Thursday, September 30, 2010

Winning Mental Management

A golfer over at Brian Manzella's forum ( asked about course management and how he can improve his management of the course. This rang a bell with me as the golfer discussed how he had a great score going, he tried to hit a tee shot over some trees and wound up in jail and then realized that it wasn't worth it and got mad at himself for trying. I think most of us have been there before. And what's particularly frustrating is that this isn't football or basketball or some other sport where you have to make split second decisions. In golf we have plenty of time to think about what we are going to do, so making dumb decisions becomes even more frustrating.

When I think of 'course management', I usually think of Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus was known for having a weak wedge game, wasn't that great of a chipper and was supposedly a horrible bunker player by Tour standards. But, he's still the greatest that ever lived in my book despite not having that great wedge game or that great game around the greens that everybody points out to being the key to just making the PGA Tour, much less being the greatest ever.

But as one PGA professional that watched Nicklaus and is friends with the man once told me, 'yeah, Jack wasn't a good bunker player, but tell me the last time you remember him in a bunker.'

Meaning, Nicklaus wasn't great out of the bunker but he was brilliant at not getting in them. And his contemporaries will tell you that nobody thought his way around a course as well as Nicklaus did.

I get asked quite a bit about why I never mention Dr. Bob Rotella's books. That's actually simple...I detest those type of books. I could go into why I think a lot of it is stuff we already know and it doesn't help us, but here's the killer part of those books I have a great disdain for:

'Play conservatively with a cocky swing.'

There's two big issues I have with this mantra.

1. You won't go low playing conservatively. In order to go low, you need to get the ball as close to the cup as you for birdie. Take a look at this chart of putts made by the PGA Tour from different distances.

As you can see, the PGA Tour makes 87% of their putts from 3-5 feet. Then there's a dramatic drop in 6-10 feet putts of 55%. Still though, if I can make 55% of my putts from a certain distance, that's where I think I need to be quite a few times for birdie in order to go low. From there the dropoff is much more significant as 15-20 footers are made only 18% of the time.

And let's remember, these are PGA Tour players who are far better putters than their average amateur, who have caddies who chart greens, know where the pin positions are going to be and how the ball will roll and read the putts. And the greens are far smoother than your average golf course. So chances are the average amateur isn't going to come close to making 55% of their putts from 6-10 feet.

And they want us to play conservatively?

2. The other problem I have with the 'play conservatively, swing cocky' approach is that it more or less plays a tug of war with your brain. If you're playing conservatively, you're sending signals to your brain that you're not all that confident with your golf swing, otherwise you would be quite aggressive out on the course.

Typically what I see from amateurs who try this 'play conservatively, swing cocky' approach is that they pull out a 3-wood and lollipop one into trouble and say to out loud 'gee, why did I play it safe if I was going to hit that?!?'

I think by and large people would rather 'go down swinging' than anything else...meaning that they would rather take the shot with the aggressive play and fail over trying to play it safe and fail. It's something men are taught as little boys playing Little League baseball, if you have 2 strikes against you, 'go down swinging.'

And if you watch Touring professionals play golf courses, they typically play them far more aggressively than your amateur will, even the very good amateur who can hit the ball as well as they can.

It reminds me a bit of the club championship I played last year at Windermere GC in Cumming, GA. I finished 2nd. 1st place was a kid out of college who was a D-II All-American and is now a touring professional. 3rd and 4th place went to a couple of guys who were pros, but regained their amateur status (one of whom played at U. of South Carolina).

The 3rd hole is a par-5 teeing off a cliff and playing about 510 yards and dog legging left. You can certainly reach the green in two. However, there's trouble both left and right if you hit a driver that is noticeably off line. It may not be the worst drive in the world, but if it's noticeably off line, you risk going into the woods or a hazard. The 'safe' play is to take a 3-wood where you can go a bit more off line, but be okay because you won't reach the trouble.

The problem is if you hit a 3-wood you have about 240 yards to the green with a very downhill lie and the green is going uphill. The very long golfers can reach it there in two, but the average length golfer won't. And it's not an easy shot to keep in play with a 3-wood on te second shot, so often we hit like a 5-iron and have 60 yards in.

If you hit a good driver off the tee, you will likely have an iron into the green. It won't be as severe of a downhill lie as well.

To me, the decision was easy. Hit the driver. Why? Because I knew that if I took a pretty decent, but not a great pass at the ball, I would find the fairway and be in excellent position. And THAT is why in large part I practice so much, so I can make those 'pretty decent, but not great passes at the ball' almost on command.

That's the thing I think so much of these mental game and course management books don't get. There's a reason why we practice and it shouldn't be to play conservatively.

To me, it's like rebuilding a '69 Camaro and putting a brand new engine in it and making the car pristine.....only to drive it 45 mph on the freeway.

I guess you would say that you have a 'cocky car that you drive conservatively.'

Personally, I would recommend listening to Moe Norman's videos about the mental game instead to put you into world of how great, champion golfers think.

You can find them if you follow this link, but you have to register (it's free)

The thing about Moe is that I always thought it was nearly impossible and freakish for a guy to hit the ball as well and as consistently well as he did. While it certainly was, I believe that it would have never been accomplished if it wasn't for his true confidence in himself and his aggressive play on the course.

Certainly, Moe had the skill. But Moe would've never blinked on #3 at Windermere because he understood that you're on the golf course to take a pretty decent pass at the ball and that should be okay.

So instead of playing 'conservatively with a cocky swing', I prefer to play 'fearless, but smart golf.'

But that doesn't mean 'go for everything.' More often than not, what amateurs do is play really dumb golf, expecting to hit a shot that they may hit 5% of the time with little reward and tons of risk, and do it with a lot of fear stepping into the ball. No wonder why they can't break 80.

