A Golfer’s Biggest Hazard

It’s been a long layoff but the last half a year has been a whirlwind. After 15 years of coaching at the same college it was time to take on new challenges. I took a new coaching job 1000 miles away from my previous school. I accepted the head coaching position at a very well respected college in the Northeast with a storied golf program. But with that came a total upheaval of myself, my career and my family. Now that I am all settled in it’s time to get back at it.

Somehow I thought that the problem that I will write about in this post was unique to my previous team but now after coaching a new team which is so far removed from my previous one in terms of geography, interests and personalities, I know now that this issue is universal.

golfers biggest hazardA golfer’s biggest hazard is the willingness to mentally quit during a round of golf. For some reason, golfers go into a round of golf not expecting adversity, and when it inevitably shows up, they are shocked and saddened and too many times unable to cope. Like in the illustration, they willingly jump off into the abyss of despair, where there is no recovery and the penalty lasts for the remainder of the round.

Somehow golfers believe that every shot will be hit perfectly and that golf will be easy. That is not reality, not for any golfer at any level. Golfers fail to remember that golf is a struggle. Golf is the equivalent of salmon swimming upstream. It’s hard. It’s hard almost every day.

When you prepare for a round of golf, you should make a mental commitment — a commitment to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and in the words of Winston Churchill, “Stay calm and carry on.”

Staying calm and carrying on no matter what is the only good option you have. Some days are easy, most are hard. You must remain positive and fight with everything you have until you arrive at the clubhouse. Otherwise, you’ll be miserable, you’ll make your playing partners miserable and you will be guaranteed you will shoot a miserable score.

I know all of you have watched Tiger’s top 10 shots on the Golf Channel. Did you notice that none of those shots was from an ideal position? Only one of shot happened from the middle of the fairway, and he hit that shot in almost total darkness.

The point is, one of the reasons he’s been so successful is that he believes with every fiber of his being that something good will happen even when he is in a tough spot.

I have a great example from my own team this past fall. One of the freshman on my team is named Makenzie. He is a fine player and I believe he will be a superstar, but as with most freshman, he has a lot to learn — especially when it comes to keeping his head in the game during tough rounds.

Our last tournament of the fall season had us playing in the Golfweek Fall Preview in Florida. This is an account of his final round.

He had high expectations, too high. When I saw him on the range, Makenzie was upbeat, “minting it” as he says, and was telling me he was going to tear it up.

So, I caught up with him on the 7th hole, a par 5. I thought he has just played his 2nd, but I then learned that it was his 4th shot. His 2nd shot had gone out of bounds. He was completely despondent because after finishing his 7th hole with a double, he was now seven over after seven holes. The round was not going at all the way he had envisioned. I could tell he had mentally checked out and he had no fight in him. If I had given him the option he would have walked off the course. I told him, “Sorry dude, I don’t get to substitute like in other sports. You’re stuck out here and have to make a decision to make. Are you gonna try or cry?” It’s something I say. I told him, “We can still salvage this round!”

On the 8th tee he hit last so we had time to chat. I got his mind away from his troubles and told him how much I thought of him as a person and a golfer. I reminded him how beautiful this part of Florida was and how blessed he is to be able to play college golf.

makenzie action wedgeHe hit a nice approach, but he ended up leaving a really difficult 36 footer that was down hill and broke from right to left. We laughed a little walking up to the green. I told him stories of other golfers I coached through the years and how they made something out of nothing. We read the putt from every angle and what do you know, we made it for birdie! Big smile on his face! He was back!

On the most difficult hole on the course, the par 4 ninth, he played the hole well but ended up 3 putting from long range for bogie. Just like that, his world was coming to an end. I said, “What is so bad? You’ve just played the last 2 holes at even par after a terrible start! So I continued to make him smile, telling him funny stories about coaching and golf as we played the par 4 10th hole trying to get him to smile and what do you know, we made a really good 18 footer that broke from left to right for another birdie!

Once again, big smiles, life is good. Unfortunately, he bogeyed the par 5, 11th and was once again in the pooper. Total despair. Life sucks! Golf hates me! After more cheerleading from me, he made a routine par on the par 3, twelfth. I reminded him that he had just played the last 5 holes at even par and that he’s doing fine. But now I had to leave him to go check on other members of my team. I had him promise me that he would remain optimistic and upbeat. He assured me he would be fine.

