Golf is a game of confidence. When you play well, you think and see positive things happening to you during the round. You don't dwell on negative thoughts and destructive images. If you do, they have a habit of becoming reality. The trick is to learn to think in positives and use the power of your mind to help you to play your best golf. With the help of the sports psychologist Alan Fine, I have developed several techniques that help me to stay focused on the course. Particularly in the area of the short game, where your expectations are high and your nerves more likely to influence your performance, these mental games can help you to withstand pressure and score to your full potential.
PUTTING - the 'back-hit' exercise
There is nothing new about this mental exercise, which has its origins in Timothy Gallwey's best-selling book, The Inner Game of Golf. If you haven't read it, I recommend that you try to get hold of a copy.
The back-hit drill is a simple means by which you take your mind off the task of striking a short putt into the hole, and instead think about the much easier task of saying 'back' and 'hit' at the corresponding moments in your stroke. When I feel under pressure, I simply say 'back' to correspond with the length of the back swing (left), and 'hit' to coincide with the moment the putter-head strikes the ball (right). Sometimes I say these words in my mind, sometimes out loud.
The reason this exercise works so well is that when your mind is pre¬occupied with the timing of these words relative to the stroke, it is not second-guessing your ability to make the putt, or doubting your ability to withstand pressure. Your mind is focused, and that enables you to execute a smooth and positive stroke.
Narrow your focus, shrink your target
The process of 'targeting' your shots on the course is critical, though few amateurs discipline themselves properly within their pre-shot routine. You have to be specific. When you stand on the tee, don't regard the fairway as your target; narrow it down to a section of fairway within the bigger picture. When you weigh up an approach shot to the green, try to focus on a specific portion of the green. Every time you do this, you are sharpening your focus, and that will help you to be more accurate with the shot in question.
The same thing applies around the green. When you prepare to play a chip-shot, visualise holing it. Out of a bunker, that may be a little unrealistic, but you can still shrink your target. Any time I face a bunker shot like this one I always try to picture in my mind a small circle around the hole, about the size of a dustbin lid. That's my target. I'm not interested in just getting the ball out and on to the green, I want it to finish inside that circle. That'll leave me a simple tap-in.
With that positive image in my mind, I feel I can play the shot with purpose and confidence. You will notice that I set-up with my body line open to the target, and then swing the open club face along the line of my feet before splashing it through the sand beneath the ball. But I don't have to think about the technique, and that's the real deal. I just think about my target area, and splash the ball towards it.
Be careful of this: Are you sending all the wrong signals?
Body language - which is directly related to confidence -speaks volumes in golf. Any time you are afraid of a shot, nervous about it in any way, your body language gives you away.
Faced with a tough pitch shot, like this one over a bunker, many players would be visibly concerned walking up to the ball. The head is down, the shoulders slumped. They are timid in their approach. This is the gait of the player who doubts his ability, who wears an expression that says "I can't play this shot. I don't think I'm good enough to pull it off...". And what happens? The odds are that the shot will be fluffed.
Acting as if...l am Seve!
To get over this, I use a technique that Alan describes as 'Acting as if...', or play-acting a situation. Seve is my idol, so when I face tough shots around the green, I pretend to be Seve. I act as if I were Seve. What would he do in this situation? Well, first of all he would take a good look at the shot, prowl about the green the way he does, stare at the hole and visualise the ball disappearing into it. Then, with a positive image fixed in his mind, he would get ready to play the shot, place the club head behind the ball and hitch up his trousers.
All of these mannerisms get him good and ready to play the shot, and if you copy Seve (or whoever your idol is) you will get yourself in a good frame of mind, too. Your mind is busy being Seve, not dwelling on the difficulty of the shot or the importance attached to it. And that's the point of the exercise. Once again you have tricked your mind into a positive mode. And if you practise this technique often enough, it will help your short game immensely.
AND WHEN IT COMES TO ACTUALLY HITTING THE BALL...
Most pros will tell you that the key to so that the wrists can hinge properly and
executing this type of feel shot is to slide the club face under the ball. With that
maintain a light and sensitive grip pressure in mind, follow these basic rules:
- Pre-set your impact position at the set-up: make sure your body is open to the line, lay the club face slightly open, and keep your weight on the left side.
- Then let the action unfold just as you pictured it in your mind.
- Keep your hands 'soft' and try to feel the ball leave the club face