How to (Potentially) Solve One of the Most Difficult Problems in Golf

Golf is a relative game, which is why it is so enticing to such a wide variety of skill levels. For one player, breaking 100 is a milestone that is worthy of celebratory beers and a bunch of text messages to friends. For another, it could make them question life in general (yes, we can all get a little melodramatic at times).

Whatever your relationship is with the game, it is a constant mental battle. In a sense, we are all in conflict with our past and future while we play. The sage advice is to stay present and focus on one shot at a time. However, it's almost impossible to prevent our minds from wandering. Sometimes we're fearful of a specific event in a prior round reoccurring. Other times, we see our scoring milestone in sight, but still, have seven holes left.

So how do you fix this? Can you even fix it? (these are rhetorical questions)

Recently, I received this message from a reader:

I struggle with staying present during a round. I normally start very very well, but around 9th hole I start thinking about winning or shooting my lowest round. Do you have any articles that address this?

It came at an interesting time in my own game. For the past couple of months, I have been trying to analyze a specific round that I had in competition. Despite making significant strides in my mental game over the last several years, I believe I made several errors with my focus.

In this article, I'd like to take you through that round. I'll let you know what I was thinking (my real thoughts are a bit embarrassing). Also, I want to discuss how I'm working on this for the next time I get into a similar situation. I hope that all of you will see some connection to your own golf game and use some of these techniques to sharpen your mental skills.

I'll warn you that this article is a bit longer than most that I write. It's also more personal. I try not to talk about my own game that much because I don't want to bore all of you. But in this instance, I think hearing about my experience, and my thoughts can help you.

The Competitive Bug

For the past five years, I've immersed myself back into tournament golf. The New York Metro region has tons of amateur events with stiff competition. If you play well at qualifiers, you get to play some of the top courses in the world. I jumped right into the deep end at a U.S. Open Qualifier in 2015, and since then, it's been a bit of a roller coaster ride. There have been some great moments, and some embarrassing ones as well.

Fortunately, I've seen incremental progress every year. In the beginning, the pressure of having to shoot a number at a one-day qualifier was probably too much for me. But the more and more comfortable I've become, my results have improved. Like anything else in golf (or life) - it took a lot of failing, reflection, and experience to move forward.

2018 was a bit of a breakthrough year for me. I got into several of the most significant events in our area and got a taste of what it felt like to play with the best players under even more pressure. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and in some regards, I'm a little addicted to the feeling now.

This year I couldn't help but raise my expectations a bit. But for the most part, it's been a season of near-misses. I've mostly played well, but missed cuts by one or two strokes. When you play against great golfers, the margins are pretty thin.

There is one event in particular that has stuck with me. My eventual goal is to qualify for the U.S. Mid Amateur. For those of you that don't know, that's a tournament that's limited to golfers that are aged 25 and above. I can tell you from experience that trying to compete against college golfers is a tall task these days. So for someone like me who is 36 years old, the U.S. Mid Am is the pinnacle of amateur golf.

The Qualifier

This year the U.S. Mid Amateur qualifier in my area was being played at Nassau Country Club. Last year I played in the Long Island Open there, and it's a course that challenges all parts of your game. It's demanding off the tee and requires precise iron play. Perhaps the most challenging part is the greens. Tom Fazio redid them back in 2012, and they can be terrifying in tournaments. The first time I played them in a competition, they were rolling somewhere around 13 (or above) on the stimpmeter.

It's a bit of a tall task to make it to the big event every year. More than 100 talented golfers are vying for only six spots and two alternates. Depending on the conditions of the course for the day, it's likely you need to shoot under par to make it. As you would expect, the USGA likes to challenge the participants. Mentally, the most challenging thing is trying not to think about the number all day, and focus on playing your game.

Teeing off on the back nine, I was quickly faced with some of the most challenging holes on the course. After an opening bogey, I managed to grind out a couple of pars with testy 10-foot putts that went in. A birdie on my 4th hole brought me back to level par and feeling comfortable.

Things were moving along nicely. I was hitting fairways and greens. On my 7th hole, I drained a winding, downhill 60-footer for birdie. In reality, I was hoping to two-putt, but when the putt dropped, I couldn't help but think, "Is today the day?"

