Learning to play your best golf more of the time

Yesterday afternoon I was hitting some shots from the bottom tee at the Golf Farm (I’m still trying to think of a better name but GF seems to have stuck). I was testing out some new range balls that arrived while simultaneously whacking a three-wood that I haven’t been too fond of. The main goal was to see if I could clear the property with a flush shot and determine any safety issues.

Side note: Property is ideal except for the really long hitters. You’d need to have swing speed of a tour player to cause any damage.

I started out nice and easy, just smooth and flowing swings to get the old body going. There wasn’t a care in the world and it was fun to get up and “go whack”. Is there a better feeling in golf when you make a nice smooth swing and see the ball sail pure and straight? I was on a roll, about 10 shots in a row that came out flush.

Then I remembered I wanted to test the boundary limit. I plonked a new ball down and tried to hit it the cover off it. Snap hook. Bloody awful shot and it felt terrible too. Never mind, I dropped another ball down and tried to hit the thing into next week. Same result, a nasty hook and possibly worse. The ball flew straight right over the side fence and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see that ball again.

Clare had come out to watch and was acting as the official safety officer. If I was able to clear the boundary, then certain clubs for the big hitters would be off limits. I went again and hit another dreadful hook. This time contact was off the toe and the shot vibrated in my hands. It really was a horrible attempt. Swing. Another hook. I couldn’t hit the ball properly and Clare thought I was mucking around – she has watched me hit lots of shots, and without sounding like a complete nob, I rarely struggle that badly.

And the harder I tried the worse I hit the ball. After about 8 terrible shots in a row I needed a rethink and reset the mechanism. I jumped off the mat, stretched a little and listened to my mind. As usual, Pesky chimed in with some questions…

What am I doing wrong?
Why can’t you hit the ball?
Is there something wrong with you?
Have you lost your swing?
Maybe it’s the 3 wood, you’ve never liked it?

This stuff is bullshit. These questions are distractions and if you entertain them you’ll find your game going in circles. Golf becomes a merry-go-round where you jump from thought to thought in the hope of finding some magic. But I don’t believe in it and think Pesky is the cause of most of your problems. I should rephrase this slightly, it’s not Pesky who is the problem, you’re stuck with him (or her), your issue is listening to him and allowing him to distract you.

As I stood there listening to all of Pesky’s diatribe I remembered two emails that came through over the weekend. Two completely different golfers on opposite sides of the world with a similar issue.

Golfer 1:

The first 2 rounds of the club championships are done. I did not know how i would go as i have not played any rounds in the last 5 months. Only been able to swing the clubs in the shed! I played well first round,one over my handicap, happy with that. Today was a different story….shot 11 over my handicap off 13. I’m such a competitive person and it is hard to not be results focused. I was trying to find something during the round to get me going, but nothing popped up! Silly thoughts came into my head even while I was counting quickly! After the round had long finished I realised again that getting better is a process not an event. I know I should be appreciative that I got to walk in a nice place with beautiful weather but I just could not feel that way today! What’s your thoughts?

Golfer 2:

I am a pro golfer in Europe, been playing for 8 yrs now was a 21 when i started at 37, got to +1 in 4 yrs turned pro, have been for 3 yrs this yr.
My first rounds are killing me on the board, i hit it well, but i just make a stupid mistake along the way yet cant figure out why, i not sure if its my decision on that hole that makes me make a double from middle of the fairway, or ill try rip one down the fairway and hello pull to the rough bang bogey or worse again, this all way happens lately and then its a run for 2-3 holes then its all good again, ill still make 3-4 birdies in that round yet make a triple and a few doubles.
2nd round is pure, and i miss the cut by a few, this has been happening for the last 8 events, i just cant get that first round like the 2nd.
Its like i feel i meant to stuff up round one.
I loosing my mind with this.

The rest of the post will go into some detail about a solution: why we lose the plot and more importantly how to avoid these performance slumps. I’ll also shed some light on what I did to get my swing (and pride) back. And it is probably not what you think.

Extra info: Post length – 3600 + words.

Golfer 1 Solution:

Automatic Golf is the simplest and easiest way of playing your best golf. It maximises your chances of playing well, even if you haven’t been playing a lot of golf. It’s important to point out that it’s not magic. In this case our friend hadn’t played a lot of golf for 5 months. I think this will catch up with you eventually and this was highlighted by the second round.

