Sunday, January 29, 2012

How To Compete on the Golf Course

This is the third blog in a series of how to be an athlete on the golf course.  The first two were titled Are Golfers Athletes? and Practice Like an Athlete.  Today, we are going to talk about competing on the course.

For the past 20 years, I have spent countless hours observing golfers.  While recruiting I watch players aged 14-18 play the game.  As a college coach, I watch college players and as a personal coach, I watch top-level amateurs and pros play the game.  One thing that I look for in all of these players is the ability to compete.  It is a mindset that is rare, even at the highest levels. However, it is a mindset that can be learned. 

Patrick Cantlay is a great, young competitor who is successful playing at the highest levels of the game.

So, how can you become a competitor on the golf course?  Simple, by giving all you can to the shot at hand, no matter the situation, no matter what happened earlier and no matter the consequences.  Yes, it is a simple answer, but one that is very difficult to accomplish.  Here is what I believe must happen for you to compete every time you play golf.

Lose Your Self-Consciousness 
As a player, you have had to develop self-consciousness in order to improve.  There is a process of evaluation that takes place almost constantly as a golfer.  However, you need to learn to turn it off when you tee it up on the golf course.  On the course, it isn't your job to evaluate or even think about yourself much.  Instead, you need to think about what you want your golf ball to do.  Your awareness needs to be focused on the course and the conditions.  Great players feel the wind, judge the firmness of the ground, understand the slopes and check the lie of the ball.  If you are involved with why your swing isn't right or what happened five minutes ago, you will not be taking care of business.  Great players are over the ball seeing the shot in their mind's eye and visualizing the target or ball flight.  If you are over the ball fidgeting and working on getting comfortable, your mind is on you instead of what you need to do.  It is your job to score.  Evaluation and introspection will have a place in your improvement as a player, but not during the round.  Instead, place your attention on things outside of you and save introspection for the end of the day.

Let Go of Judgements
What is the difference between a judgement and an appraisal?  When you step up to the lie of your ball, do you notice it or do you judge it?  In other words, if you are in the deep rough, do you think about how tough it will be and how crummy it is or do you see it and decide what it will take to hit it well?  When you stand on a tee, do you decide that a hole doesn't set up well for your game or do you strategize how you will play the hole?  After you hit a long, lag putt, do you react at how far past the hole and berate yourself for your lack feel or do you watch it closely and prepare for the next putt?  Judgements busy your mind with unneeded emotions and excuses.  Appraisals busy your mind with strategy, adjustments and information. 

Arnie is the ultimate competitor.  He plays the game, he celebrates, his form isn't always pretty and he appreciates his playing partners.  

Play the Game
What is the opposite of play?  Work!  So much of what I see on the golf course, doesn't look like much fun.  I see a lot of players who walk with their head down and their thoughts inward.  I see players whose pre-shot routine could be programmed into a robot.  I see players who look at the target rarely, but stare at their ball.  I see players who rarely smile or celebrate.  If you see yourself in any of these descriptions, make a conscious effort to bring some joy, appreciation and naturalness to your game. 

Learn to Score Without Thinking About Score
If you want to compete at your highest level, you will have to be able to execute in any situation.  The important thing in the moment of execution is to have your mind on what you are doing, not on how it will turn out.  The approach you take to your routine, your self-talk and managing your thoughts should all be aimed at the process of the shot.  Here is an example:  On a five foot putt your routine helps you to choose a line, aim, visualize the speed and set up over the ball.  Your self-talk is geared toward simple things such as getting the ball rolling on line or having nice rhythm.  Over the ball, your focus stays clear on rolling the ball on your line.  Now take the same situation and make that five foot putt mean winning the U.S. Open.  Would your routine ramp up the pressure?  Would you think about making the putt instead of rolling it on line?  Would your self talk now focus on winning?  Can you see how you are now on the result of the shot instead of the process of rolling the putt?  If you want to compete, you will have to learn to stay in the process and let go of the result.

These are some of the ways you can help yourself become a competitor on the golf course.  Over the years, I have coached some gifted competitors.  They loved winning, weren't afraid of losing, understood how to be a good friend to themselves, let go of mistakes, had a lot of fun, understood risk and reward, maintained a level focus, understood the importance of momentum and appreciated other competitors.  These are the qualities that come to mind when I remember their play.  These are great qualities to develop in your game.

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