Mastering the Mind Game | T+L Golf
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Mastering the Mind Game | T+L Golf

Bruce Morser Illustration Bruce Morser
Mastering the mental side of golf is a long process—and it begins on the range

The two best mental rounds of golf I ever played closed out two of the majors I won: the 1992 British Open at Muirfield and the 1996 Masters. But those rounds couldn’t have been more different.

At the British Open, I’d been leading by four strokes but found myself two back after the fourteenth. "Forget everything. Forget the whole week, good and bad," I said to myself. "You’ve got four holes to play, and these can be the best four holes of your life." And they may well have been. For each shot, I knew what I had to do—no more, no less and no tomorrow—and I did it. Looking back, it was quite amazing. But what I had going for me then was near-perfect confidence in my game. Standing over the ball, I wasn’t thinking about anything except for the shot at hand. I was completely and utterly focused, which is the ideal mental state for playing golf, albeit not easy to achieve.

By the 1996 Masters, however, I’d lost a good bit of confidence, so I pretty much had to talk myself through that one. It was a much tougher slog, especially because Greg Norman, with whom I was playing and who had started the final round with a six-stroke lead, was collapsing horribly and it was a challenge to keep my focus on what I had to do and not on him.

The sixty-seven I would card didn’t happen the way great rounds do when you’re in the zone. I had to rely on all that I’d learned about the mental game over the years. It took a lot of stamina to keep calling up positive images of shots I wanted to hit despite all the negative thoughts that were trying to hijack me. Between me and my caddie, Fanny Sunesson, there was a lot of positive talk going on. The other key was the pre-shot routine I had worked hard to develop over the years. Once I committed to each shot, I never wavered from that routine, and it saved me.

1. Check your alignment Developing a mental game you can count on is a long-term project that starts on the practice range—by making sure you are properly aligned. Before swinging, lay a club down parallel to the line between your ball and the target and carefully set yourself up square to that club. Most recreational golfers vastly under­estimate how important this is. The mind is so strong that if your alignment is off by even a few degrees, it will direct your body to make compensations to get the ball to the target. You will be practicing a bad swing, not your best swing. Then, when you get onto the course, you’ll be spraying balls in every direction, and there goes your confidence. When it comes to the mental game, confidence is paramount.

2. Find your rhythm If you really want to enjoy your round, you can easily fill an hour before you tee off. I usually start with a few chips or putts to ease myself into a good rhythm. I’ll practice a few straight six-footers to check my technique and to make sure my eyes are seeing putts accurately. It’s surprising how much your eyes can vary from one day to the next.

Then it’s time to start warming up, which doesn’t mean going straight to the range and hitting five-irons or drivers. Begin with short swings—maybe even in the bunker, to get a little resistance—and focus first on loosening up the all-important wrists and forearms. The softer and stronger they are, the better golfer you’ll be. As you loosen up, focus on staying relaxed through the neck, shoulders and arms. The last thing you want is to be tense and tight.


I typically start with a nine-iron and then work with every other iron and through the woods, hitting only two or three balls with each club. When I get to the driver and hit a couple of nice ones, I put that club away. A lot of amateurs make the big mistake of hitting it until something goes wrong. Then they try to fix it, which only introduces doubt into the equation. If you don’t get the driver right after a few attempts, go back down to a mid-iron and work back up, emphasizing tempo. I usually finish with some full and partial wedge shots, for feel. If there’s time, I return to the practice green for a few final chips and putts.

When you’re warming up before a round, grant yourself two bad shots (or four or six, depending on your ability level). That way when they happen on the course, recovering psychologically isn’t so difficult. And when you use them up, renew your determination to play smart.

3. Rehearse your routine It’s also important before a round to hit at least a few shots using your full pre-shot routine. A lot of players, with just ten minutes until their tee time, will start whacking balls quicker and quicker, getting tense and then rushing to the tee. This is deadly. What have you rehearsed?Everything but good rhythm.

Everyone’s pre-shot routine will be different, but it’s extremely important to establish one that feels comfortable and becomes second nature. Out on the course, the process of hitting should feel like a refuge from pressure rather than a source of it. For a lot of Tour pros, the routine starts when they place their hand on the club they’re going to use and pull it from the bag. Whatever the trigger, the time a good routine takes should never vary by more than a few seconds, from pulling the club to hitting the ball.

Throughout the round, stick to your routine. If you normally take two practice swings, don’t suddenly take seven. If you normally read putts from two angles, don’t suddenly start reading them from five angles because there’s a big bet on the line. Also, don’t suddenly start playing it safe. Within reason, the easiest way to make par is to try for birdie.

4. Visualize the whole shot I’m a huge believer in visualization. Your body will do what your mind pictures—that’s golf in a nutshell, as far as I’m concerned. And this is very important: Visualize the ball all the way to its finish. You don’t want only to see it start out on the correct trajectory, because the mind might think it’s okay after that for the ball to slice or hook.

