Why Golf Stinks! (scientifically speaking)

posted March 13th 2014

A lifelong friend of mine is an exceptional golfer. He regularly plays in the low 70’s or lower and is often disappointed when he is more than a couple strokes over par. However, an interesting thing had been happening each time he entered the annual Men’s Amateur Championship. Not only did he not score at the levels that he is accustomed to, but he repeatedly failed to make the first day cut, usually a score of 80 or better, a score which, by his standards, is grounds for giving up the game. In discussing this phenomenon with him, it became all too clear the issue he was facing, an issue he shares with millions of golfers the world over.

The very structure of golf tempts us to employ a potentially destructive mental strategy and jeopardizes our potential to achieve optimal performance. Now some might expect that my concern lies in the fact that golf scoring is counter to our westernized upbringing where bigger is better and life’s pursuits revolve around the concept of “more.” Golf, being one of the few sports where the person who scores the least is the winner, runs counter to our “fun and gun, scoring puts the butts in the seats” culture of competitive athletics. But this isn’t the problem. The issue I find so vexing is that golf entices us to direct our attention on where we want to go as opposed to how we need to get there.

Certainly there isn’t a golfer alive who cannot identify with the following situation. After countless hours on the range and a fortune spent on lessons, you head to the course for a round with your buddies. You’re not really thinking about what you’re doing, just having fun with your pals. Then, as if scripted by the Devil himself, you realize on the 14th hole that you’rePLAYING REALLY WELL and are “on pace for my best round ever.”  All you have to do is NOT SCREW UP the last 4 holes and you can bask in the glow of the admiration of your friends. “Just don’t snap it out of bounds on 15,” “just don’t three wack 17” you tell yourself. This is the moment that the player has unconsciously changed focus from performance to outcome, a snap hook here and a worm burner there, here a shank, there a shank, everywhere a shank shank and you limp into the clubhouse to drown your sorrows in several “if I had only parred those last four holes” beers.

The fact that golf is measured in relation to a numerical standard, par, directs our attention to pursuing that number, rather than the process by which that number is achieved, making good swings. Whenever our focus is taken away from the present, on what is happening and controllable in the here and now, we rarely achieve at optimal levels. Now granted, achieving a strong mental game takes as much time and practice as perfecting the physical game, and solving the above issue can be a complex and extensive process, there are a few quick tips that can certainly help to get you on the right path.

The mind doesn’t think in negatives.

For the next few moments, try as hard as you can not to think of the color red. I have yet to meet anyone whose mind is not filled with red; red apples, red fire trucks, pretty red Valentine’s hearts, red, red, red, red, RED! The moral of the story is that the mind is not able to think in negatives. When you are standing on a par 3 that has a 175 yard carry over water, you get out your shag ball and think to yourself “just don’t hit in the water,” your mind hears “just hit it in the water” and, more often than not, you do just that, as if by some mythical psychic power. You should endeavor to think about what you would like to accomplish, rather than what you would like to avoid. This technique helps us to stay focused on the process that has to occur to achieve a desired result. Besides, how do you actually avoid bad results? By making good swings.


A quote I often attribute to the great Jack Nicklaus, perhaps inappropriately so, illustrates one danger of focusing on outcome. The quote is something to the effect of “the difference between an amateur golfer and a professional golfer is that an amateur will attempt shots that a professional would never consider.” The hardest thing an amateur golfer does on the golf course is take his or her medicine. Sure Bubba Watson once hooked a ball some 30 yard with a wedge from the pine straw at Augusta National to ultimately secure victory at the 2012 Master’s, but you’re not Bubba Watson. Expecting that you will be able to hit a knock down four iron through a gap between two branches that will suddenly rise over a second grove of trees, cross over a green side bunker and land softly on the green is about as logical as expecting to hit the lottery so that your children can go to college. Sure, if it happens, you’ll have great stories to tell, but it’s not a strategy that will lead to long term, repeatable results. As I tell my players, you go to jail for doing one dumb thing, you end up in prison by doing dumb things repeatedly. As a general rule, avoid prison, take your medicine, and don’t let unrealistic expectations of a miraculous recovery from one bad shot lead to the dreaded blow-up hole.

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