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Think to Win

Think to Win: Mastering the Mental Side of Golf


If you’re like most golfers, you’re spending 99.9% of your practice time focused on your physical game. This means you go to painstaking lengths to fine-tune your swing, your putting stroke, your chipping motion and so on. It also means that you’re likely analyzing your less-than-ideal shots for what might have gone wrong mechanically.

Logically it makes sense: find and fix the errors in your technique and your scores are sure to improve.

It’s a great theory, but it has just one, rather major, problem –

It’s wrong.

Now, that isn’t to say that the more mechanical, technical side of the game isn’t important. It certainly is. You need to have good technique to achieve consistent results round after round. But, there is far more to a strong game than technique alone. In fact, if you work solely on improving your driving and putting at the range, you run the risk of developing the “robot effect” and ignoring the emotional component of your game.

See, as humans we’re hardwired to respond to our emotions: positive, negative and all our complex feelings in between. Just as excessive stress at work can have a ripple effect on your social or family life, so too can seemingly unrelated emotions affect your golf game. At the end of the day, golfers are only human (yes, even Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones!) So, if you deny yourself your emotions and play the game like a robot, you may hit some beautiful shots, but you’ll also hit a wall where your scores just stop dropping.

Convenient though it would be, you can’t just turn your brain off when you hit the links. You’re subconsciously (and often consciously) processing emotions – and not just the obvious “problem feelings” like stress and anger, there’s also nervousness, excitement, fatigue, distraction, and about a million more to contend with.

Learning to control emotional interferences is what we call the ‘Mental Game’.

Only when you are able to fine-tune your mental game, will you truly be able to realize your physical potential on the course. It goes without saying that the mental game is harder to practice than the physical side simply because it isn’t tangible. You can’t watch your mental game on video and critique it like you can your swing.

BUT, that doesn’t make it any less important.

Great golfers prepare both mind and body for each round of golf…

If you hope to count yourself among them, but don’t have your own professional mental coach at hand (hey, us amateurs can dream!) this guide will help.

Why the Mental Game Matters

The best golfers of them all, names like Woods, Nicklaus, Faldo, and more, understand the mental challenge that comes along with a round of golf. Why is it such a difficult game between the ears?

It all comes down to timing.

Think about the average day out on the course – a typical 18-hole round can take anywhere from four to five hours to play from start to finish. Let’s use 4.5 hours as an average, which equates to 270 minutes. Compare that amount of time to the length of time it takes to hit an average golf shot – about two seconds from the start of the swing to the finish. So, if you hit 100 shots for the round, you will have swung the club for around 200 seconds, or just more than three minutes!

To recap – of the 270 minutes you are likely to spend on the course, you won’t spend much more than three minutes actually swinging the club.

The lower your score, the less time you spend in the process of hitting the ball.

What does this all mean? Quite simply, you have a lot of time to think. In many cases, too much time to think. Most golfers use this time to mentally sabotage their game with negative thoughts, bad visualization, and more. Perhaps (until now) that has been you, too.

That’s about to change.

Having all of that time to think can be a good thing if you put it to use in the proper fashion. By thinking productively, and positively, you can take the time in-between shots to recharge your mind and get ready for success.

What the Best Golfers Do Mentally to Succeed

There is one element of the mental side of golf that the best players in the world do better than the average amateur – they expect to play well.

It takes a lot of practice (and, sure, everyone has an off day and may see their confidence dip from time to time), but positivity is the overwhelming theme among the pros. With so much money on the line, and so much pressure to succeed, only positive thinkers will hold up over time. Raw talent is one thing, but a great attitude is what can really take a golfer to the next level.

So are pro golfers just born with a gene that lets them think positively on the course? Certainly not. It is a skill they have to learn just like putting and chipping. See, when a professional golfer takes to the course for a round, they tap into visual, auditory or verbal triggers that get them “in the zone”. For some this takes longer than others. Some are never able to access this “zone” at will, and fall off the tour as a result.


