Do you understand the importance of the mental side of the game of golf?

Senior Mental Golf Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

Golf is a sport that taxes your brain just as much as the rest of your body, and players who are successful on the links need to blend technical skills with strong mental performance. In this article, we’d like to discuss some of the ways in which you can improve your mental game. It’s tempting to believe that the only way to lower your scores is to make physical improvements, but that’s not necessarily the case. Once you dive into the process of bettering your mental game, you may find this is actually the quickest path to improved play.

There are a couple of different aspects included in the category of ‘mental game’ on the golf course. For one thing, there is the emotional aspect of the game, as players need to learn how to control their emotions while focusing on the task at hand. Additionally, there is the decision-making piece of the puzzle, which involves picking smart targets, analyzing the design of the course, and more. You may already be strong in one of these areas, or they both may give you trouble. Whatever the case, we hope to set you on a path toward improvement with the tips provided in this article.

All of the content below is based on a right-handed golfer. If you happen to play left-handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.

Managing Your Emotions on the Course

Senior Mental Golf Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

It might not look like it from the outside, but golf is an emotional game. If you were to simply watch a tournament on TV, you may think that golfers are barely human – rarely offering up so much as a facial expression as they work their way around a course. In reality, every golfer knows what goes on internally is a whole different story. There are countless emotions that you will go through during any given round, and managing those emotions successfully is one of the keys to your success.

Let’s take a look at a few tips that should help you keep your emotions in check from the first hole to the last.

  • Every shot counts the same. This is one of the keys to controlling the mental side of your game. It’s easy to fall into the trap of valuing some shots more than others, but they all count the same on the scorecard. For instance, you might think that it’s important to hit a good tee shot on a tough par four, so you place extra emphasis on finding the fairway. That’s fine, but how do you react if you happen to miss? Some golfers let their focus slip after hitting a poor shot to start a tough hole, thinking they are destined to make a bogey or worse. A better approach would be to simply take each shot as it comes, applying your best effort to every single swing and putting stroke. Some of your shots will work out nicely, and others will be disappointing, but the goal is to stay steady and maintain your focus throughout the day.
  • It’s never as good, or as bad, as it seems. Another common mistake is to allow yourself to get too high, or too low, from an emotional perspective as the round moves along. For instance, imagine that you get off to a great start, playing the first few holes beautifully. That’s fun, of course, but don’t let your mind race ahead to think about what your score might be at the end of the round. There is still a lot of work to do and getting too excited could cause you to make careless mistakes. On the other side of the coin, you can’t get too down if you get off to a bad start. There are still plenty of holes left to rescue a good score, but that won’t happen if you are too frustrated and disappointed to give your best effort. Do your best to keep your emotions on an even keel as the birdies and bogeys come and go – you’ll enjoy your rounds more this way, and you should post better scores, as well.
  • The right amount of focus. One of the best ways to manage your emotions is to not think exclusively about golf for the entire round. There is plenty of downtime during the average round, whether it is while you are walking up the fairway or waiting for the group in front of you to finish the hole. During those times, chat with your playing partners about non-golf topics, or just enjoy the surrounding scenery and let your mind wander. Then, when it is time to play, bring yourself back into ‘golf mode’ and get focused once again. Going through a consistent pre-shot routine is a good way to refocus before making each swing. This method can help you control your emotions because you won’t be wearing yourself down mentally by thinking of nothing more than how you are playing. Trying to pay attention to nothing other than golf for more than four hours is exhausting, and that mental fatigue may manifest itself in the form of frustration.
  • Ignore competitor performance. If you are playing in a competition of some kind, you may find yourself wasting mental energy worrying about how your opponents are playing. This is nothing more than a waste, as you can’t do anything about their play, anyway. There is no defense in golf, so let it go and just worry about your own game. If you play your best and another player happens to beat you on that day, so be it. You’ll be able to walk away feeling good about your performance if you give your best effort regardless of what the others in your group are doing.

