The great amateur Bobby Jones once famously said: “Golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course… the space between your ears.” Golf is undoubtedly one of the most mentally challenging sports there is. It’s an individual pursuit and there’s nobody to help you on the fairways if, and when, things start to turn sour. If self-belief goes and negative, irrational thoughts begin to dominate, your scorecard will probably start to read something like a premium-rate phone number.
Almost all of the top players now employ a sports psychologist, like Dr Bob Rotella, to help them find the right frame of mind before a game, and to give them methods to stay in that, “happy place,” for the duration of their round.
Most of us mere mortals can’t afford such a luxury as a dedicated golfing mind-doctor, but there are some key psychological pointers that can help the average amateur to stay mentally tough on the golf course. Below are a few of the best, they might seem obvious, but ask yourself whether you actually employ these simple mental strategies before and during a round. If not, perhaps you should:
Stay In The Present
Many golfers are already halfway round the course when they step on the first tee. “If I can just start with three pars,” they think. “And then I can afford a couple of bogeys on those difficult holes around the turn, and I might pick one up at the par-5 12th, as the wind should be behind us there.”
If your mind is ahead of you, how are you going to focus on the immediate task – the shot you are facing at that moment? You can’t control what will happen in 30 minutes time, or what happened 30 seconds ago. All you can do is concentrate on the next shot, chip or putt and make the best possible job of it. If your mind is always totally focused on the present, your scores will tumble.
Every shot is a new challenge
Each time you reach your ball, your objective is to get it into the hole from that position in as few shots as possible. Don’t think about what has gone before, or the worst-case scenario, just focus on how to get the ball in the cup in the most efficient way from where it lies.
If you play a bad shot that ends in a difficult spot, try to think of it as a new challenge. Don’t just wallow in the predicament; start from scratch. Remember, your objective is to get down in as few shots as possible from the current situation, whatever it is.
Stay rational and logical. If your ball lies in a bush, the best way to limit the damage might be to take a penalty drop, to go well back and into a point where you have a full shot. You almost certainly won’t get the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible by hacking hopefully at it, willing it against reason to escape back to the fairway – that’s how the really big numbers can rack up.
The past is past
Most amateur golfers dwell on poor shots. What’s the point? Once it’s been hit, nothing can be done about it. The only thing you can affect is what happens next.
A great way to let off steam and forget the errors is the, “10-yard rule.” It’s a psychological strategy employed by Tiger Woods in his prime, amongst others. After a bad shot, you can vent your frustration (internally of course) until you’ve reached a point 10 yards from where you struck it. After crossing the imaginary line, that shot is history, it should be totally forgotten and your mind should move on to the next stroke.
Amateur golfers can be guilty of giving up on rounds too quickly. Remember, you have a handicap to help you, and your fortunes on the course can turn with one good swing, or one decent break.
The amateurs who get the most out of their games will very rarely post a “No-return” and will tend to give it their all until the very last putt has dropped.
If you get to a point when you realise there’s no chance of beating your best score, change your target – it might now be to beat your handicap. If things slide, then you might still be able to play to your handicap, you might break 90 or, simply, you might play the next shot as well as you can.
Stay positive on the greens
If you’re having one of those days where the ball just doesn’t seem to want to drop into the hole, don’t bemoan your ill fortune on the greens. Focus on the positives. If you pick a line and start the ball on that line, you have putted well; you just haven’t read the green quite right. Next time, you’ll get the line right and the putt will drop.
Get the Golf Monthly Newsletter
Tips on how to play better, latest equipment reviews, interviews with the biggest names and more.
Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly.
Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?
'Every Single Year I See More Unhappy Players' - Pro Goes In On PGA Tour After Signing Up For LIV Golf Qualifier
Chris Stroud says he's "so unimpressed" with the PGA Tour following the advent of LIV Golf, which he is hoping to join via the upcoming Promotions event
By Elliott Heath Published
Michael Block Makes Australian Open Cut As Min Woo Lee Leads In His Bid To Go Back-To-Back Down Under
Michael Block made the cut at the Australian Open as Min Woo Lee continued his sparkling form by taking a three-shot lead in his bid to win back-to-back titles
By Paul Higham Published