Golf pros typically play 6 days per week. They have Monday’s off (to travel) but will hit balls and/or play every other day. This is a lot of golf and it’s still no guarantee that their performance will be any good. Professionals, even the really good guys, can have off days despite all the hard work. Here’s the main point: If you haven’t played a lot of golf for 5 months, please don’t be too disappointed with a bad round, especially when it occurs during a really important event. I will be brave enough to say that any athlete that hasn’t “played” for a significant amount of time will struggle when they hit the arena.

I’m not saying this to be a smart arse, just highlight the fact that golf can be a difficult game without a lot of match time. This also should be enough to relax you and help put things into perspective.

Here are some other thoughts about the second round blow ups. Note: this kinda stuff happens all the time, even with a lot of match practice.

Change of focus: When we’re playing well I’m certain we’re not focussed too intently on our score or performance. We’re outside, enjoying the fresh air and swinging away. This is the perfect mindset to activate our subconscious and this almost always results in improved performance. It’s a bit of a contradiction, the less you worry about your score the better it becomes, but this is the nature of the game.

The fact that he hadn’t played a lot also meant his expectations were low – another good attitude. But the good first round changed his priorities. His focus changed as he then tried to replicate the good first performance.

We’re a really talented and skilled species, but one thing that we’re terrible at is replication. Trying to mimic previous performance is impossible – we still need to let each performance happen naturally, we need to play the game. If performance was as easy as copying a previous performance, we’d all be great golfers. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Lack of awareness: When we start to think about results, which is nothing more than thinking about the future, we lose awareness. We stop feeling the club and we lose that heavy feeling. When you can “feel” what is happening you’ll stay in the moment. You won’t be distracted by those Pesky thoughts and you’ll be playing automatically. Sometimes it can be an easy fix, you simply become more aware of your golf swing and you’ll slip back into automatic mode.

Other times it’s not so easy. And it’s not easy because your mind is out of control. It’s thinking about the score, the possible win, your speech and god know’s what else. When your mind is fully spinning you need to slow it down and focus on something immediate:

– can you feel the wind blowing?
– what am I thinking? (become aware of your mind. This will slow it down and bring it back)
– what can you see?

You need to break the thinking habit and get back in the moment. For years now I’ve combated this loss of control by having the following chat to myself.

C’mon Cameron. You’re here to play golf. Don’t forget to swing the sticks, you know this is the only way to play your best golf. Let the thoughts come and go, but don’t let them distract you and don’t let them influence you. Play the game. C’mon, let’s get back to hitting the ball and playing freely. You know it’s the best way.

This little pep talk is all I need. It’s a little reminder to get out of thinking mode and into playing mode. And here’s the huge point: When you stop the thinking it becomes easier to “feel” your swing. You’re back in the present (happens quickly) and in the ideal place to play your best golf.

Trying too hard: This is related. When we’re in pure playing mode our game flows. Great golf finds us and the game seems easy. When our perspective/focus/goals change then typically we’ll try harder. This is arse about. We should strive to play more freely and loose. The more important the event/situation the more you need to let go. This helps the subconscious take over and get the job done. Our subconscious doesn’t care about the pressure or the situation – it can swing the club for you no matter how nervous you feel. And this is why people can do the most incredible things under the most intense pressure. To an outsider it looks amazing – but it really isn’t that hard when you’re playing instinctively. It’s how YOU should be playing. Here’s a recent example:

Last year I was playing in my last ever pennant match against a really good player. We were all square playing the last (a par 3) and by this time a large crowd had gathered. There were people everywhere and there was a bit of commotion (being a Final and all). I remember being nervous but not scared. In this situation I’ve trained my mind to keep things simple:

– where do I want the ball to go?
– what club do I need?
– hit the ball

I’m a simple mind. Anything more complicated than that and I’m in big trouble. I’ve seen the day where I’ve tried to work out my swing, do lots of practice drills, analyse, check the distances 4 times and remember how to swing. None of this worked for me and I’m willing to bet big bucks it has never worked for you. You are making an already difficult situation harder than it needs to be. AG is about maximising your chances of better play, not decreasing them.

