What You Can Learn From Great Golfers

Long Island’s Montauk Downs is often overshadowed by the sterner, more esteemed Black Course at Bethpage, but the locals all know - this Robert Trent Jones masterpiece has teeth. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend spending a long weekend at this far-flung seaside town; if not for the golf alone, at least for the fresh clams and lobster rolls.

If you want to see how your game stacks up under adverse conditions, play Montauk Downs from the tips when the wind is up. Even on a calm day, the course has a distinct set of challenges on every hole and part of the fun is figuring out the right club to pull and the best place to land your ball.

Even a seemingly benign hole like the 370-yard par-4 sixth, sandwiched between a pair of risky, but drivable par fives, can be played in a variety of ways. Big hitters can choose to lay up short of a steep hillside flanking the right side of the fairway setting up a longer approach, or they can try to draw the ball over a set of mature trees that overhang the left side. On the other hand, if you don’t have better-than-average length, your option is to hit anything from fairway wood to driver from the tips, or if you’re teeing it forward, to attack the hole with a long iron or hybrid.

The bottom line is this: there’s no right way or wrong way to play this hole, but the golfer who thinks before he or she swings tends to do better than the player who flails away at the ball without any strategy at all.

When it comes to playing well, course management is a cornerstone. Yet when it comes to analyzing the traits all good golfers possess, there’s a disproportionate emphasis placed on how much club head speed they’re able to generate. While it can’t be disputed that hitting the ball long and accurately helps, there’s a lot more that goes into playing well and enjoying the game.

So what do all great players do, that the average club golfer doesn’t? Quite a bit, actually. Here’s a few things I’ve noticed over the years that every single golfer can learn from.

The Game Before the Game

If you ever watch prizefighters warm up, they build up a sweat long before stepping into the ring or the octagon. A similar set of preparations occur in every other sport including basketball (shoot around) and baseball (batting practice). This makes practical sense - you’re waking up your muscles and rehearsing the motor skills you’ll be executing during the actual game.

In golf, however, a lot of players seem to think that warming up is something you do before you go out for a run. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve gone from parking lot to pro shop to first tee without hitting a single warm up ball. Usually, the results are not pretty and it can take someone a few holes just to settle into a round.

Then again, there’s a whole segment of golfers who warm up religiously at the range hoping to find golfing nirvana minutes before their tee time. This is the very definition of a bad strategy.

How you perform at the range has absolutely no baring on how well or poorly you’ll play that day. This is one of the most important lessons all good players realize and it underscores just how different their approach is when compared to ours. Instead of blasting through a bucket of balls haphazardly or using their warm up to tinker with their golf swing, better players use their range time to loosen up, find their rhythm and dial in their scoring clubs. If they duff a shot as all players might, they don’t overreact. They just move on.

Time and again I’ve heard golfers say they’ve played great after an abysmal warm up. Sometimes it works the other way. Either way, they maintain their routine, tapping into a ritualistic process that all athletes adhere to and believe in, even if it crosses over into superstition.

George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco who studied superstitious rituals in sports, concluded that ritualistic commitment is greater when uncertainty is high and where the importance of the outcome is paramount. Sounds a lot like Golf to me. Is it any wonder that some golfers mark their ball with a lucky coin, or always stash their tees in a certain pocket?

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, we can all pretty much agree that jangling a bunch of quarters before stroking a putt isn’t going to help us save par, at least not directly. The real point here is that while any control we think we feel is illusory, the conviction we have in our beliefs has a real influence on our confidence. Gmelch also goes on to say that superstitious behavior serves a definite practical purpose.

“For some superstitious rituals, it is easy to see that they have no function in useful preparation, but most superstitions are difficult to distinguish from preparing for performance,” Gmelch wrote in his study. “A function of rituals might be preparing mentally for each performance. In this sense, rituals seem to serve a rational and useful purpose.”

When I mentally review my own preparations before going out to play, there’s probably a dozen or more things I’ve conditioned myself to do subconsciously, reinforced over time by any successes I’ve had on the golf course. I know they’re completely ridiculous but they put me in the right frame of mind. You could say it’s part of my warm up, no less critical than hitting a bucket of balls. And with golf being as challenging as it is, we could all use advantages where we can get them, including those that are purely psychological.

Respect Your Limits

If you can’t hit a 7-iron into some par 4s, you’re playing the wrong tees. When you think about it, the only one who cares that you’re playing a shorter course is you.

- Judy Rankin, LPGA legend; World Golf Hall of Fame member

Let’s get something straight right away: almost everyone should play from a shorter set of tees. As Judy Rankin clearly points out, all you’re really doing is letting your ego get the best of you which in turn makes a challenging game even harder than it already is.

Almost all golfers, but especially men, get sucked into this vortex called the distance chase which has been perpetuated and encouraged by equipment companies, along with our own preoccupation with admiring the phenomenal displays of raw power on the PGA Tour. It also doesn’t help that many of us who get paired with single-digit handicappers see a distance gap between our games and theirs. Our competitive nature kicks in and the more we try to “man up” the worse we seem to play.

