Mind Games

    Despite his 18 major championships, Jack Nicklaus wasn’t known as a great putter –except when it really mattered. Why did Nicklaus make so many big putts in the final round of major championships? The answer according to his peers and sportswriters is because Nicklaus never missed a putt in his mind.

    Any of us who’ve played golf on a semi-regular basis know how important focus, concentration and confidence are to successful golf. Self-doubt destroys a golfer’s ability to hit quality shots under pressure. Earlier this year, PGA Tour pro Kevin Na was very candid in an interview about his battle with his inner demons that sew self-doubt while he’s awake and in his dreams the nights before competitive rounds.

    Sergio Garcia has been one of the top dozen golfers in the world for most of the past 15 years. Garcia has come agonizingly close to winning major championships and he’s won the Tournament Players Championship and has an exceptional Ryder Cup record. Some of us remember more than a decade ago however when Garcia went through a constant re-gripping of the golf club during his pre-shot routine. It got so bad during the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black that the gallery would count the re-grips out loud, and the number would get into the teens.

    Golfers are known for their elaborate pre-shot routines which need to be executed before a final trigger starts the golf swing. After winning his first PGA title, Na’s problems didn’t go away. In some ways they became worse. Na developed what he termed a “balk” in his pre-shot practice swing that made Garcia’s problems look minor. Na would actually be into his backswing and then decide not to go through with his swing and pass over the top of the ball. It looked like a whiff, but since Na did not have intent to strike the ball, it was in fact ruled a practice swing. This began occurring at the 2012 Tournament Players Championship and continued into 2013 and beyond. Na had to give up social media, unable to ignore negative comments from the fans. This sentiment only began to turn when Na essentially bared his soul in a January Golf magazine interview and fans began to empathize with his struggles.

    The relationship between the mental and physical side of the game has been documented for a long-time. It’s even worked its way into our pop culture. We all remember Roy McAvoy, our favorite tortured Texas driving range instructor who gets a case of the shanks on the eve of the U.S. Open in the Ron Shelton film Tin Cup. Most of us are familiar with Charles Barkley’s tortured golf swing as well. And, when we put the driver and the full swing away, the short game is just as ripe for problems to manifest themselves somewhere between the signal from the brain and the swinging of the club. Problems can pop up in the chipping game. During the beginning of the 2015 golf season, as Tiger Woods came back after a long injury layoff, he looked like a 24-handicapper around the greens. The press began speculating that Woods had the “chip yips”.

    The mental side of the game has created a cottage industry for self-help golf writers. Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game by Dr. Joseph Parent is just one of the better known books on the subject. These books focus on trying to turn a golfer’s mind into an ally on the golf course, instead of an enemy.

    Instructors, players and commentators often talk about a player’s inability to take their games from the driving range to the golf course. The fact of the matter is pressure creates tension and negative thoughts can creep into the minds of even the game’s best players. Golfers and instructors will continue to look for ways to minimize the “noise” and to set their minds free so players focus solely on the current shot at hand, one swing at a time.