The Mental Game

The Mental Game

I have heard many times, as I’m sure you have as well, that the game of golf is 90% mental. First, you must consider the source. We typically hear comments like this from the announcers while watching golf on television on the weekend. Keep in mind that the PGA tour is comprised of the best 125 golfers in the world. The television networks only follow and broadcast the leaders of the tournament. Therefore, we are watching the “top dogs”, the “cream of the crop” if you will. I’m sure that Tiger Woods or Ernie Els isn’t thinking about how to start the backswing, where their weight should be at impact or how to release their hands through impact. After many years of training and being tournament toughened, they are thinking one thing. TARGET! The ability to block out distractions and negative thoughts is what truly makes them professionals. Learning to play within ourselves, excepting our limitations and remain focused on the process of making good golf shots should be the goal of every golfer.

In the case of the new golfer, I would say the game is maybe 5% mental. The new golfer is much more concerned about learning the fundamentals of the golf swing. In fact, as I work with new golfers, I’m not even concerned where they hit the ball. I want them to “feel” a certain position or move we are working on. I want to remove the added pressure a new golfer feels to hit the ball a certain distance or direction. It’s more about the process of making good swings than the outcome of the shot. If the process is solid and consistent then a positive outcome will result. Therefore, it stands to reason that the better golfer you become, the game becomes more mental and less mechanical. Through proper instruction and practice, the more you can “groove” a sound golf swing, the less you have to think about making one. The less you think about swing thoughts and swing keys, the more you can focus on eliminating distraction and become target oriented. To play high caliber competitive golf, you must play with a quiet mind. That is, you can’t think about all the different mechanical steps to your swing while you are playing. You can’t be concerned about what your playing partners think of you. The last shot you hit doesn’t matter. The next shot you hit doesn’t matter. The only shot that should be of concern is the shot you are getting ready to hit. Good golf can’t be played on an emotional roller-coaster. To be able to maintain a consistent heart rate whether you just made a birdie or double bogey is the sign of an experienced golfer.

What follows are some quotes regarding golf’s mental game. Whether your golf game is at the level of 90% mechanical and 10% mental, or 50% mechanical and 50% mental, I’m sure you will find the following quotes both enlightening and interesting.

“I suggest that you set your own par for the course. Change the par written on the scorecard to reflect your handicap, as well as the conditions, making it your “personal par for the day.” Before each round, on your scorecard, cross out and rewrite the par given to each of the harder holes on the course. Add one for as many holes as you receive handicap strokes (and one or two more if the weather or course conditions are extra challenging). The harder par-4 holes are now par-5’s, etc.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“A Zen master asked a student, “Where is your mind?” The student said, “When I perceive my thoughts, it is as if someone were speaking inside my head. So my mind must be in my head.” The master motioned for the student to approach him. When the student stood right in front of him, the master banged his fist down on the student’s big toe and said, “Now where is your mind?”
“Ultimately, our mind has the potential to be as big as the universe. The more open our mind, the bigger it is. The more consumed by worry and petty concerns, the smaller it is. Tunnel vision might be very focused, but if you miss a critical variable in your planning, the shot will be a disaster. Temper tantrums make for a very small mind and lead to awful decisions. Worrying about missing a four-foot putt makes your mind feel about as tiny as a thimble. Playing your best golf comes from having the biggest mind.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“Confidence is how strongly you believe in your ability to perform. Confidence is derived from a baseline of past play, practice and preparation.”
– Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., Going Low

“Once an athlete overcomes a mental or physical barrier, suddenly the barrier no longer exists and new expectations or limits of what is possible are formed.
– Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., Going Low

“Forget about playing a perfect, mistake-free round. Give yourself the opportunity to make three or four mistakes during the round. That way you can play on with composure when you make a mistake. When you do make a mistake or hit an “unacceptable” shot, view it as part of golf and know that you can recover if you maintain your composure.”
– Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., Going Low

“Tension and deep breathing are incompatible. If you’re tense, you won’t be breathing deeply; if you breathe deeply, tension dissolves.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“You play your best golf when you plan with your head, then play from your heart. Fill your mind with a vivid image of the shot you intend to play and settle down, clearing away tension by taking a full deep breath as you begin your approach to the ball.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“If you change your mind, you need to give your body time to get to where your mind is. It can take up to ten seconds. After you make a new plan, take a few warm-up swings with the new image in mind and allow enough time to let it sink in. Then you can flow through your routine with body and mind in sync and fire away with confidence.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“Play within your ability by not letting overconfidence and foolhardy instincts ruin your decision-making process. Playing within your ability simply means understanding your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations as a golfer. It also means using this information to play smarter so you can score your best.”
– Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., Going Low

“For players who need a swing thought, it is better to have one that describes what you intend to do rather than how you intend to do it.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“You can best incorporate a move you’ve been practicing into your swing during play if you focus on it before you swing rather than thinking about it while you swing.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“If you begin to worry about embarrassing yourself or hitting a poor shot, stop and restart the routine from the beginning. You don’t have to hit a shot until your ready to do so. Use this time to get refocused on your routine. You are not ready to hit the shot if you are thinking about who is watching you hit, what the bet is for the day, or how to avoid hitting the ball into the trees. Anytime during the round, if you are not into your preshot routine, stop and get refocused on the task.”
– Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., Going Low