Make no mistake – it’s hard to control your emotions in this game. And, from time to time, you are going to lose track of your emotions and you’ll wind up getting too high or too low during a round. That’s okay – don’t be too hard on yourself and try to get yourself back on track as quickly as possible.

Establishing a Game Plan

Senior Mental Golf Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

When you play any game, you need a game plan. How are you going to succeed? What opportunities will you be looking for, and what threats will you be trying to avoid? This concept isn’t exactly novel, yet many golfers fail to establish any kind of plan when they head out onto the links. If you don’t currently use a game plan for your rounds of golf, implementing this strategy could make a big difference.

So, what kind of elements should be included in your game plan for each round? Let’s look at a few key points.

  • Distance or accuracy off the tee. When standing on the tee of any par four or par five, you have a choice – do you want to push the ball as far down the hole as possible, or do you want to prioritize accuracy at the expense of distance? This decision is going to be based on a couple of factors. First, you need to think about your own game, and your strengths and weaknesses. If you hit your driver fairly accurately, there is no reason not to use it. On the other hand, if you are better with your three wood or hybrids off the tee, you might be better suited to playing a control game. Also, you will need to think about the conditions and design of the course you are playing. When wide fairways are encountered, go ahead and let it rip. Playing a tight course with long rough and big trees? It should go without saying that you need to focus on controlling your ball instead of mashing it.
  • Is the short side a threat? Avoiding short side situations is one of the keys to golf game planning, but it is more important some days than others. The key here is the firmness of the greens. If the putting surfaces are firm, it will be hard to stop your chip shots quickly, meaning missing on the short side is a big mistake. On days like this, play toward the wide side of the green and give yourself plenty of room to work with. When the greens are softer, as they are likely to be during the winter months or after some rainy days, you can play more aggressively and not worry so much about the short side issue.
  • Dead weight or aggressive putting. There are two general approaches to putting – rolling the ball up to the hole with just barely enough speed to reach the cup, or using aggressive speed that will roll a couple feet past if it misses. There isn’t a right or wrong here, but you do need to know which is your preferred method. It’s best not to go back and forth on this point – you should have a standard plan that you use round after round. Why is this important? You need to have an intended speed in mind if you are going to pick the right line for your putts. The amount of break you need to play is always influenced by the pace that you are going to give the ball. Those who use cautious speed will always need to play more break than those who run the ball up to the hole aggressively.
  • Par five approach. This last point is really only an issue for those golfers with enough distance off the tee to consider going for par five greens in two shots. If you hit your driver well, you might find that some of the par fives on your course are reachable in two – but should you go for it? This is a question that will be answered by the design of the course. Some par fives are welcoming to long second shots, while others make it nearly impossible to actually get the ball on the green. If you play the same course over and over again, you will be able to develop a standing plan that you use for each of the par fives. On a new course, you’ll need to evaluate what you see in front of you and choose the path that makes you the most comfortable.

At first, it might not seem like having a game plan would make that much of a difference. However, as you get farther and farther into the process of thinking through your shots and making smart choices, you should see your scores start to fall.

Dealing with Pressure

Senior Mental Golf Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

Pressure is a part of golf. This is just as true for the weekend player competing with his or her friends as it is for the professional golfer playing on TV for large sums of money. In fact, pressure is part of what makes this game so great – testing yourself when the pressure is on makes golf exciting, and it shows you what your game is capable of producing. Rather than running from pressure, embrace it as an opportunity to do something great.

Of course, it’s easy to stay that you should embrace the pressure you feel on the course, but it’s another thing to actually thrive in such a situation. Below, we have provided a few tips for successfully managing pressure in golf.

