Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Composure, The Hidden Game Within The Game

I was watching a replay of ESPN’s 30 For 30 on the 1986 Masters. One of the things that really caught my attention was Nicklaus stating that as he started to make that run, he started to ‘learn how to play golf again.’ And what he meant by that, was he started to remember how to do the little things that don’t have a lot to do with actually hitting a golf ball, but do show up in the score at the end. One of the very first things Nicklaus mentioned was ‘learning how to keep my composure.’

I thought this was particularly ironic after Tiger’s kicking the club incident.

And former Ryder Cup Captain, Paul Azinger, certainly didn’t think too highly of Tiger’s actions as well.

I will say that I find keeping your composure to be one of the most difficult parts of this game. Especially if you are serious about the game and very passionate about it. It’s easy to lose your composure at the flip of a switch.

However, I do think it cuts both ways and I think that’s what Nicklaus was talking about. It’s one thing to keep your composure after he missed that par-putt on #12. But, you also have to keep your composure when you start birdieing holes as well because if you get too excited, you can lose your focus. Nicklaus was able to level out the highs and lows in ’86 and that was just as key of an element to his success on the back-9 at Augusta as his ballstriking and putting were. Without it, he probably doesn’t strike the ball or putt as well.

I also noticed how composed Louis Oosthuizen was at the Masters and remember the same from Charl Schwartzel when he won last year’s Green Jacket. I know both work with 3Jack Top 50 Instructor, Pete Cowen, on their golf swing and I know one of the things Cowen really delves into with his Tour students is the mental game. So I definitely think Cowen is really onto something.

For me, losing my composure from an anger perspective is much more of an issue than losing my composure when I’m on top of my game. I would not call myself an expert at either, but I think losing my composure when things don’t go my way is far greater than when things are going my way. I suspect it’s the same for just about every golfer.

This past weekend I started to formulate some ideas as to why I (and others) tend to lose their temper on the golf course:

1. To steal a line from Hank Haney, you tend to lose your temper when your performance doesn’t meet your expectations.

I’m sure a lot of us have had rounds of golf where we come in there thinking we are going to hit the ball great or shoot a really nice score and then when that happens, it’s like the game stuck a dagger in your back and starts to twist away.

In the town I grew up in, I would see this every year. We had 2 public golf courses on opposite sides of the town. One was rather difficult because it was very long and just had more difficult designed holes. The other was quite easy. It was very short with a lot of birdie and eagle opportunities.

But what was amazing to me was the members at the difficult course often struggled and struggled badly at the easy course. In fact, many members could almost never shoot a lower score at the easy course than they could at their difficult course.

I remember time and time again, members at the difficult course would say to the effect ‘I can’t wait to get on the easy course and shoot a really great number because that course is so easy and I’ve been playing so well here.’ And then they would shoot 85 or something completely crazy.

My experience was that their expectations were high and perhaps too high. And instead of focusing on the process (sticking to a pre-shot routine, making good swings, hitting so many greens and fairways, avoiding double bogeys or worse, etc), they would bogey the first hole and lose their composure and it would be a long day from there.

I think the problem is here is that we tend to do a poor job of placing expectations upon ourselves. How many times have we heard a football coach after his team blows out a tough competitor say ‘we expect to play this well’ or something similar to that?

I think in golf you have to set your expectations differently. I think you need to set your expectations that you will have good focus on every shot, that you won’t make poor decisions and that you will be prepared to play golf. If you do those things, then over time it will show up on your scores. The rest is stuff that is really out of your control.

2. Confusion as to why you hit a bad shot

This is something that I’ve never seen discussed. But, if you have ever hit a bad shot, particularly a certain bad shot that you have a great tendency to hit. And if you don’t have any clue as to why you hit that bad shot, usually this starts to fester anger inside of you. Think about it for a second. Ever get a lesson and you start hitting the ball well and you eliminate that one bad shot that you tend to hit? You walk away happier than a pig in shit.

That’s what most teaching professionals state that they do, make the game more enjoyable for golfers. Well, how do they do that? Getting them to hit the ball better and IMO, get the golfer to understand why they hit certain bad shots so the golfer, over time, can stop hitting those bad shots. It’s really strange how I have yet to see this acknowledged, yet we see angry golfers complaining that they don’t know why they hit a certain bad shot every day. And I think this was a major source of Tiger’s anger issues under Haney and probably a little bit today.

3. You Take The Game Too Personally

I see this a lot with lower handicappers to Touring pros. The Big Break often has a contestant that is like this where bad shots or bad scores are treated like an affront to them as a person and as a golfer.

However, if you look at the PGA Tour you will often see that really great players will occasionally shoot a very bad score (80 or worse) or go thru a very bad stretch of golf. But, the stalwarts of the Tour keep their composure and understand that it’s just a ‘dry spell’ and they’ll be back to playing well soon. They understand that the Tour is really a roller coaster ride and the ones that are successful are the ones who stay on the ride instead of jumping off when things don’t go as planned.

I used to struggle with this quite a bit, but I then realized that like Moe Norman said…if I play bad today it’s no big deal because I can play tomorrow and play well. In other words, a bad score does not define me as a person or as a golfer.

4. Bad Luck

Sometimes you just get bad luck and usually it coincides with 1 of the first 3 reasons I listed above. A few weeks ago I was playing a course where I landed up against the lip on 2 fairway bunkers and 1 greenside bunker and no shot was poorly struck or woefully inaccurate. In fact, the first shot up against the bunker came off of a terrible kick on the tee shot.

You really cannot counter bad luck, but I think it helps to recognize that bad luck can trigger you to lose your composure on the golf course.

5. Playing Partners with a bad temper

Again, not much one can do about it, but it’s easy to get coaxed into anger if your partner(s) are slamming and throwing clubs throughout the round. I think the key is to understand those things that trigger you to lose your composure and to understand that when you lose your composure, you’re more likely to see your score increase.


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