[CALLOUT ANECDOTE: Nicklaus famously described his mental approach to the game as ‘going to the movies’: “I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.” ]


One of the most common techniques that pro golfers use is to access positive memories from past rounds while they are on the course in order to build the confidence they need. By summoning the feelings of previous successes, confidence can be gained even when the golfer is feeling nervous or scared.



To try this method in your own game, follow the three-step process below –

p<>{color:#000;}. As you approach a shot, think back to your last great round and remember a similar shot you faced at that time. If it was on the same course, all the better.

p<>{color:#000;}. Picture how that shot looked in the air, and try to remember how it felt coming off of your club.

p<>{color:#000;}. When you are ready to swing, only think of that past successful shot and commit to recreating the result. Just the power of suggestion and belief alone will give you a great chance of hitting a strong shot.

Don’t doubt the power of your mind on the course. Just like your train of thinking can derail a good round, so too can it propel you to new heights when focused appropriately. Use the “memory recall method” to get the positive juices flowing in your mental game. ]


What You Can Learn from the Pros

It can be a “badge of honor” in golf circles to complain and make jokes about one’s game. Many golfers do nothing else on the course but joke about how they can’t do anything right. While this can make for some funny banter from time to time, it can also undermine your ability to play good golf.

In actual fact, there is a proven link between positive visualization and positive performance on the course. So, if you are one of these golfers who takes a self-deprecating approach to the game, you need to change your tone.

For example, when stepping up to a shot over a water hazard…

DON’T SAY: “well, this is going to cost me a couple of golf balls!”

This is a recipe for failure. You are setting your mind up to accept failure as inevitable. More often than not, your performance aligns with your expectations.

DO SAY: “they’ll have to make that pond bigger if they want my golf ball!”

This sort of positive self-talk demonstrates the confidence you need to harness before you take your shot.

Taking the first step towards a healthier mental game is (almost deceptively) simple – change your pattern of thinking, and pattern of speech. Whether you verbalize these thoughts or just keep them to yourself is a matter of personality and playing style. However, consistently positive thinking lays the foundation for lower scores – not to mention having more fun on the course.



3 Quick-Fire Mental Game Tips from the Pros

p<>{color:#000;}. Control Your Breathing

Prior to stepping into a shot, it is easy to let your breathing – and your heart rate – speed up. It’s a natural time to be nervous or unsure of yourself. So, as part of your pre-shot routine, take two slow, deep breaths to calm yourself down. Once you have completed the exhale from your second breath, go ahead and step into your address position.

p<>{color:#000;}. Take One More Club

Take one more club than you need for approach shots. This might seem like a physical tip, but it actually has more to do with your mental game than you realize. See, when you know you have plenty of club, your mind naturally relaxes and allows you to make a more comfortable swing. If you doubt that you have enough club to reach the target, bad results are almost inevitable.

p<>{color:#000;}. Use a “Focus Cue”

It is easy to let the chatting and social aspect of golf distract from your mental game. If you find yourself getting distracted, find a cue that you can use to get out of ‘social-mode’ and into ‘golf-mode’. One great signal that many players use is the act of putting on their golf glove for the shot. Once the glove goes one, it’s all business until you hit the shot. After you take it off, you can go back to talking and having fun with your playing partners.

Four Common Mistakes to Avoid

The first step to solving any problem is understanding exactly what the problem is. Once you have a firm grasp of what you are doing wrong from a mental perspective, you can then go about fixing it.

Here are four of the most common mistakes that golfers make when it comes to the mental game (some of these may be all-too familiar to you!)

[Note:*] Thinking negatively is not included on this list, because while it is the biggest mistake golfers make between the ears, it is also vague. The following four mistakes (and their fixes) are far more specific.

1. Paralysis by Analysis

This mistake is one that does not commonly strike beginner golfers – it is more so an affliction of those who have been playing the game for a while. Beginner golfers play from a place of blissful ignorance, and often don’t know enough to overthink the game. As time goes by, however, the player gains experience and starts to apply that knowledge to each and every shot that he or she faces on the course. Suddenly, the player goes from not thinking at all, to thinking entirely too much. At this point, the mind starts to grind the body to a halt, and performance on the course will suffer.

