As my players start to enter tournaments, I try to get them ready for the mental ups and downs I know will surely happen. No amount of talking and teaching will sufficiently prepare them for the internal struggle. Everyone is different in that way, and an integral part of success is finding the frame of mind that allows us to compete and still maintain our composure. I many times tell them of the “four-hour journey.” During that four hours (a round of golf), there will likely be one hour of good golf, one hour of bad golf, and two hours of average golf. You must deal with each period of time in the most productive way. When you are in the good stretch of golf, it is important to take note of how you feel, not only with your swing, but with your relaxation levels, breathing patterns, and clarity with regards to decision making. This helps us build a zone, that force field that keeps negativity away from us. During the turmoil part of your round, you will be tested in every way:  “I’ve practiced hard and now I can’t remember any of my swing keys. My mind is spinning and everything bothers me. The ball doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I can’t breathe. I can only think about when this round will be over. I am overrun with negativity and thoughts that have nothing to do with my round of golf.” You will then settle into a period of golf that doesn’t particularly present anything more than just smooth sailing, e.g., relatively straight shots and two-putt pars that advance the round along. Patience is important, because pressing for great results many times produce the opposite. Once you have played in enough tournaments, where everything that could happen to a golfer has happened and nothing surprises you, then you are ready to draw from that experience. Seve Ballesteros was famous for his lack of accuracy and ability to post good scores despite bad ball striking. When asked for his secret, he calmly replied, “I just suffer better than other people.” Tour pros are more likely to respect a player for their mental ability than their ball striking abilities. They know, statistically, that a round of golf means 4.5 birdies and 2.1 bogeys (for instance). They know this math will work out. It doesn’t matter to them when the bogeys or birdies come. If the bogeys come on the first two holes, they are likely done for the day with bogeys, and only good things are to come. They play in a weekly 72-hole round of golf. A mental ebb and flow is costly, literally, with big money on the line. Going back to the scenario of two bogeys to start the round, think of how many times you see a player turn the entire round into a meltdown because of the opening turmoil. It is a great moment for a young golfer (our tournament age, not chronological age) when we start a round poorly and finish strong.  I am always impressed when a tour pro (or anyone) can begin a tournament with a bad stretch of holes and then rebound to challenge for the victory. Pressure presents itself in many ways. It could be a tournament or something on a local level. Maybe it is just a round with your boss or clients. You would really like to gain their respect through great ball striking. The round begins and you are nervous. You play poorly until the back nine, when you finally say, “Who cares,” and then you play pretty well the remainder of the round. I tell my students that they will not be defined as a person by what their score adds up to, but it is still hard. When it comes to playing shots, the tour pro talk of divorcing yourself from the result. This is most commonly applied to putting. Expectation of the result clouds our vision and brings tension that affects the physical act. Saying it is better to “not care” is a concept that is hard for some, but thinking past the swinging of the club to the result of the swing is the wrong sequence. Honest self-assessment is a valuable tool in the building process. It begins with noticing that you are a little irritable that morning before the round. Then, your mind is racing during your warm-up session. You are impatient while putting, wanting to get the round started, so that you can get it over with. Immediately you are faced with a testing up-and-down or slick putt. How will you handle this? Maybe you don’t miss a shot but fly it over the green. You are technically striking the ball well, but that doesn’t always produce great results. There are many ways to fail. Tour pros are sure to tell themselves that they are playing well, and it is just a matter of time until the results will show up. You cannot guarantee you will play well today, because there are too many outside factors involved. In sports, you are a different athlete every day. For that reason, you will feel and see things differently each day. One day nothing bothers you and the next day everything is annoying. You can guarantee that you conduct yourself in a respectful manner. You will absorb whatever presents itself in your path and respond to it in a manner that allows you to play better later in the round. You can make sure that you are never a hindrance to a playing partner. You don’t want to be that person who goes silent and selfish, and then shows back up when things get better. Experience shows us that a round of golf is a four-hour journey with three periods of different levels of golf. As a student of the game, we must learn to make the best use of each portion of our round, if we want to produce the best, consistent result.
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