I usually don’t want to bore anyone with the details of my own golf game. But what I would like to discuss is the day I had my biggest breakthrough on a golf course. It was a special round that was not short on drama, and I hope recounting it for you will accomplish two things:
1) You will be entertained by the emotional roller coaster that I went through.
2) It will teach you something about how you can have a similar breakthrough with what I learned from that day.
Try not to focus on my scores because I think they are really irrelevant to anyone reading this. You can draw parallels from my experience if you are looking to break 100, 90, or 80.
Building up to that day
Last year was a major year for me in terms of golf, and many other areas. It has been my dream throughout my entire life to get down to scratch, and I always had a deep belief that I could get there if I had the time and resources. Most of my golfing career I have hovered between a 3-8 handicap depending on how often I was playing. Making the jump from a 3-4 handicap down to scratch doesn’t sound like much in terms of numbers, but it’s almost light years in the type of play it requires.
My wife and I decided to move to the suburbs shortly after my son was born, and coincidentally we moved 90 seconds away from a course ;) I was licking my chops as we unpacked our furniture, and couldn’t wait for the spring to come around. Luckily my wife was supportive of my goal, and didn’t mind me hopping out of bed at five in the morning to go to the course and practice. I knew that two parts of my game needed to improve before I could get down to scratch. My tee shots and short game (100 yards and in).
I spent all spring and summer practicing, and playing as much as I could. I probably started the year at a 6 handicap, and by the end of the summer I was down to about a 3. I was starting to see more consistency in my game, and was posting scores in the mid to high 70s with regularity on a fairly difficult course. I was certainly thrilled with the progress, but in the back of my head I knew I had the game to shoot par, or even better.
A troubling pattern started to emerge though. Whenever I would have a great round going I would cough it up on the final 4 holes. I would get to the 15th hole at one or two over par, and start making some huge mistakes. It became a mental road block, and I began to start fearing success.
Well on a beautiful day in September, that all changed.
The round started off similarly to many others that I had over the summer. I was moving along nicely and making pars on the first few holes. I made a long putt on the 6th hole for a birdie, and managed to take advantage of a great drive on the Par 5 9th hole to make another birdie. I made the turn at two under par, my lowest nine for the year. A little bit of shock and nerves started to set in as I waited on the 10th tee. The familiar demons started to chirp in my ear, but I tried to ignore them.
Par on the 10th. Par on the 11th…steady she goes. I hit a great wedge shot on the 12th hole and made another birdie. I was 3 under par!!! Am I really going to do this?
Par on the 13th. I can see the tee box on the difficult 15th hole, but try not to look. I hit a perfect tee shot on the 14th, and am faced with a difficult green that is penalizing if you miss it to the left, which is where the pin is situated. I play my approach to the right side of the green and it lands safely about 30 feet from the pin.
It’s a difficult putt that is hard to read, and is fast. I’ve three-putted this green more times that I can remember. I steady myself over the putt and make a smooth stroke. The ball is slowly tracking, rolling…rolling. It disappears into the hole. I am 4 under par and almost blacked out. I have never been 4 under par in my whole life, what do I do?
I walk up to the 15th tee, which is a difficult hole with a demanding tee shot. The devil is on my shoulder whispering terrible thoughts. To my surprise an angel mysteriously appears on my other shoulder. It’s a voice I have never heard from before, and it keeps saying “you are not the same golfer any more, you can do this."
I calm myself, and relax my body. I hit a nice drive that just finds the rough. My approach shot rolls through the back of the green unfortunately, and I am left with a difficult lie and not much green to work with. I am trying to fight off the negative thoughts, but I can’t help but think making a bogey here is going to open the floodgates for a meltdown on the last 3 holes that will leave me heartbroken.
I hit a decent chip, and miss the 8 footer for par. It was my first bogey of the day. You could tell that my playing partners were deflated, but they tried not to say anything like baseball teammates remaining silent when a pitcher has a no-hitter going. I am slightly disappointed, but remain resolute.
I AM GOING TO DO THIS, I AM NOT THE SAME GOLFER.
I hit a great tee shot on the par 3 16th, and easily two putt for a par. Now I have two difficult tee shots on 17 and 18 that have given me some very bad mental scars. I decide to keep the driver in the bag on 17, and hit a 3 wood. There is out of bounds right, and major trouble in the trees left, so I am not willing to bring these into play with my driver. I stripe the 3 wood, and hit my approach safely on the green for another easy two putt.