So, how do you know if you are experiencing this mental game breakdown? Pay attention to how long it is taking you to hit your shots. Are you standing behind the ball for longer than you used to, calculating each and every detail before you swing? Some preparation before a shot is essential to success – too much is a sign that your mind is working too hard and getting in the way of your natural ability.

TIP: Think back to the speed with which you played when you were just starting out. That pace of play is a good benchmark to aim for.

As long as you don’t let your pace of play slow down, the other way to prevent ‘paralysis by analysis’ is to put a strict limit on the number of items you can consider for a given shot. Often the ‘rule of three’ works nicely for this purpose. Given a standard, full-swing golf shot, hold yourself to only considering three factors-

p<>{color:#000;}. Yardage

p<>{color:#000;}. Wind

p<>{color:#000;}. Hazards

That’s it. If you are thinking about more elements to your shot than those, you are overthinking it and will end up hurting your performance.

2. Tunnel Vision

In some ways, this is the opposite of ‘paralysis by analysis’. A player with tunnel vision is so focused on one single mistake that they are making in their game that they completely forget about other important elements of the game.

A classic example of this is a player who is struggling with their putter. Once they three-putt a couple of times early in the round, they check out mentally and give up on the round because “the putter isn’t cooperating”.

A more constructive mental approach is to focus on both your strengths and weaknesses at the same time. Sure, maybe you are putting poorly, but don’t forget about how well you are driving the ball (or whatever the case may be). Rare is the round of golf where literally nothing goes well. There is almost always some element of the game that works well for you… even if other elements may be scuffling along.

TIP: Try this little trick to keep yourself from getting stuck in a mental rut on the course. You aren’t allowed to criticize any part of your game without complimenting another area.

For instance, if you walk off the green and say ‘Man, my putting is lousy!’, follow that up directly with some sort of positive affirmation. Maybe you are hitting your irons beautifully, or chipping well, or hitting longer drives than usual.

Whatever positive you can find, make sure you say it out loud to remind yourself that there are some parts of your game to be happy with. Always make positive affirmations in the present tense – i.e. ‘I’m driving straight and strong today’ rather than ‘I’m going to’ or ‘I will (drive straight, etc.)’.

3. Accepting the Status Quo

As humans, we are creatures of habit. All too often, that trait carries over to the golf course and we golfers become satisfied with accepting the status quo. This means we (often subconsciously) resign ourselves to the fact that we won’t get any better at the game than we already are and so we become complacent.

This is a great shame, because the pursuit of improvement is one of the most exciting parts of the game. Golf is such a popular sport, in large part because you can continue to improve on your game year after year, even if you have been playing for decades. There is always room to get better – as long as you let yourself remain open to the possibility.

TIP: Setting goals is a simple and effective way to prevent yourself from falling into the trap of “accepting the status quo”. Make it a habit to write down goals for your golf game periodically – even once per year can be enough to keep you motivated. These goals should be realistic enough that you can attain them with small improvements over time, but not so easy that you don’t have to work at them.

For example, setting a goal for a new personal best round is always a great way to keep your eye on long-term improvement. If your current personal best is an 82, make it a goal to break 80. If you are stuck at 103, make it your mission to get down under 100. It doesn’t matter what the specific goal is, as long as it requires you to keep striving to be a better player each time you hit the links.

4. Setting Narrow Goals

Having just discussed the virtues of goal setting to keep you motivated on the course, it is important to discuss the potential negative side of setting the wrong kind of goals. Narrow goals are a problem among many golfers, in part because they can lead you to the kind of tunnel vision we just discussed.

Golf is a game with many different parts that all get combined into your final score. If you hit 90 shots during a round, you will have hit some of them with a driver, some with various irons, and quite a few with your putter. Each of those clubs is a discipline all its own – in fact, as you probably know, each can make you feel like you’re playing a totally different game. Narrow goal setting involves focusing all of one’s energy, both mental and physical, on just one part of the game.