I think we’ve also been led to believe that great golf shots are a necessity for shooting low scores. That, however, is an absolute fallacy. The average player that consistently breaks 80 finds the green in regulation only half the time (52%) according to the hundreds of thousands of shots compiled by GAME GOLF. So your friend who stripes the ball - yes, they hit a lot of good golf shots, but they are not Iron-Byron.

When they do miss the green, they tend to miss small. By that I mean they pick conservative targets, taking the obvious hazards out of play. And by minimizing their chances of making a big mistake, they can actually play more confidently.

Bad golfers, by way of comparison, are like riverboat gamblers. They almost always go for broke, basing their golf club selection on a “career shot” they hit way back when at a charity scramble.

An ill-advised shot can happen with any club, but for average golfers, it seems to happen far more often with a longer iron or a wood than with a wedge. Usually, we’re trying to get a little more out of those clubs than what we’re capable of.

Better players always have a smoothness to their swing. Some players have a little faster motion than others, but they also swing in tempo, which is something we can all get better at, irrespective of our mechanics.

The other thing I’ve seen all good golfers do is maintain a consistent pre-shot routine. The importance of having one can’t be stressed enough, but at minimum it encourages you to have a set process for picking a target, stepping into your shot and pulling the trigger. Players who have a pre-shot routine that stays the same during a round of golf tend to be more decisive which is at least half the puzzle to hitting good golf shots.

I know this doesn’t sound as sexy as revealing some sort of magic move that can help you hit the ball 20 yards longer, but a consistent pre-shot routine and good tempo are but a few tried and true fundamentals that every great player has built their game around.


I’m feeling more comfortable taking it to the next level. I can look back and remember the moments to draw upon.

- Rickie Fowler, 2015 Players Champion

Every article I’ve read about Rickie Fowler’s string of recent successes has focused almost exclusively on the swing changes he and Butch Harmon have worked on. To take nothing away from the hours Fowler has spent at the range, I’d bet the farm that most of the progress Rickie has made in the last year has been above the neck.

Golf is a game of confidence. It’s an expression most of us have heard of, and it’s so important that Dr. Bob Rotella wrote a best-selling book about it.

Unfortunately, too many aspiring players don’t really know how to put themselves into a position where they have any. Some people believe (wrongly) that confidence is a byproduct of playing great golf (as in - it’s easy to be confident when you’re hitting great shots and shooting low scores). The carefully scripted golf we see on television only reinforces the illusion that the guys on Tour are always on top of their game, as golf coach Adam Young recently blogged about.

Take a look at the so-called “machine-like” Jordan Spieth at East Lake where he won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup:

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Is that one of the best players in the world or an 18-handicapper we’re watching? The point is, golf is hard even for the game’s top players. But whether you call it resiliency, bounce-back or grit, Spieth and other players of his caliber, are able to shake off a mistake and make up for it on the next shot or next hole.

So how well do you have control over your own mind?

Do you allow a hole that you’ve previously struggled with to dictate how you perform the next time you face it? Do you quit on a round of golf after a couple of early failures?

Back when I struggled to break 100 regularly, I would come home and whine about all the lousy shots I hit while I was playing. I would go on and on about one missed opportunity after another until my wife, exhausted from listening to my excuses, would ask me if I hit any good shots. Well, of course I would say. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember them in any kind of vivid detail.

Reflecting back on that period of my life and my relationship with the game, I’m occasionally surprised that I didn’t quit. For one thing, I wasn’t enjoying myself and I couldn’t understand why success on the course didn’t come as easily to me as most things did off the course. Sound familiar?

“Perfectionists have a tendency to stay objective when they do things well because that’s what they expect out of themselves, and then if anything is less than perfect, they always react like, oh darn it, oh it wasn’t solid. They always have some kind of internal or external reaction to it,” coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson of Vision 54 have said in an interview. “So that means everybody’s brain stores negative events stronger and faster than positive events. That negativity bias really eats away at a person’s confidence and then ultimately their competence on the golf course.”

Generally speaking, club golfers have some crazy expectations about how well they think they should do at this game. Whether it’s how long we should be hitting the ball or how many putts we should sink, it’s completely out of whack with reality. Think of it this way - if professional golfers are getting up and down only 60 percent of the time, why are we getting so bent out of shape over a bogey?

Playing Better Is a Choice

There’s a pretty famous anecdote about Ben Hogan that goes something like this. Back when he was still learning how to win on tour, he was telling his wife, Valerie, that he wasn’t making enough long putts, to which she replied, why don’t you just hit it closer to the hole?

Sometimes we just make things too complicated.

Imagine how much more fun this game would be if we all lightened up a little and played more within ourselves? Of course we all pine for the ability to hit a ball like Hogan, or any other tour pro for that matter. But our ability to play well doesn’t hinge exclusively on our talent level with a five iron. There are so many simple things we can do to get us playing at a level we aspire to. The best part is, you don’t have to be a great golfer to get started.

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