I caught up with Makenzie again as he was walking from the 13th green to the 14th tee. His life was over! He had just triple bogeyed! All of the fight was gone. There was nothing left. He was now 10 over par.

At this point, I’ll admit, I had had enough! I “coached him up,” as we say in the biz, albeit firmly. I told him he had a decision to make — this time, it wasn’t as much about this round, but more about what kind of player he was going to be. I challenged him, “You’ve got to decide right now, is golf tougher than you, or are you tougher than golf?”

I had his attention. Once again, I told him that if he had total 100% belief that something good was going to come out of this, it would. And if he didn’t, it wouldn’t. Whatever he decided would happen, would actually happen. Now, he was completely on board. We then took a moment to map out the final stretch 5 holes. I thought we could birdie 3 of the last 5. He completely bought in, and Makenzie went on to birdie 14, 15 and 16! He had completely erased the triple. Now he completely refused to let his mind have a single negative thought. We were now on the 17th, probably the best chance for birdie but ended up making a tough par after pretty much chopping up the hole.

He played the par 4, 18th perfectly and made a 10 footer to finish out his roller coaster round. We hugged and laughed. He birdied 4 of his last 5 holes and 6 of his last 11. Makenzie played the last 11 holes at -1.  He shot +6 for the round and ended up helping our team.

Ironically, not once did we talk about swing during his round.

It wasn’t the most impressive round ever shot — a 77. But for him it will be the springboard that will propel him to be a great player. As we stood there watching the others in his group putt out, he had his arm over my shoulder thanking me for my help and telling me how much he had learned.

When his career is over I can assure you, that’s will be one of the few rounds he’ll remember. The one where he made something out of nothing.

If you never give in and jump off into the pit of despair, you too will have great stories to tell.

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18 comments

  • Michael MacEachern

    Glad you’re doing we’ll in New York.

    Mac

  • Coach, hope the move to NY treats you well. I tried to submit a reply last week but it didn’t go through. Mentioned it to your Dad at church Sunday. A colleague of mine during my days at Stanford has just retired from Cornell. His son, Max Koehler, is a senior this year and on the golf team; has had some recognition credentials in the state of NY. My daughter, granddaughter and I went to Cornell last summer to visit the campus as our granddaughter was interested in attending; she later declined and will be going to Elon in Greensboro, NC. Met with Dave and his son, Max, for dinner on the fingerlake, Cayuga. Had a great time. Gave Dave and Max a Legacy Golf Links golf shirt, where I work as a starter, as a momento of our visit.

  • Coach, thank you for the mention in the article! It was a struggle that day but I learned a huge amount! We grinded through and posted a more respectable score to help the team. Thanks for the help! Great article

  • Coach, I really liked this article and how you were able to relate it so effectively to a round from one of the players on your team. I like to think that bouncing back after a bad shot, or bad hole is a strong part of my game, and this only reassured its importance even further.

  • Coach,

    I really enjoyed reading this article. This is something that I have struggled with in the past like most young golfers. One thing that I believe will really help my game in the future is accepting that golf is a struggle instead of getting ticked off and letting a few bad swings ruin an entire round. I believe that this is something that everyone can do and is definitely something that I will continue to work on this upcoming season.

  • Coach,

    I like to think that I am a level-headed, calm player but I definitely lose rounds mentally. I think our whole team can improve the mental side of our game which will bring us to the next level. I will work hard this upcoming season to improve this side of my game.

    That is a cool story about Mak. He has a ton of talent and is a huge asset to our team. Great advice!

  • John McCarthy (@mccarthie)

    ^^In response to Tim and his comment on the Mak story; I remember being in Florida; Mak telling me he birdied 4 of his last 5, The fact that I didnt have someone telling me about there typical BlowUp stpry put a smile on my face. As a teamate, you respect every golfer who fights (even if you are playing agains them). Mak fought and helped the team by at least 4-5 shots. which ended up placing us in the top 10l

    On the topic of fighting a bad round. playing your percentages, and turning that “Blowup” round into a mid 70’s. Personally, i play my best golf when the other college players in my group are 100% commited. That being said, be a good playing partner by staying optimistic.

  • Mak’s story from the Golfweek tourney is a testament to the old saying “Golf is a game that is 90% mental”. Not every rounds is going to be perfect. Just grin and bear it, then move on. Great advice Coach.