A common example of a narrow goal is trying to hit longer tee shots. Longer drives are a goal that is shared across a vast majority of golfers. And, while it can help your score to hit it longer off the tee, long tee shots will not improve your game all by themselves. If you narrowly focus on just this one area, you might succeed at hitting your drives further, and fail at the larger goal of becoming a better golfer.

TIP: To prevent this mental mistake from infiltrating your game, make sure all of the goals you set are aimed at the “big picture” – lowering your scores. It’s for this reason that trying for a new personal best round is a great goal to set yourself. Your scorecard is an indication that your entire game is getting better, not just one or two elements.

You should absolutely be setting goals for your golf game – just make sure they are the right kind of goals. If they relate to your scorecard, or your handicap, or any other big picture measure of success, then you are on the right track.

Making a Change

Making a change is never easy. Whether you are trying to start a new diet, to quit smoking, or to improve your golf game, getting started is the biggest struggle. The good news is that with practice and commitment, you can successfully change the way you think on the course. What follows are two crucial steps that will guide you through this change.

STEP ONE: Committing to Better Thinking

It might seem rather obvious, but the first step on the road to a better mental approach to the game of golf is truly accepting that you need to make a change. This won’t necessarily be easy, and it might take longer than you’d like or expect. In order to make a real change in your mental game, you need to dig deep and take a hard look at your habits on the course.

Investing time in the following process is one of the most important things you can get out of this guide. If you take a round or two to follow the instructions and give them serious thought, you will be much closer to being (or at least thinking like) a new person on the golf course.

p<>{color:#000;}. Start by getting a small notebook that you can carry with you on the course and write headings for each hole on the golf course that you are about to play. If it is going to be an 18 hole round, make one page for each of the 18 holes.

p<>{color:#000;}. With your workbook created, head out onto the course and start your round. This exercise is best done during a round where you either play by yourself, or with another playing partner who understands what you are working on. It is also beneficial to do this on a day when the golf course isn’t crowded and you can play at your own pace.

p<>{color:#000;}. After your tee shot on the first hole, make notes regarding the results of the shot, and what you were thinking about while you were swinging. Both elements are important to the success of this exercise. Repeat this process for every shot you hit throughout the day, except for tap-in putts that don’t require any effort or attention. The notes don’t need to be long, just make sure they capture the state of mind you were in while hitting the shot.

Here are a few sample entries –

“Tee shot into left rough. Was worried about water hazard on right side of fairway.”

“Approach shot 10 feet from hole. Felt confident that my 8-iron was the right club for the shot.”

“Bad tee shot out of bounds to the right. Was still thinking about my three-putt on the last hole.”

The first step on the road to better thinking on the golf course is committing to the process, and writing down every thought for 18-holes shows serious commitment. You don’t need to analyze your thinking during the round – just make your notes and move on. Later in the evening, take a moment to review the round and notice the correlation between your thinking and the outcome of your shots.

Follow this 3-step procedure for at least one full round, if not a few rounds. Pretty soon, your note taking will heighten your awareness of how damaging negative or distracted thinking can be.

Learning that lesson alone is a huge step in the right direction.

STEP TWO: Practicing Your New Attitude

The new attitude that you are trying to learn is, at its heart, all about positive thinking. When people talk about needing to improve their mental game on the golf course, they really mean they need to have a better attitude. When you are thinking positively, and feeling confident and optimistic about your abilities, you are succeeding on the mental side of the equation.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Just as you have to practice your swing to make it better, you need to practice your attitude. And where does practice for your mental game take place? The same place that practice for your physical game takes place – on the driving range.

Without the distractions of a round of golf, you can focus on making improvements at the range that will help you later on the course. During a normal practice session, you are probably concerned with technical aspects like grip, swing path, balance, etc. Those have their time and place, but this practice session is going to be all about your mind.