“Society teaches us that success is the foundation for self-worth, which I think is wrong. Can you feel good about yourself only if you are successful in some endeavor? I hope not. Take away that success and how do you feel as a person? Self-esteem should be based on your values as a person and what personal characteristics identify you. The people in your life will still love you because they enjoy you as a person, not just because you are a good golfer or successful businessman.”
– Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., Going Low

“You have to have a swing motion that can physically send a ball on the line you intend, and your body has to repeat that motion until it becomes a habit. However, once you groove that movement, your body can execute it in a very precise way without conscious direction.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“The components of the process of putting are:
1. Choosing the best line for the putt that we can
2. Getting the best feel for the pace that we can
3. Making the best stroke we can
If you rolled the ball on the line you chose, at the pace you wanted, with what you felt was a good stroke, then you made the putt. You may not hole every putt, but you can make every putt.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“Being in the present means focusing only on the shot at hand. If you add anything to the situation, such as the meaning of a putt for your score, your mind leaves the present and gets out of sync with your body.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“If you think you’ve got the match or the tournament won, that image of the future gives a message to your body that you’re finished. All your systems start to shift into low gear, as if the next thing you’re going to do is sit down in the clubhouse and have a drink.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“If you compete against the course rather than your opponents, you’re less likely to defeat yourself through assumptions, predictions, and other mental mistakes.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“Practice with a purpose, practice with a plan, practice with patience. If you’re working on something, have the patience to feel confidence in it before you take it out on the course. Train it until you trust it; trust it before you try it.”
– Dr. Joseph Parent, Zen Golf

“Look at the target, look at the ball, and swing.” The idea that underlies this fundamental principle is the same one behind trusting your swing. Your brain and body work best together when the brain reacts to a target. Once you have completed your setup and locked onto your target, further delay can only be an opportunity for unwanted thoughts and distractions to disturb your concentration and pollute that pure and unconscious reaction.
– Dr. Bob Rotella, Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect

“Hit the shot you know you can hit, not the shot you think you ought to be able to hit.”
– Dr. Bob Rotella, Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect

“Confidence at the level of any single shot is nothing more than thinking about your ball going to the target. If you’re thinking about the ball going to the target, you’re confident.”
– Dr. Bob Rotella, Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect

“Before taking any shot, a golfer must pick out the smallest possible target. The brain and nervous system respond best when the eyes focus on the smallest possible target.”
– Dr. Bob Rotella, Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect

“Winners and losers are self-determined. But only winners are willing to admit it.”
– UCLA basketball coaching legend, John Wooden

“If you play poorly one day, forget it.
If you play poorly the next time out, review your fundamentals of grip, stance, aim and ball position. Most mistakes are made before the club is swung.
If you play poorly for a third time in a row, go see your professional.”
– Harvey Penick

“In golf your strengths and weaknesses will always be there. If you could improve your weaknesses, you would improve your game. The irony is that people prefer to practice their strengths.”
– Harvey Penick

“Learn one basic shot that you can hit under pressure and stick with it. If you have a good basic shot, you will rarely ever have to hit a fancy one.”
– Harvey Penick


“Long ago, there was an old farmer living on the outskirts of a little village. He was quite poor, possessing only a small piece of land, a small house in which he lived with his only son, and one horse.
One day, the horse broke out of the corral and ran away. The neighbors came over to console the farmer. They said, “Oh, this is so terrible! You were poor before, but now you’re destitute. What bad luck! This is the worst thing that could have happened.”
The old farmer shrugged his shoulders and gently said, “Who knows what’s good and what’s bad?”
The farmer fixed the fence and left the gate open. The next day, his horse came back and went right into the corral, followed by a whole herd of wild horses. The neighbors came over to congratulate him. They said, “Oh, this is so wonderful! You were the poorest man in the village and now you’re the richest. What good fortune! This is the best thing that could have happened.”
The old farmer shrugged his shoulders and again said, “Who knows what’s good and what’s bad.”
The next day, his son was working to tame the new horses. One of them bucked and he fell off, breaking his leg. The neighbors cam over and said, “Oh, this is so terrible! Now your son is hurt, the horses can’t be tamed, and you have no one to help you harvest your crop. What bad luck! This is the worst thing that could have happened!”
The old farmer shrugged his shoulders and once more said, “Who knows what’s good and what’s bad.”
And the next day, the king’s army came through the countryside, taking all the able-bodied young men off to battle, where they were almost sure to die. But because the old farmer’s son’s leg was hurt, he wasn’t taken along. So who knows, what’s good and what’s bad?


Dear God,
In the annals of time
a handful of citizens stood
at the edge of a pasture.
With crooks in hand and stones about
they made the first drives
that one day would evolve into golf.

Just one of those first drivers had talent,
and the rest were only determined.
That one talented driver drove the rest
to lives of dedication, though often
mediocrity and despair.

Grant us, O Lord, the grace to use the
clubs you have blessed us with,
The disposition not to cloud
our judgment and stance.

We beseech you, Lord, to heal our slice,
to straighten our hook, to carve our
divots truly, to improve our lie,
making it just a tad better than our opponent’s.

Give us the vision to keep our eye
on the ball, our grip uncomfortable
enough to be true, our minds and hearts
pure as the course we play.

We ask this in your name.


Monsignor Richard E. McCabe
at Caritas Charity Dinner
Austin, Texas, November 24, 1992

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