  • I agree with all the comments above, we can all work on this part of our game, especially me. As the great Bobby Jones once said, “Golf is mostly played on a six-inch course, the space between your ears.”

    As we know, golf is all about the process, and not the result. Sometimes, when the result is terrible, we try and do things out of our power to fix or control the result. This is when we get in trouble. Golf is a counter-intuitive game. You have to hit down on the ball to get it in the air, swing to your right to hit it left, and swing left to hit it right. In other sports, getting pissed off (pardon my French) causes you to try harder, increasing adrenalin and improving performance. In order to play good golf, especially when you’re playing bad, you need to stop thinking, stop trying so hard, trust yourself, your routine, and take rips.

    We are all way to good of athletes and golfers to let ourselves get in the way.

  • Its always a pleasure to a read an article about a teammate, especially after having talked to him that day. I’ll never forget his propensity to stay positive after a round I knew he would have loved to see lower. Its clear now from this article what helped him achieve the fantastic finish to the round. Coaching is never easy. Having been a frustrated and down player on the course myself, I can only imagine how little fun it must be to at times have to come give us a pep talk, but this articles clearly depicts your knowledge for psychology and the game itself in the way you approached Mak. My mom always use to follow me when I played and would say “it’s a new round on the last 6 holes” and this story perfectly illustrates how important finishing strong can show strength of character of a golfer. Well done coach

  • I can really appreciate how great -6 on the last 11 holes were after playing such a difficult course. The highs and lows of golf can be really tough to cope with, but I always try to make them speed bumps instead of roller coasters (try being the key word). Golf is just like every other sport: it’s meant to test you both physically and mentally. And, as for Scott’s quote, my dad has always told me “Golf is 90 percent mental….and the other 10 percent… that’s mental, too.”

  • I have found this to be very true over the years. I tend to be a very emotional player however the negatives must be offset by positive emotions. I also am a firm believer in the 10 step rule. I think bottling up anger turns that feeling of anger to disappointment, which is far worse than anger and cannot be recovered from.

  • Mackenzie Nelson

    This is a great article. I would consider myself a passionate player and I definitely show my emotions on the course. Recently, I have been trying to stay more level headed out there, and this article shows how important it is to keep our emotions in check throughout all 18 holes. I will definitely apply this to my game and I’m sure it will help me shoot some lower scores when I’m not firing on all cylinders.

  • Great article Coach. I like to think of myself as a player who can bounce back from bad holes or bad shots. However I know allot of times i give up on myself. It’s hard to find anything positive to think about in a bad round. Your comment “is golf tougher than you, or are you tougher than golf?” to Mackenzie was very inspirational. The next time i’m falling in a round I will definitely say that to myself.

  • Mitchell Campbell

    This is one of my favorite articles. As an incoming freshman I am excited to learn a lot from you about handling myself mentally. Quite often when I get off to poor starts in tournaments I find my head spinning. This is an area of my game that needs to improve if I want to become a more consistent player. This year I’m going to try, not cry. Fantastic article Coach!

  • I love this, this is exactly what the game should be about right here. It’s great to see how a different outlook on the game can turn a bad round into a good round, or a good round to a great one. Truly an inspiring story that gets me excited to go out and play with a slightly different point of view. An article worth taking notes about.

  • Great article, I especially liked what you said about having to make a commitment to accept whatever happens good or bad. Experiencing adversity on the golf course is sometimes difficult for me especially if I set my expectations high. In the future I will definitely make a commitment before my golf rounds to accept all shots good and bad.

  • Coach! What an inspiring article!!!! When Noah and I met you the other day, you know I couldn’t keep my mouth shut! We are so similar in our approach to this wonderful game and I was so in awe that you are able to use so many of these tools to inspire and guide your team. I have been doing Sport Psych with PGA and LPGA players for over 20 years now. I truly believe attitude is crucial. Attitude towards oneself, your team, your coach, competition and the overall game in general. Your musings here are brilliant, articulate, inspiring and in my opinion crucial. The team is lucky to have you and in so many ways you are lucky to have them. You can take your theories and put them into action! When I met some of your players, I was well aware of the commitment and enthusiasm that these young men displayed. What an incredible opportunity to practice the mental game of golf and learn how to implement: focus, determination and attitude on and off the course. Thank you for sharing a little slice of your pie with us that day. We hope the stars align and Noah will be part of this great group of young men next year, lead by your strong, wise and tireless coaching!! All the best, Julie Elion

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