Focus on what you can control and accept what you can't. Some variation of this phrase appears in religious texts, self-help books, and social media accounts that supply endless inspirational quotes. It's one of the most clichéd (and essential) concepts out there.
When it comes to golf, control is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the game. A lot of golfers come to the game expecting to control the process and outcomes as they can in other parts of their lives. I've witnessed countless people who are calm, confident, and thriving outside of the course change into a completely different person when they tee it up. I've indeed fallen victim to this myself. One of the main reasons this occurs is because they don't fully understand what they can control in golf and what they cannot. Success in golf is not as clearly laid out as it is elsewhere.
If you can improve at the elements of the game that you can control, and start to accept the things you cannot, you will become happier on the course (and likely a better golfer). I know this is sounding very "self helpy" right now but stick with me.
Rather than speak in generalities, I'd like to specifically focus on five specific thoughts that have taken me close to 25 years to figure out. I'll link to other articles I've written that explore these ideas further.
What You Can Control
Before you tee it up, there's plenty of things you can do to give yourself the best chance of success. Here are a few that make sense for everyone:
- Practice effectively
- Study a course, and develop a strategic plan
- Get your body ready (proper warmup or exercise)
Each of those elements can be broken down further into various categories, but I consider those to be the pillars of preparation that you can have plenty of control over. If you ignore them completely, don't expect improved performance in your game.
A lot of golfers ask me what they can do to deal with nerves and pressure. Whether it's a tournament, a match with your buddies, or your typical Sunday round, my advice doesn't change all that much. I tell most people to commit to going through a routine before every shot, no matter what happens. Simple advice, but difficult to stick with.
I believe all pre-shot routines should have the following elements:
- Analysis: Evaluate your position on the course and think about an optimal target and club selection.
- Commitment: Choose a specific target.
- Routine: Go through a repeatable routine as you approach the ball. For me, it's two practice swings, an alignment, and then I swing.
If you can develop this kind of routine, commit to going through it on every shot no matter how bad or good things are going, you'll be developing one of the best habits a golfer can have.
Most golfers don't think about having a post-shot routine, but how you react to each shot is sometimes just as important as how you prepare for it. You can exert a great deal of control over this process. That's not to say you can't get upset or pump your fist in celebration; those are natural instant reactions. I wrote this article a while back, and it explores some wonderful ideas on how to react to shots from James Sieckmann's book, Your Short Game Solution (it's mostly a fantastic book on wedge play).
His overall advice is quite simple - internalize your good shots and objectify your bad shots. Most golfers don't give themselves enough credit for good shots, or even realize when they've hit one. Conversely, when the bad ones occur, they take it very personally, and the negative feelings seem to drag on throughout the round. Sieckmann's advice is to take ownership of your successes and try to analyze your failures objectively.
While this is incredibly difficult, and you'll never be perfect at it, you have to do your best to separate yourself emotionally when big mistakes occur. Take a step back and think about if you could have done anything differently.
Perhaps you chose the wrong club and misjudged the wind. Or you picked too aggressive of a target when aiming at the green. Many times, it's just a regular occurrence with your technique. Either way, once the shot is over, this process shouldn't take too long.
My favorite time to do a more in-depth analysis is after the round, while the information is still fresh in my mind.
What You Can't Control
The Variability of Your Technique
How often have you gotten frustrated when you can't take your ball striking from the practice tee to the course? Or have you been wholly demoralized when you have one of your best ball-striking days, and less than 24 hours later, your swing feels like a mess? You're not alone because this happens to every single golfer on the planet.
Variability is perhaps one of the hardest parts of the game to accept. You cannot control how your golf swing will perform daily, and it can be maddening.
This is a relative concept, as many things in golf are. All players have what I would call a baseline skill level. Some days they'll perform on the lower end of that potential; other days, they can reach the upper limits. On the whole, most rounds will fall somewhere in between. The hardest part for any golfer is to understand what that variability looks like, and accept that it will happen.
Through practice and playing more, it's very possible to increase your base skill level. In other words, your bad days aren't as bad, and your good days are a little better. But no matter what, you will experience randomness.
As you know, golf is played outdoors on various terrains with a small white ball. Your technique and the quality of your swing determines how the ball will initially come off the clubface. After that, you are subject to the rules of the universe.
Weather and the laws of physics seem to torture our souls constantly. The truth is it's not personal. But it feels that way sometimes.
I wrote about the time I thought I hit a perfect tee shot on the final hole of Bethpage Black in competition. I thought I hit a perfect drive and didn't even watch the ball land. What I didn't see was a gust of wind push my ball to the edge of the fairway, ricochet off a poorly placed rake, and nestle into deep fescue never to be found. At the moment, I lost my cool, but it was just the universe doing its job.
You can select an optimal target, execute the shot exactly how you want, and things still might not work out because of a gust of wind, or the way the ball bounces off a small hill.
The great philosopher Forrest Gump sums it up nicely in this clip:
People often tell you to control the process, and the results will follow. And essentially, that's what I'm saying as the overall theme of this article. However, along the way, many of those results won't be what you want them to be simply because the game is played in the elements on uneven ground. Almost all other sports are played on a consistent field (think basketball, hockey, football, baseball, etc.), and it's one of the reasons golfers who play other sports seem to struggle with managing their expectations properly. That's part of golf's beauty and challenge.
Overall, golf has so much randomness to it because you are influenced by weather, gravity, and plenty of other things about physics that I forgot about since high school. You'll drive yourself mad if you think you can control it.
Striking the Balance
While there are plenty of other concepts to explore when it comes to what you can control and what you cannot, I consider these "The Big Five."
I'm not telling you to go out there and become perfectly zen with all of this advice. I'm not.
What I hope is that one or several of these concepts opened your eyes up to something you assumed was true about the game, but really wasn't. A small inkling of a renewed perspective can have a massively positive influence on your relationship with the game.
No golfer can strike a perfect balance of control. But you can get better. For many of your reading this, my assumption is that you've likely held on too tight to what you thought you could control, and letting go a bit will do you some good. Remember, it's just a game!