Anyone can play golf but how many golfers treat the game as a sport? For some it’s deadly serious, for others it’s as casual as a stroll in a park. There are thousands in between who are struggling to get the balance right.
There’s no surer way to ruin a round than to take it too seriously because you can’t hit a good golf shot if you’re weighed down with invisible pressure. Equally if it’s too casual, you’re unlikely to take enough care and attention when it comes to lining up a putt or a tricky bunker shot. What makes the game difficult, mentally, is making sure to concentrate but not thinking about it to the extent that you’re worn out by the time it comes to hit the ball.
Too many golfers don’t think about golf at all. They arrive at the course and go from the car to the first tee-box. Those golfers don’t think of golf as a sport because if they did, they wouldn’t dream of hitting their first shot off the first tee.
Even lads who play five-a-side soccer on a Monday night will pass the ball around before they start a game. What’s the first thing a Gaelic footballer or hurler does when they run out in Croke Park? Their instinct is to kick a ball or strike a sliotar, preferably over the bar. Nothing gets your confidence going like a successful shot.
And yet golfers expect to crack a great drive off the tee without having hit a few practice shots. If you get nervous on the first, the best way to lessen the tension is to hit a load of inconsequential shots. It takes time to get your eye in for any game but unless you want to play terrible golf, why else would you not warm up beforehand?
If you think of golf as a sport, your attitude changes completely. No sportsman expects to do well without practice and no manager would pick a player for a team if he wasn’t training. And yet week after week, golfers arrive on the first tee with minimum preparation and maximum expectation.
Of course you can over-do your warm-up and your preparation. You can think about the game so much the mind can’t switch off and by the time Saturday comes, you’re a bundle of nerves. You can start to feel like this game was designed to torture you.
That happens when you forget that golf is a sport. If you were playing an important football match on Saturday, having trained Tuesday and Thursday, you’d make sure to have eaten well and slept well during the week. You certainly wouldn’t have gone out for six pints on Friday night. And yet when it comes to golf, those principles go out the window. If you take your golf seriously enough that you’ve a desire to do well, then why treat the game like just another day? Why not get ready for it in the way what you’d get ready for any important game or for any important day at work? That’s not taking the fun out of it – what takes the fun out of golf is hitting bad shots and getting tired and cranky. And the best way to do that is to treat golf as if it’s not a sport.
Of course you can do all the right things and still not perform well. I know because for most of the year that’s what seemed to be happening to me. Those are the times when you start to feel like an idiot, when you question the value of taking the game seriously at all. You only think like that because you forget that golf is a sport and sport is unpredictable. If it was as simple as following a formula then it wouldn’t be a challenge. It’d be too easy then. In a game of chance, you’re never guaranteed anything; you can only increase the odds of doing well.
One way of increasing those odds is to change your thinking. Since I got my handicap down to 11, my mindset has changed. When I started I played off 18 for a good while and that holds you back for because you know you have a shot on every hole. It can limit you; prevent you playing good golf because you know you have a cushion.
When you’re handicap comes down, you’ve less of a cushion and that forces you to play better. A par won’t always equal three points anymore. You have to reach a higher standard but what if, like me, you get to 11, and you’re still trying to reach a higher standard?
My mindset, up until this week, has been to achieve seven pars in a round. Once I’ve done that I’m reasonably happy because it means I’ve a good chance of playing to my handicap provided I don’t do anything rash. The problem with that kind of thinking is that I’m unlikely to play better than my handicap and that’s not much use to me when my goal is to get my handicap down to single figures.
Playing with a member from Carton House at the weekend, James Campbell (who’s gone from 10 to 8 this year), was an eye opener. I was striking the ball really well and giving myself lots of birdie opportunities, none of which I was able to capitalise on. I finished with a nett 74 in the monthly medal on the O’Meara course off the blue tees (SSS is 74) but it could and should have been better.
Walking down the 17th, James talked about being stuck at 10 for ages until someone advised him to play to a lower mental handicap.
In other words, forget that your handicap is 10 (or in my case 11) and imagine that it’s 7. How different would you play?
Straightaway it forces you to play to a higher standard, which gives you a better chance of playing to that standard. It also means if you fall short of that standard, you’ve a much better chance of playing to your actual handicap and avoid gaining 0.1, which is always demoralising when you’re trying go the opposite way. It was a Eureka moment – if my goal in each round was seven pars, what chance had I of reducing my handicap?
It’s a little like a putt. If you’re only aiming to get the ball close to the hole and you miss your target area then you’re much further away with the next putt then if you aimed for the hole and missed.
Someone told me to be wary of the golfer with low expectations. If you don’t aim to play better then how can you increase the odds?