I’m standing on the par 5 18th with my destiny in my hands. I have never shot in the 60s before, and my heart is absolutely pounding. My playing partners may not realize it because I’m trying to remain normal and crack jokes, but on the inside I am completely terrified. I know that hitting driver could leave me with a somewhat easy approach shot that could set me up for an eagle putt, or a simple up and down for birdie.
I know that the trees on the right have been a problem for me in the past, and have lead to double bogeys that have destroyed many rounds. I decide to swallow my pride, and hit my 3 iron. I am making par at all costs!
A calm comes over me after I decide this approach, and I almost feel like the hard part of the round is over because I know all I have to do is hit 3 relatively easy iron shots.
3 iron, 7 iron, sand wedge. I’m on the green with a 25 footer for birdie, and I cozy it up there for my tap in par for a round of 69. I look to the heavens and thank the golfing gods, and almost collapse on the green in a melodramatic mess. My playing partners congratulate me, and I text message everyone I know to tell them what just happened.
I hop in the car and speed home, and when I open the door I am bordering on tears, and my wife thinks something is actually wrong. I tell her what I've done, and although she doesn’t quite understand what it truly means, she shares in my joy. I had achieved a lifelong dream, and it felt amazing!
A week later I shot a 70, and continued my streak by posting a bunch of rounds in the low 70s. Everything changed for me after that round, and I reached my goal of scratch a few weeks later.
How did I do it?
Hopefully at this point you are not gagging from my overly-dramatic tale, but let’s get to the lessons I learned from this round after I really sat down to think about how I did it.
Most of the time on the course I find myself chasing a round, or actively trying to produce a score. This was one of the first rounds in a while where I had let the game come to me. I was patient with myself, and didn’t fret that one mistake would lead to others. In other words, I was staying in the moment. This is probably the hardest thing to achieve in golf, but on this day I was able to do it.
I also mentioned that a new voice emerged in my mind that was confident and upbeat. So many times in my golfing life I have let the mental demons convince me that I was going to hit a bad shot even before I took the swing. This round was different because I finally told myself that I knew I could finish out the round on a positive note. The reason why I actually listened to the voice was because I had put the work in on my game, and I trusted it.
When I went through all of my club selections and targets on the course, I realized it was probably one of the most conservative rounds of golf I had ever played. I had only taken my driver out of the bag 4 times, and on every other tee shot I was hitting 3 wood, or an iron. As a result I had hit 10 fairways, and never once gotten myself into serious trouble off of the tee.
I also was extremely conservative with my approach shots. I never aimed at a pin, and tried to keep the ball to the safest part of the green I could find. There was no doubt that I was hitting the ball extremely well that day, but I never thought that the round I would shoot in the 60s would feature such a conservative game plan.
I relied on my routine:
I’ve written before about how I think every golfer should have a pre-shot routine. My familiar process before each shot helped calm me, and focus. I tried to relax my body as much as possible as I went through my routine, and I believe it was one of the main factors that prevented me from succumbing to my fears.
I had been there before:
At this point in the year I had put myself in a position to shoot a great score a number of times. Unfortunately, none of them had worked out until that day. The experience of getting to the brink, and failing, was a valuable lesson. I didn’t let those rounds keep me down, and I continued to work hard on my game in my practice sessions.
If I had given up hope, and let my failures keep me from putting more work in, then that day would have never happened.
What can you take away from this?
I think there are a few things that readers can take away from this round.
- It can be a long, frustrating road to make a major mental breakthrough on the golf course. Be patient with yourself in the process, and trust the work you have put in on your game. It’s not going to be easy, but when it happens it will all be worth it.
- Shooting your dream score might not actually look the way you thought it would. I shot a 69 with a relatively conservative game plan. I was not blasting huge drives and firing at pins. It was a steady round of golf that featured as much mental control as it did shot making. If I can shoot a 69 with that strategy, then you can get to your dream number with a similar one.
- Once you do achieve your breakthrough, it can lead to so many great things. After you have experienced all of the heartbreaks on the course, there is a moment where you can put all of these behind you, and step your game up to another level. It won’t be permanent, and you might come crashing down once again. Once you’ve tasted it though…well it sure is sweet!
I hope reading all of this will inspire you to keep working hard, and believe that great things are possible on the golf course even if you have been experiencing the kind of heartbreak that all golfers are familiar with. Your breakthrough might be a lot closer than you think. Keep pushing ahead!