Head out to the driving range with your full bag of clubs and at least 40-50 golf balls to hit, if possible. There are two rules for this practice session that must be followed until the bucket of balls is empty –

p<>{color:#000;}. You must change clubs after each shot.

p<>{color:#000;}. There are no technical thoughts allowed. Period.

It doesn’t matter what order you hit your clubs in, but you are not allowed to hit the same club twice in a row. How often do you hit the same club for two consecutive shots on the course? Rarely, if ever. The idea is that you need to replicate the conditions you will find on the course as accurately as possible, and that includes hitting a different club shot after shot.

With no technical thoughts allowed during this practice session, you are going to have to focus your mental energy in a different direction – visualization. Proper visualization is the best way to improve the way you think before each shot. By seeing a successful shot in your mind before you ever swing the club, it is kind of like you’ve already won. You just saw it happen, now go make it happen again.

Good visualization requires a full-commitment to the process of seeing the shot. Stand behind the ball and imagine that you are watching yourself hit the shot on TV. Picture your pre-shot routine, your backswing, and your follow-through. Picture the ball rising off the ground and flying perfectly toward the target. You don’t see any hazards. You don’t see anything but your ball, and the target.

When practicing this on the driving range, it is important to pick specific targets so you can rehearse your visualization properly. Don’t hit any shots before you have gone through your visualization process, and remember to change clubs after each swing. This practice routine will likely take much longer than your normal range session, but the rewards will be waiting for you on the course.

Four Key Thoughts to Get You Around the Course

It’s great to have confidence built up from your practice sessions and a whole new outlook ready to take to the course with you. Unfortunately, golf has a way of throwing one challenge after the next at you until you just can’t take it anymore. The difficulty of the game is what makes so many players have a bad attitude in the first place. Going back out onto the course after doing some work on your mental game is the time when your progress is most tenuous. If you play poorly, and get frustrated, you might be tempted to go back to old habits and throw your progress out the window.

This section will provide you with the mental tools to combat the golf course when it starts to test your mettle. Here is a list of key thoughts for each of four different areas of the course to make sure you are in the right frame of mind to succeed.

1) Off the Tee

One of the most challenging places to stand on the golf course is actually on the tee of each hole. That’s because once the hole is started, it is easier to get into the rhythm of the round and just react to the shots that are put in front of you. On the tee, however, you always have a good lie, a good angle, and a good chance to hit a nice shot. All of those possibilities can be overwhelming, and can cause you to start to look for ways that things can go wrong.

The key thought off the tee is to focus on the position from which you want to play your next shot. From the moment you step on the tee to the time you hit the ball, your only concern is how to get the ball in position for a good approach. You aren’t focused on water hazards or O.B. stakes because they are irrelevant to your shot.

In order to achieve this kind of thinking successfully, work backwards to plan your strategy. Choose a distance that you would like to have for your approach shot, then calculate which club you need to hit in order to reach that position. Once you have done the math, you can swing with confidence knowing you are holding the right club. Stick with your visualization routine, trust the decisions you have made, and watch your results improve off the tee.

2) From the Fairway

In many ways, your approach shot is really when things start getting serious on the course. A good approach shot could mean a birdie, while a poor shot could mean bogey or worse. While it is always important to be on top of your mental game, it is never more important than when you are standing over an approach shot ready to swing. Your mind needs to be clear, and you need to be focused on the task at hand.

Your key thought for playing from the fairway is to make an aggressive swing at a conservative target. Let’s break that down into its two parts –

Conservative Target – The risk is not worth the reward when you pick a dangerous target on an approach shot. For example, if the hole is cut near to a water hazard, the right play is to aim safely away from the water at the middle of the green. Even if you are left with a longer putt, the benefit of staying away from the hazard will be more than worth it in the long run.

Aggressive Swing – Assuming you are playing the approach with an iron, it is paramount that you make an aggressive swing to get down through the ball and make clean contact. When you are able to make aggressive swings on your approach shots, you will notice that you have an easier time hitting the ball on-line and making your actual shot match your visualized shot.

