In a previous post (A Golfers Biggest Hazard, Dec. 2012) I wrote, 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.”
Golf is a tough game. If you want to enjoy it you need to be equally tough. Golf can and eventually will beat you up mentally. Every golfer goes through tough times. As I have said to every golfer I have coached over the years, “you must embrace the struggle.” The crazy thing about the game we love is that we can hit hundreds of shots perfectly, but if we hit one poorly at the wrong time it can make us doubt everything we do. A golfer’s memory seems to be very long when it comes to remembering the negative, and very short when remembering the positive. I’ve seen it more times than I can count: One of my players is going along great and all of the sudden he hits a poor drive or misses a short putt and for the remainder of the round, and perhaps for weeks after, doubts his ability. Now he is totally distracted from the task at hand – playing golf. As he wonders what happened and why, he hits more poor shots, and as his score goes up his confidence goes down. And so the spiral downward begins.
I prefer to take a more philosophical approach. I believe golf is a living, breathing thing. It can sense fear and weakness, and when it does, it will devour you. The only way to prevail against the beast is to remain upbeat and optimistic and as you do, the beast will go away and then golf will reward you.
I believe, when you struggle, golf is actually trying to teach you something. Golf has a great way of exposing your weaknesses. For instance, if you struggle with chipping you will find yourself missing greens and having to chip. If you practiced chipping more it wouldn’t be such an issue, but it is human nature to avoid practicing what you’re not good at. Instead of avoiding the weakness you should practice to overcome the weakness. So, in essence, golf is giving you exactly what you need – opportunities to chip! Golf always exposes you.
In the December 2012 post I told the tale of Makenzie Denver, a young man on my team who learned the importance of not giving up mentally when things got tough on the golf course. If you haven’t already I encourage you to go back and read the story. It’s a good one that can help all golfers.
Denver, my most talented player, struggled during his freshman year with staying mentally engaged when he had tough rounds. When things got tough he would mope and sulk believing he was a victim and the only one golf was picking on. This cost him strokes. Afterward, when looking at the leader board, he realized that if he would have stayed mentally tough during the round and hung in there and fought hard, three things would have happened: 1) he could have helped our team more; 2) individually, he would have finished high in some important events; and 3) he would have gone away from the tournament with no regrets. As Ghandi said, “Full effort is full victory.”
This past March we were playing at the Jekyll Island Intercollegiate on the coast of Georgia over spring break. It’s a very important event. In fact, it’s the largest tournament in NCAA golf.
In the first two rounds Denver played okay, +1 in the first round and +6 in the 2nd. Not bad considering the winter we had in the Northeast and the fact it was the first time we had seen grass in four months.
In the final round Denver got off to a solid start, parring the first two. The 3rd hole is probably the easiest par 4 on the course — just a 3-wood or hybrid off the tee, and a short pitch of about 60-80 yards to the green. Denver hit some poor shots, and ended up with double-bogie on the hole. On the very next hole, a tight par 4 dogleg right, he followed up the double with an eight. Yep, a snowman.
During all of this I was on another part of the course with one of my other players but knew what was happening because the tournament had live scoring and I was watching the gruesome events unfold on an app on my phone. Denver was now 6 over par after four holes—not the start he in anyway imagined. I didn’t rush to go see him right away because I knew he’d be okay. We had been working on turning his weakness into his strength for a more than a year now and I knew he had the tools to stay “up” mentally and accept the adversity and move forward.
I caught up to him on the par 3, eighth hole. The first thing he said to me with a smile on his face was, “Did you hear what happened?”
I told him, “Yeah, I heard.”
We laughed about it and said to each other, “Lets get some strokes back.”
Denver was in a great frame of mind and I stayed with him for most of the remainder of the round. His attitude remained terrific and he fought like a champion. After his disaster on the 3rd and 4th, he fought his way around and played the rest of his round 2 under par to finish at +4 for the day—really respectable. In fact, he came back to tie one of his playing competitors and beat the other.
Golf isn’t always about winning. Many days it’s about salvaging. Golf always teaches you something, especially on the hard days, but you have to be willing to endure pain in order to get the reward. Denver had already learned the lesson and because he didn’t panic, mope or sulk, golf rewarded him. He didn’t have to win or shoot the lowest score to demonstrate his greatness. A lesser player would have quit mentally and shot a high score. Not him. He earned the respect of the young men who played with him; not only that, they learned a lesson from him — how a champion responds when things get tough.
I was an extremely proud coach that day.