The goal here is to be in the present moment as much as possible. Although some mental-game gurus suggest breaking a round down into groups of three holes, I recommend thinking about one hole at a time. Start from where you want to be on the green and work backward.


When visualizing, the word "don’t" has no significance. If your mind is thinking, "Don’t hit it into that lake on the right," guess what it’s just pictured?The ball going into that lake on the right. And that’s what the body will try to make happen, every time. You should deal with your negative thoughts—you can’t simply play as if a nasty fairway bunker doesn’t exist or there’s no out-of-bounds close by. Acknowledge their existence and turn that to your advantage by focusing with even more urgency on positively visualizing where you do want to hit your next shot.

That’s certainly the cornerstone of visualization: painting positive pictures of what you want the ball to do. And the more detail the better. I’ll sometimes rile up my son by asking, "So what are you trying to do on this shot?" He might answer, "Just hit the ball." So I’ll whack down on top of his ball with the sole of my driver and say, "There. I hit the ball. Is that what you had in mind?" One time he said he just wanted get the ball airborne, and then he hit it high and straight into the woods. "Congratulations!" I said. "You did exactly what you wanted. You got it airborne."

5. Feel the shot After visualization, the next step is to bring the feel of the shot into your body. For me that means taking a full, realistic practice swing—not the halfhearted, loosening practice swing that some people make—hitting an imaginary ball to the target. But this is a matter of personal preference, as is where you make the practice swing: either standing beside the ball, where you get the best sense of the slope of the land beneath your feet, or standing behind it, which gives you a final chance to check the target and your alignment before stepping up to swing.

6. Commit and Hit Then you have to commit, which means holding onto the positive picture and feel of the shot until you hit. That’s the hard part, because negative images (like that lake on the right!) will want to pop up. This is where stamina comes into play. In that regard, I’m convinced that eating well, both before and during the round, can help more than most people assume.

Sometimes golfers who haven’t developed these mental habits automatically do everything just right for a while. They see, feel and commit to shots like a pro. But then, often after the nine-hole break or when someone points out how well they’re playing, they fall apart. The reason is usually that when they stop to think about it, they don’t know what they were doing well and haven’t got a formula. Coming down the stretch, a reliable routine is your best friend.


Chip Koehlke, U.S. Director of Instructional Programs

The curriculum at Faldo Golf Institutes is built around fundamentals. Each site offers schools, private lessons and club-fitting sessions.

Marriott’s Grande Vista; Orlando, Florida

Marriott’s Shadow Ridge; Palm Desert, California

Seaview Marriott Resort; Galloway, New Jersey

Marco Island Marriott Resort; Marco Island, Florida

Brocket Hall Golf Club; Hertfordshire, England

For the U.S. institutes, call 888-463-2536 or visit gofaldo.com. For Brocket Hall, call 011-44/1707-368-786 or visit brocket-hall.co.uk.


Chip Koehlke, U.S. Director of Instructional Programs

The curriculum at Faldo Golf Institutes is built around fundamentals. Each site offers schools, private lessons and club-fitting sessions.

Marriott’s Grande Vista; Orlando, Florida

Marriott’s Shadow Ridge; Palm Desert, California

Seaview Marriott Resort; Galloway, New Jersey

Marco Island Marriott Resort; Marco Island, Florida

Brocket Hall Golf Club; Hertfordshire, England

For the U.S. institutes, call 888-463-2536 or visit gofaldo.com. For Brocket Hall, call 011-44/1707-368-786 or visit brocket-hall.co.uk.


It would take this entire magazine to discuss every technique for staying focused on the course, but here are a few others I have found especially useful:

Only attempt shots you know you can pull off. In a recreational round, it may take guts to hit a hybrid off the tee when your buddies are booming their drivers, but if you’ve got serious doubts about keeping your driver in play, they’re probably well-founded. But be specific and aggressive with the shot you choose. If you feel safer playing thirty feet to the left of a risky hole location, aim for that exact spot rather than just thinking about hitting it away from the pin.

Pretend you have the world’s best caddie. When the pressure revs up, imagine what a supportive, top-drawer Tour caddie who really knows your game would be telling you. "Get over that last one. You have a chance here to make a birdie. Let’s put that drive in the right part of the fairway. You can do it; I know you can." It doesn’t hurt to talk to yourself out loud—I certainly have at various times.

Try to think of a bad shot as a learning experience. This one is tough, but it can be done. Give yourself ten or twenty seconds to get over a horrible mistake. Breathe deeply and rhythmically. Then ask yourself what you learned from it. Before the next shot, focus on staying loose (it’s easy to tighten up after a woo-woo shot) and on turning your anger into determination. That’s a great word in golf.

Rate the aspects of your mental game on a scale from one to ten. How was your concentration?Your enjoyment?Your tempo?Your visualization?Your observational ability?If you’re serious about improving, keep a log. Dustin Hoffman, to help him get back in character on movie sets, used to rate the intensity level he needed for each scene. That can be helpful in golf, too. Do you play your best at 1,500 rpm or 5,000 rpm?

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