I think a lot of this could be helped if they slowed down their pre-shot routine *a tad* and had this little mental checklist:

1. What 'bad spots' do I want to avoid if I miss this shot?
2. What are the odds that I can execute this shot?
3. If I take a decent pass at it, what are the odds I'll be in good shape?
4. What is the 'value' of the reward and what is the 'penalty' of the risk?

#1 at Eastwood golf club is about 390 yards par 4. The fairway narrows quite a bit once you get past the 150 marker and there's water right and woods left. In fact the fairway in that stretch is only 21 yards wide. The green is extremely narrow. So if you hit a driver down the pipe, the reward is you'll have a 9-iron or a wedge into a narrow green and your chances of hitting the GIR are certainly better. But the risk is jail or water.

For me I simply take a 3-wood off the tee and never think twice about it. Mainly because a 3-wood will put me about 150 yards away and leave me with an 8 or 7-iron and I should be able to hit a GIR from there, plus it completely takes the water and the trees out of play.

THAT is how I think around the course. That being said, since I'm a member at Eastwood, I have my gameplan set BEFORE I go out an play.

The problem is that people tend to overdo it. Being fearless doesn't mean playing stupid For example, the 2nd hole at Cornell GC is a 180-190 yard par-3 with a green this about 125 feet wide. In tournaments they like to stick the flag as far to the right of the green as they can, right where this giant gorge is. One could be completely fearless and try to hit one at the flag. But if they take a good swing the could still wind up in the gorge because they may not have the right club or the wind may take the ball, etc.

Instead, the smart play is the middle of the green and take a little extra club and then try to 2-putt from 30-50 feet.

I think that if you think a little better around the course and play more aggressively, but smart and fearlessly, you'll shoot better scores and you will enjoy the game more.



Matt D said...

Nice post Richie, but in the end you've convinced me that your "fearless, but smart" is pretty much the same as Rotella's "conservative strategy, cocky swing" approach.

Sometimes driver is the smart play, plenty of times its just plain dumb. and you're absolutely right about the risk reward thing. if trying a ridiculous shot only marginally improves your chance to make a birdie and significantly increase the risk of a double, you need to keep your head on. Hard to make birdies when you've hit it OB.

I've read a lot of Rotella and agree that there's plenty in there that is just plain common sense - that said, i still get value from it. I play off 3hcp, so have some ideas about the game.

That Slate article you posted about recently has changed my ideas on course strategy. The "shots to go" model helps to make some decisions really easy. Even though I dont know my actual "shots to go" with any real statistical accuracy, around my home course i have a pretty good gut-feel.

Knowing that tour pro's only hole it 50% of the time from 7 feet has made me really relaxed on the greens. last time out, I shot one-over and had just 26 putts (yeh, i missed plenty of greens!).

cheers, Matt

Rich H. said...

I disagree, Matt.

I play very aggressively and being fearless but smart I feel is far different from Rotella's, conservative but with a cocky swing approach.

I probably should say 'fearless, but not dumb.' If there's a shot that I may be able to execute 5% of the time and the reward isn't that advantageous, I'd be dumb to try that shot.

The Rotella approach would have the golfer to hit 3-wood off the tee 'with a cocky swing' on that par-5 hole I mentioned. But my approach says a pretty decent swing with a driver should keep you safe. Whereas the Rotella approach with the 3-wood off the tee gives the golfer a lot more margin for error, but my approach with the driver has much less margin for error, but a good swing will give you a sizeable advantage.

It's like in football when they say 'playing not to lose' (Rotella) vs. my approach of 'playing to win.'


Matt D said...

Hey Richie, I think where we we differ is our interpretation of what Rotella is saying. I totally agree with your "agressive-not-dumb" strategy.

I never really thought of Rotella's approach being that different. It's not like he's suggesting you hit 5 iron - 8 iron into shortish par 4's.

All he's saying (and you, and me!) is how do I best get it in the hole for the least number of strokes on the most regular basis.

If I concede that your approach and his are in fact different, I would say that in next weeks 4 round club championships I'll be using the Rotella approach. But when it comes to interclub matchplay series I go the Richie path.

It sounds like you think Rotella's way is for pussies - I just never really thought of it that way. Maybe it loses something in translation across the Pacific!

Play well mate, and I love your blog.

Rich H. said...

I'm not a fan of Rotella's work, period. But I think Rotella's 'conservative strategy with a cocky swing' is just not how PGA Tour pros play the game overall and I think it puts golfers behind the 8-ball too much.


birly-shirly said...

wee bit surprised at the strong words being used around Rotella's stuff.

of course, your entitled to your opinion but this could be balanced with a few factors

(a) 90% of Rotella's readers aren't worried about "going low" they're worried about going high

(b) it's the very exceptional golfer who hits other than an exceptional shot to where they have a better than 50:50 chance of holing the putt, unless they have wedge in hand. This is irrespective of strategy.

(c) if you're confident of landing driver in the fairway and you know you have a margin for error, why isn't it conservative strategy to go with driver? Most amateurs are hitting driver with NO IDEA whether their ball is going in the fairway or not.

(d) Sure you could make a case that a lot of what he says we already "know". Actually, he made that case himself in the introduction or first chapter of his first book. I think Rotella was original in drawing attention back to some of these points, and away from endless technical introspection. The real question isn't whether his stuff is new, it's whether it's useful.

(e) You dismissed Rotella and "those type of book" pretty much out of hand. What, apart from wanting amateurs to "go low" - makes you dislike them? The emphasis on short game, target focus, shot routine, good attitude, not getting caught up in swing thoughts when trying to score...?

I'm not saying Rotella has all the answers, but then I don't think he would either.

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