999 PGA hard. This shot has no chance of working out. You don’t care though, and you mindlessly strike the ball. Right after you swing you hear that awful hollow sound of the ball striking the trunk of a tree, and your ball has ricocheted out of bounds. Now you’re looking at triple bogey. At this point the round is probably toast.

Now let’s go into our alternate reality simulator, and see what could have happened if you were able to realize that you were on tilt.

Hopefully you had time to clear your mind while you walked to your ball. By the time you got there you realized that you needed to take your medicine, and get the ball back into play. You bumped the ball onto the fairway, and left yourself 130 yards into the green. After hitting a great shot, you sink your par putt! Now you’ve gotten some wind beneath your wings, and are starting to feel good about yourself again. You were able to build some momentum based on your epic par save, and the round ends up being pretty solid.

These situations were hypothetical, but I think all of us have had some kind of version of this. The point is that when you’re on tilt you are not thinking straight, and you are needlessly throwing away shots. One of the main differences I see in Tiger’s game after his scandal is that he plays golf on tilt now. During his incredible run he almost never let his emotions get the best of him. If a round was getting away from him he would grind away, and somehow save it through incredible focus by staying in the moment. That’s why he almost never missed a cut, and seemed to be in contention in almost every tournament he was in. Now you can see his emotions are getting the best of him. His demeanor changes after a few bad shots, and he is no longer able to save rounds the way he used to be. We can all speculate why this happening, and we’ll never really know the actual answer, but it’s obvious to the casual observer.

There are various reasons why we go on tilt. We might not be prepared the way we should be. We are expecting too much of ourselves on the course. Or we could just be having a bad day outside of golf. Whatever the case is, if you want to be working towards scoring lower, this is one of the main parts of your game you should be addressing.

Controlling your emotions is all part of the package. Practicing more, which will lead to more confidence in your shots can help with this. Part of the reason I have been scoring better lately is because now I know I can recover from a few bad holes on the course because I’ve put the work in. I am less likely to go on tilt (it still happens!) because I believe now that I can recover.

Overall, everything is connected in golf. Working on one part of your game will help another, whether it’s physical or mental. Mastering this part of the game might be the most challenging, but in my opinion it can yield the greatest results.

The next time you find yourself on tilt keep reminding yourself that 18 holes is a long time. Many things happen during a round, both good and bad. You always have time to turn it around, but losing your composure is a surefire way to guarantee a bad day on the course.

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