  • Dive into your routine. The best place to start when trying to improve your play under pressure is with a quality pre-shot routine. If you have a routine that you use prior to each shot, over and over again, you’ll have an easier time blocking out everything else and just focusing on the job at hand. This doesn’t mean you are immune to pressure, of course, but it is a step in the right direction. Work on building a routine on the range and then get used to using it consistently on the course. Your routine should be quick enough as not to hold up play, and it should address one or two key points that are important for your game. For instance, you might stand behind your ball while picking out a target, then quickly perform a practice swing before stepping up and taking your stance. Whatever it is, do the same thing each time, so it becomes habitual and gives you a place to put your focus when under pressure.
  • Maintain perspective. Perhaps one of the best ways to deal with pressure on the golf course is to give yourself a bit of a reality check. It’s just a game! Sure, you want to do well, and there’s nothing wrong with being competitive, but it’s just golf at the end of the day. There will be rounds where you play well, there will be rounds where you play poorly, and plenty of days that fall somewhere in the middle. When you keep the game in perspective, it’s easier to relax and just let your potential shine through.
  • Gain experience. There is simply no substitute for experience when it comes to performing under pressure in golf. The first couple of times you play in a tournament, you might find that your nerves get the best of you a little bit. And that’s okay – don’t be discouraged if you struggle at first. As you continue to play, you should get better and better at understanding how to manage your emotions. Make it a point to put yourself in a few situations where you’ll feel a bit of pressure and it’s likely that you will quickly improve in your ability to handle those occasions.
  • Be nice to yourself. It’s easy to try too hard when you get nervous or anxious on the course. And, when things don’t go your way for a hole or two, it’s easy to beat yourself up. Nothing is going to be gained from being hard on yourself about making some mistakes, and you’ll enjoy the game far less if you take this approach. Instead, work on forgiving yourself for the mistakes and celebrating the good shots. This is supposed to be fun, after all, and it’s far more fun if you are in a good mood on the course.
  • Find a distraction. We mentioned this concept earlier in the section on managing your emotions, and it is worth highlighting again here. If you can get your mind off of golf for a bit during your round, it will go a long way toward improving your ability to hit good shots under pressure. This can be something as simple as enjoying the scenery during your walk from the tee to the fairway or chatting with your playing partners about non-golf topics. Remember to focus once again when it’s time to play a shot but take advantage of the downtime to help yourself relax.

Ultimately, you will have to figure out what works for you in terms of managing pressure while playing golf. With experience, you’ll gradually work your way into a pattern of play that serves you well.

Closing Thoughts

Senior Mental Golf Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

It’s easy to dismiss the importance of the mental game in golf. For the average player, the path to lower scores seems to be paved with nothing but technical improvements. Start hitting better shots, and you will shoot lower scores, right? Maybe, but not necessarily. This is a complicated game, and there is a lot that goes into posting scores you can be proud of.

As you strive for a better mental game, remember that your growth is going to come through a shot-by-shot approach. Don’t worry about being dramatically better in your next round – just do a good job of focusing on the shot at hand. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. The better you can be in terms of focusing on each individual shot, the better you will be able to handle entire rounds, or even entire tournaments.

Also remember that pressure is going to get the best of you from time to time. And there is nothing wrong with that. For instance, imagine that you are playing a match at your local club and you wind up missing a short putt at the end which would have won the match. Does that mean you are a ‘choker’? Of course not – don’t bother attaching such labels to yourself. Everyone fails under pressure sometimes. Instead of lamenting the miss, focus on what caused the mistake and what you can do better next time to avoid that outcome.

Just like your physical game, your mental game is going to always be a work in progress. As you continue to move forward in the game, you will find that there are things you do well and things you can improve. Hopefully, the list of things that needs to be improved from a mental perspective will gradually shrink over time. Golf is not a game which offers you a finish line. Instead, you just have an open fairway in front of you, and a never-ending quest to be the best you can be.

Lastly, we’d like to point out that even the best players in the world get frustrated, and even angry, on the course. That doesn’t mean you have a weak mental game, or that you aren’t focused properly on the task at hand. It’s okay to be frustrated from time to time, as long as you regain your focus in time to play your next shot. Balancing your emotions with the rational side of playing smart shots is something that you’ll need to keep working on going forward. Some people are better at this than others, but everyone can improve.

We hope the ideas and information in this article help you improve your performance in the mental side of the game. If you can think clearly while making plenty of quality swings and putting strokes, you never know what your scorecard might say at the end of the day. Good luck out there!