After a couple of gritty pars, I made the turn at one-under. I didn't know it at the time, but I had one of the best rounds going in the morning session.

Going to the first hole of the course, I knew I was facing the tee shot that made me the most uncomfortable. With out-of-bounds left and the driving range to the right, there wasn't much room for error. I took a deep breath and piped my driver down the middle.

At this point, I was starting to pump myself up even more. Unfortunately, my playing partner lost his tee shot after our three-minute search. I had to wait a bit for him to go back to the tee. The pin was tucked on the right, and I had about 145 yards, a perfect 9-iron for me. But I had quite a bit of time to think about this shot. I picked my appropriate target well left of the pin where there was plenty of green. But I whiffed the iron to the right and landed in a bunker. I was short-sided and had a terrible lie. My only option was to play well past the hole, and my shot went through the green.

My heart started racing a bit, and I began to wonder if this was where I would unravel. But I focused on the shot, got up and down for a bogey, and felt relieved.

After a couple of routine pars, I had a 20-foot birdie putt on my 13th hole. I felt good about the read, and my speed had been impeccable all day. The putt was tracking towards the hole with 5-feet to go, and I was convinced I made it. Then it took a 270-degree turn around the cup with one of the most vicious lip outs I had ever seen.

Par wasn't a bad score, but I knew I was running out of holes even though I was even for the round. The next stretch was very challenging to manage pars, let alone birdies. Despite my best efforts to keep myself in a positive mindset, the lip out felt a bit deflating.

I bogeyed the next hole with a 6-footer that burned the edge. The 6th hole on the course (my 15th) is perhaps the most challenging tee shot. It's a long, 450-yard uphill par 4 that I knew I couldn't reach if I missed the fairway. I quickly picked up my tee as I saw my drive laser down the middle of the fairway. It was a bomb.

Walking up to my ball, I noticed it was in the middle of a deep divot. I took a little extra club to compensate for the 160-yard uphill shot, but I caught it a little heavy and landed short of the green. I missed another testy par putt by several inches.

At that point, I knew I would likely have to birdie two or three of my remaining holes to have any chance. Things happen quickly when you're coming down the stretch under pressure. In all honesty, I didn't feel all that nervous. I was undoubtedly a little dejected and could feel the round slipping through my fingers. But I stuck to my routine. Unfortunately, the birdies didn't come. There were a couple more bogeys instead.

I finished with a 74 (+4) for the day. It was a respectable round considering the difficulty of the course and the pressure of the day. However, as I suspected, a round of one-under was required to get into a playoff between five golfers for the remaining four spots.

I wasn't angry at myself. I played well and coming down the stretch; it was a matter of inches on several putts that kept me on the outside looking in. Who knows what would have happened if the birdie putt had dropped on 13? Overall, the pressure didn't feel too heavy, and I enjoyed the pursuit.

Where My Mind Was Going

After the round was finished, I went through all of my shots mentally, as I usually do. Overall, I was satisfied with my strategic decisions. I also stuck to my routine very well. Perhaps the only significant error that occurred was on my 10th hole when my playing partner lost his tee shot.

What I was more concerned with were my thoughts between shots. When you play golf, especially if you are walking the course, there is a lot of mental downtime. Usually, I like to fill it by talking with my playing partners. That day I had a good dialogue going with the other golfer in my group.

However, despite the conversation, there were a few twists and turns that my consciousness took. If I had to categorize them based on the holes I played, here they are:

  • Holes 1-3: Oh shit! Keep it together - this is not starting well. *Phew* my putter saved me
  • Holes 4-6: OK, you've steadied the ship. This could be fun.
  • Holes 7-9: *60-foot birdie drops* This is my moment. I am going to make it and how cool will it be to tell everyone (side note: I am very embarrassed to admit this)
  • Holes 10-12: Close call, but you're still right there
  • Holes 13: How the f*ck did that not go in?
  • Holes 14-15: It's slipping away, hold on for dear life!
  • Holes 16-18: The ride is likely over, try to have a respectable finish

I went from doubt to extreme confidence pretty quickly. Then my ego went out of control, thinking about telling readers of the site about my eventual triumph, then to the realization that it had slipped away. All in the span of 4 1/2 hours! Isn't golf a fun ride?