A very common mistake is to pick out a conservative target – and then make a conservative (aka. scared) swing to go along with it. Your process needs to be two separate segments: use your conservative mind to pick out a smart target, then switch into a more aggressive form of thinking to execute the swing.

3) Around the Green

When you are playing a shot from around the green, it means that something has gone wrong along the way. If you are playing a chip shot, playing from the bunker, or anywhere else around the green, you have probably missed with your previous shot. Often, one bad shot carries over to the next and a golfer won’t be thinking clearly when the time comes to play their shot from around the green. If you are going to fine-tune your mental game, that can’t happen.

The key thought for you to remember when playing from around the green is that you need to have completely ‘dumped’ the memory of the last shot that went awry. This is easier said than done, so try this trick to push the last shot out of your mind and move on:

As you are walking up to the area around the green to find your ball, quickly stop and turn around. Look back toward the spot that you just played from, and think about what went wrong on that shot. Take a short moment, even just a few seconds, and turn back around and head up to hit your shot from around the green.

That momentary pause will give you an opportunity to deal with the mistake you made, analyze it, and move on. If you never take time to think about the mistake, it can fester in the back of your mind. Let it come to the foreground of your thinking, accept what happened, and get ready to hit the next one. This simple solution will re-focus your mind on the task at hand and bury the poor shot for the rest of the day.

4) On the Green

If there is one place more than any other that brings the demons out, it is the putting green. Nothing can shake a golfer out of their positive frame of mind faster than missing a few short putts and wasting an entire hole of good shots. You need to have your mental game sharp when you walk onto the putting green so you don’t get rattled if you happen to miss one on occasion.

The key thought on the green is to accept imperfection. By far, the biggest killer on the putting green is thinking that you absolutely need to make every putt. That simply isn’t true. Think about it – even the best golfers in the world miss putts in each and every round. A good round of putting can include anywhere from 28-30 total putts – meaning that 10-12 putts were missed along the way. Remember, misses are okay, as long as you don’t let them get to you.

There are countless variables on each putt. Far more than you could ever correctly account for on a consistent basis. The slope of the green, the grain of the grass, the moisture on the ground, any imperfections in the surface, and numerous other influences can affect whether the ball goes in or not. It’s simply not all under your control. Once you hit the ball, you just have to let it roll and accept the result.

Mentally ‘letting go’ on the putting green is the best thing you can do to improve your putting over time. Don’t get caught up in the hole-by-hole results of your putting. You will make some, and you will miss some, but you mustn’t let the misses change your attitude for the rest of the round.


At the end of the day, it is all about the scorecard. Unless you can translate your improved mental game into lower scores, your efforts will all be for naught. However, if you follow through with the tips and practice routines in this guide, you will be well on your way.

It is important to note that your new attitude and mental approach aren’t likely to produce lower scores in your very first round. In fact, those scores might not come down for several rounds as you adjust your thinking and work on taking the right mental approach to all 18 holes. Just like practicing your swing, practicing your mental game takes time. Persistence is crucial if you are to truly make a change and improve the way you think around the course.

Remember, the time and effort it will take to improve your mental game is more than worth it in the end (as any PGA pro will tell you). The great thing about working on the mental side of your golf game is that the improvements you make should last for years to come. Unlike your swing, which takes constant attention and fine-tuning to keep in top form, your mental game should stay sharp over the long run after you put in the upfront effort to improve your thinking.

Thank you for reading, and best of luck taking what has been offered here and translating it into lower scores on the course. With patience, practice, and determination, your renewed mental approach to the game is destined to pay off with some of the best scores of your life.

Think to Win

Including: - 3 quick-fire mental game tips from the pros - Simple steps for calming your mind on the course - Common mental mistakes (and how to avoid them!) - 4 key thoughts to get you around the course

  • ISBN: 9781370268504
  • Author: Alex Davidson
  • Published: 2016-11-16 18:20:08
  • Words: 5649
Think to Win Think to Win