So I chose my 9 iron, walked in and hit the ball hard. This is my style (hitting hard) and it has worked well for me – so there’s no need to change because of the situation. When the strike registered with me it was a beauty. The ball had come off flush, really pure and was sailing to the middle of the green. It landed close and the people around the green let out a cheer. It’s an awesome feeling that, and I’ll miss it. But there’s tremendous satisfaction when you can do this kind of stuff. Especially when you’ve been on the other side of the coin and felt the despair of chocking and playing like an idiot under pressure. I was the captain of that team for many years.

Afterwards some members were talking to me about the shot:

“I could never hit a shot under that kind of pressure”
“How do you focus with so many people around?”
“Were you nervous?”

I think every golfer can do this kind of stuff. For me, Pennant golf was my major. For you it could be Club Championships or playing with your boss. But no matter what it is, if you learn to keep the objective simple and swing away (and keep doing it) you’ll be able to play better and better. In time, you’ll learn to realise that important events are still golf and there’s no need to play any differently.

If there’s a quick fix to playing better golf under the pump it is this: Play like you would on a Friday afternoon with your best mates.

Golfer 2 Solution:

Professional golf is not easy. We see Tiger, Rory and Sergio playing for millions of dollars each week and the life looks glamorous. The reality is far from this. 5 percent of the top golfers take home around 90% of the prize money. That leaves a lot of golfers fighting for very little. So it’s a tough sport, it chews a lot of golfers up and then spits them out. My hat is off to anyone who is courageous enough to pursue a professional career. It’s not easy.

In saying that, learning to perform on the professional stage really is no different from amateur golfers. It’s still golf, the game doesn’t change and this was a huge attitude adjustment for me to make. Not that I have played professionally (not for long anyway) but for me to play at a higher level at the amateur game it took me ages to realise that, “golf doesn’t change”. The objective of the game doesn’t change – you still have to hit that little white ball into that little hole.

I’m a strong believer that the best professionals are able to approach golf as a game. They don’t get too carried away with the importance of the entire thing and certainly have some perspective – golf is a game and there are more important things to worry about. I know this is not an easy attitude to have if you’re dinner is on the line, but that’s what’s needed and maybe why so many talented golfers fall over. Golf is just too serious for them.

The rest of the post I’ll discuss some options for Golfer number 2. Keep in mind that there’s some overlap here because we’re all human – we’re made from the same flesh, blood and wires and our learning system is the same. So even though an golf pro’s swing will have more power, his ability to use that swing won’t be that different from the average weekend warrior.

A story to get us started:

Over the weekend there was an amazing comeback by one of the Australian Football (AFL) teams. They were 5 goals down with 5 minutes remaining and all hope was gone. The coach gave some instructions:

– play directly for goal
– take risks
– play quickly
– play freely

And in an amazing turnaround they ended up winning by a point. Who knows why these things happen but I think there are some interesting events at play. The critical moment is when you think all hope is gone, so you tend to relax and have a “can’t lose” attitude. When this happens, you invariably play better and restore some pride.

AFL is an extremely professional outfit. I think the players are over coached and over trained and each move of the game is analysed to death. I would hate to be an AFL player, there’s far too much scrutiny. But Adelaide’s comeback shows me that “playing the game” and “playing how you want” is still most important aspect of all sport. It almost seems that being in a hopeless position was enough to kick them into gear.

They started playing with freedom. They stopped worrying about making mistakes because they had nothing to lose. They played direct football with the simple objective of scoring goals. So here’s the big question:

Why can’t they play like this more of the time. I realise that playing flat out is not going to be possible, but surely if the shackles are removed from the start then teams will play better for longer. And just maybe this team wouldn’t have found themselves so far down with 5 minutes remaining.

So here’s my point in relation to golf:

You need to play with a freedom and looseness from the start. It’s not easy because of the pressure of the situation and we want to avoid blowing up in the early holes – but this is exactly what you’ve got to be prepared for. Is it better to play with freedom, flair and enthusiasm from the get go and have the chance to experience something remarkable? Or should you be tight, controlling and inhibited from the start but avoid the bad stuff?

Most of us play safe. We’re too scared to take a leap. Yes, there may be the odd shocker of a result – you can potentially let go and still hit a shot out of bounds. But my contention is that you’ll have more bad than good. And the good is probably going to be way better than anything you thought possible.