A day after the round, I called a friend of mine, Scott Fawcett. He regularly consults with elite amateurs and professional golfers with his DECADE strategic system. But in the end, most of his work ends up being psychological. I was candid about my thoughts with him. His analysis was that thinking about bragging to people how I had made it was the most detrimental thought of the day. I sheepishly agreed, and still couldn't believe that's where my mind went.

We also discussed expectations, and the distribution of my scores based on my skill level. One of my main questions was how to deal with the pressure of only having one opportunity to post a score at a qualifier event. For me to shoot under par, based on my handicap level, it's probably only going to happen 10-15% of the time. So while I can do it, I also have to be realistic and understand that I'll have to play my very best.

Like he had done many times before, he urged me to consider taking up meditation and mindfulness. So I finally did.

This Is Essentially What Everyone Says

The conventional wisdom in any sport, especially golf, is something to the effect of "one shot a time." The idea is not to think about the past or future too much, and only focus on the moment. In a sense, they are describing the concept of mindfulness. While there are many definitions, here is one that I found to be helpful:

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

Great! But how do you do that?

In golf, I have found that going through my routine before every shot, as well as deep breathing, can be very helpful to alleviate nerves. However, I'm not perfect, and I want to get better at this part of the game. After exploring the idea of mindfulness a bit more, I think it's a concept that many of us are doing already on some level, but it's also a skill that can be improved through meditation.

For a long time, I've wanted to learn how to meditate. I avoided it, though, because it seemed like a concept that's a bit "out there" for me. However, it's becoming more and more popular. Millions of people are going through guided meditations on apps like Calm and Headspace. After doing about 30 sessions on one of the popular meditation apps called Waking Up from Sam Harris, I've changed my mind on the concept as a whole.

I'm far from an expert on this topic, but going through daily 10-15 minute exercises is yielding some interesting techniques. When you meditate, you acknowledge that your thoughts might wander and that it's OK. But at the same time, you're given methods to refocus your mind on what's currently going on.

For me, focusing on my breath coming in and out of my nose helps tremendously. For others, it could be thinking about what sounds are currently surrounding you, or the sensation of your body resting on a chair. When you get it right, all of a sudden, you're entirely focused on what's going on in front of you, and it's very refreshing.

OK, But What About Golf?

Now let's get back to the reader's original question and my dilemma with my thoughts during moments of pressure.

First of all, let's all acknowledge that we are all playing golf for fun. I know there is a competitive element to the game, but breaking 80 is not going to define your life one way or another.

On the other hand, I know exactly how important it can feel at the moment. All of you likely understand what it's like to struggle with the stress and anxiety of your expectations on the course. I believe some tools can help.

I've stumbled across them myself over the years, and I believe meditation can further enhance them.

Here are some ideas for you:

  • Routine, routine, routine: I can't stress how important it is to have a repeatable (but not too long) routine before every shot you hit. This can be a personal choice, but once you settle on one, it can help to keep your mind present in moments of stress. Mostly, you want your body to go on "auto-pilot" before each shot. Commit to your routine.
  • Deep breathing: It might sound too basic or far fetched, but controlling your breath helps a lot. When situations get stressful, things often speed up for golfers. Their thoughts, heart rate, and breathing begin to quicken. Focusing on taking a deep breath through the nose and slowly exhaling through your mouth is an excellent remedy that helps me a lot.
  • Focus on what is in front of you, and appreciate it: Golf is a wonderful game because it gives us time to spend outdoors. Often, we don't even take any time to acknowledge the beauty of what's in front of us. Staring at the trees, feeling the breeze on your face, having conversations with your friends - don't forget these things are gifts! Acknowledge them as they occur.

There are plenty of other techniques that could work for you, but the main goal is to get your mind out of the past and future, and more on the present. You will never be perfect at this; no one can. But you can get better.

Pressure and nerves are all relative in this game. They are there for a reason; it's because you care about golf. Those feelings will never go away, but you can manage them a bit better. I'm going to continue to explore meditation as a way to build these skills, and I encourage all of you to try it out yourself. Almost all of the apps available offer some kind of free trial, and plenty of others have suggested guided meditations that are available on YouTube.

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