And if I was coaching a golf professional I would train him to swing freely from the first tee. If nerves and doubt are prevalent then you can combat them with a conservative game plan. Laying up, hitting irons from the tee and aiming for the “fat” parts of the course are ways to get around the nerves. But swinging freely is not an option – this MUST become the default mode from the very start and continue to the end.

The next step is to increase awareness of the body and mind. What can you feel? What emotions are you experiencing? It’s time to open up and stop playing blind – you need to be awake as to what is happening. You’re an observer, just sitting back and taking in what is going on. And this is where the really cool stuff kicks in with our learning system – when you’re aware of tightness or some negative emotion, shedding light on it is enough for it to dissipate. Awareness of it is enough for it to go away.

I need to be clear on this. You’re not trying to control events with conscious action. You’re simply a silent observer from the start and watching (in want of a better word) the world go by. If you can do this your learning and experience will go to a new level – and it may take a dose of honesty too:

– you become aware of negative talk early in your round
– you can feel tension (fear?) sitting in the pit of your stomach
– you realise you’re playing scared and not swinging freely
– you feel extra pressure to perform
– you start to feel tightness in your swing
– you realise that you’re scared of the golf course

Awareness opens up a new world and who knows what you’ll come up with. But knowing what is happening here is the road to success. No longer will you believe that all the issues are with your swing technique – you’ll be getting closer to the real secret of improving your mental skills. You’ll become a golfer who is able to play great golf in the heat of battle.

My situation:

It was the first time in ages where I had lost my swing. And it was annoying to hit so many bloody snap hooks – one after the other. If you can’t get the ball off the tee the game becomes impossible and certainly not much fun. Here’s the process I followed.

Many might think that I would simply slow my swing down and stop trying to whack the cover off the ball – that makes sense and if I told you that’s what I did it probably wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. But this is not what I did because “slowing” your swing down requires conscious control and conscious control is not automatic golf. I don’t believe that any human is smart or talented enough to consciously control their swing – and conscious control causes many more swing and golf issues than it solves.

I stepped back off the mat, took a deep breath and made a commitment to swing like I was playing in the US Open. I stopped trying to hit the ball and went back to playing golf. So I went through my routine, danced into the ball with full awareness on the clubhead, took a peek at the target and then swung freely. The ball came out hard with a slight draw. Pure. And normality had been restored.

Please get this: I didn’t try and slow down my swing. I stopped thinking and went back to playing the game. With better awareness there’s no doubt my swing did slow down (it’s really hard to have full awareness of your swing if you’re swinging too quickly) and it was improved. But it wasn’t from conscious control. My swing found me and this is exactly what you want. Your swing is your rock – it’s always there and it’s always waiting for you. The hard part of golf is trusting yourself and realising that YOUR swing is better than anything else. Your natural swing is particularly improved from any contrived movement you’re trying to muster.

If knowing what you were doing wrong was all that it took to play better golf then most golfers would be playing better. But knowledge is only part of the equation. There’s something much deeper required. There’s awareness. There’s the ability to swing freely. And maybe most importantly of all, knowing how to keep out of your own way.

Please fire away with any questions. Would love to hear your feedback too.

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  • adam

    Reply Reply May 29, 2013

    I have this notion that i shouldnt worry about improvement and just play the game. Is this the right mindset? Wont i improve anyway if i just go and play golf just for fun? Whats you thoughts on this cameron?

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 29, 2013

      There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your golf game. Sometimes we need a specific direction to get to where we want to go. If you can play purely or enjoyment then well done – but I think enjoyment is easier when we play well.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 31, 2013

      Improvement happens by itself when you play freely, have fun and learn new stuff. There’s also nothing wrong with setting a few goals along the way to motivate, but for the most part, if you love playing and hitting balls and keep out of your way, you’ll definitely improve.

      Another thought: If you’re not in a hurry and truly enjoy the process of playing, I think your improvement will become more meaningful to you and long-term. You’ll become a really good golfer over a long time.

  • adam

    Reply Reply June 1, 2013

    Im kindof curious on why so many people think about the golf swing when in reality its just a backswing and a forward swing. The golf swing only gets the ball from one place to another it isnt how to play great golf. I believe golf is about character. It builds peoples personalities and character. When you simply enjoy golf and dont make it a big deal then youll play great golf. I think that as long as you simply hit the ball into the hole. Golf was never meant to be full of insructional ideas and concepts. It was only ever meant to build men out of young men and to build character through self responsibility and respect.

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