GOLF PSYCHOLOGY – Published in the Compleat Golfer

Just as physical fitness can be broken down into various elements like cardiovascular, strength and flexibility, so too can a golfer’s mental fitness be deconstructed into specific and workable areas. With the help of clinical psychologist Dr Deon van Zyl, we can learn how to take the complexity out of a seemingly esoteric topic.

GOLF PSYCHOLOGY – Published in the Compleat Golfer

Dr Deon van Zyl

Success in golf is very similar to success in life.  We need to be clear about what we are aiming for, how to get there, and then do our best in the present moment to achieve it. This sounds simple enough, but it takes a lot of self-knowledge and mind management to apply it constantly and effectively. On the golf course, and in life, the three keys to unlocking your mind’s full potential are: confidence, composure and concentration.


Confidence can be summed up in two words: “I CAN”. Throughout his life, Gary Player had a plague on his desk reading “I CAN’T”, but with the “T” crossed out. He certainly always was, and still is, a prime example of confidence in action, of believing that things are possible, and that he can achieve it. Before the 1965 US Open he visualized his own name printed in gold in the empty slot reserved for the winner of that year, and sure enough, he won! If he stood there and said to himself “I cannot possibly win this. The others are better than I am”, the result would surely have been completely different. Someone who is confident is someone who believes he can do what he’s set out to do.  But just because you tell yourself “I can”, doesn’t mean you really believe you can do it. Confidence is something that you feel, and which needs to be developed constantly through hard work and focus.

The main source of confidence is practice, and more practice.  There is no substitute for hitting golf balls if you want to develop confidence. Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and now Vijay Singh are great examples of players who developed confidence through diligent practicing, and the results are always evident. Use your practice sessions intelligently though. It is not a physical workout. Discover swing thoughts or feelings that work, and that you can use as triggers or cues on the course just before you play your shot.

Quote “Practice puts brains in your muscles” Sam Snead

Confidence also comes through goal setting. The occasional reflection on your part of “What do I want to achieve, by when, and how?” builds positive expectations, prepares you to act and to take charge. It also focuses your energy, and instills a feeling of “it is possible”…the seed of confidence.

Quote “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it” von Goethe

Another way to find confidence is to think back to previous successes.  When Retief Goosen won his first US Open in a playoff against Mark Brooks, he saw it as a match-play situation and thought back to all his wins and successes during the Alfred Dunhill Match-play Championships over the years.  During the last round of his 2004 US Open win he also constantly said to himself: “I’ve done it before. I can do it again”. Recalling past success instills a feeling of its possible, of “I can”.

For mere mortals like us, think back to a great shot you played in the past.  Recall the feeling, and use that feeling to give you the confidence now.  Barbara Lunsford won two South African Woman’s Opens in the early 1990’s by thinking back to previous good shots just before she played each and every shot. Thinking back to past success doesn’t even have to be golf-related.  Think about how great it felt to get that promotion at work, or how it felt when you finally completed a project successfully.  Then transpose that feeling of confidence into your current state of mind.

Quote “The mind messes up more shots than the body.” Tommy Bolt


Composure means to be calm, level-headed and patient amidst all the “ups” and “downs”. It is a form of emotional stability. Jack Nicklaus was always a prime example of this, and of course our own Ernie Els (“The Big Easy”) is a living embodiment of composure. Ben Curtis remarked after his 2003 British Open win that, even as an amateur he was always able to maintain the same emotional state throughout the round.

Quote “If Ernie Els could bottle his temperament and sell it, he would make a fortune.” Johnny Miller

The great Sam Snead believed that you have to be “coolly mad” to be a great golfer.  Andy North won the US Open by applying this principle of balance between being calm and worked-up at the same time. He understood that being too fired-up or too laid-back would both impact negatively on your performance.  You need to find your own balance between these two extremes, to be peaceful and a fighter at the same time.

Take a look at the following peak performance curve, and decide where you are.


The Peaceful Warrior graph, or if you’re a student of psychology, the Yerkes-Dodson curve.

If you’re too laid back or have already given up, you’ll be on the extreme left hand side of the Arousal axis.  Consequently your performance level will be inadequate.  If you’re way out on the right hand side, you’re far too excited or stressed.  Ideally, you need to plonk yourself right in the middle of the Arousal axis, where your performance is at its peak.

Try these little tips to get yourself to this point:

If you’re too laid-back or nonchalant:

Set mini challenges for yourself.
If you’ve played badly for 14 holes, are seemingly out of contention for the tournament and feel like giving up, take a side-bet with your caddy that you will finish level or 2 under for the remaining holes.  By doing this, you are re-focusing on the here and now, and creating some new energy for the job at hand.

Walk faster
The simple act of physically walking faster will tell your mind that you mean business. 

Pump your fists, or brace your forearms
By getting blood into your hands, and tensing up your arms, you’ll also energise yourself to perform at a higher level of arousal.

Quote “I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking ‘I am going to bury you.’” Seve Ballesteros

If you’re too excited or stressed:

Learn how to breathe properly. 
The best form of breathing for quick relaxation is to take an in-breath to the count of 3, and an out-breath to the count of 5.  Three or four of these breaths, with the out-breath slightly longer than the in-breath, will help you to calm yourself down, and to find a more relaxed stated of mind.

Do everything in slow motion
This is one of the great Tom Watson’s best tips for when you’re over-stressed.  Walk slower, tee the ball up slower, take a slower practice swing etc. You also need to give yourself a bigger picture perspective: This is just a game, there are more important things to life.

When you’re tense and stressed, your muscles tend to contract and become less oxygenated.  By stretching, you’re easing blood and oxygen back into the muscles, which give you a sense of relief and well-being.

Quote “When I’m stressed or over-anxious, I shake my hands and become as loose as a goose.” Sam Snead

Enjoy the challenge
Dr Jim Loehr found after many years of research with top performing sport people that those who enjoy the feeling of high anxiety and arousal are the better performers. Those who experience the sensations that accompany high anxiety and arousal as unpleasant, are the poor performers. High anxiety and arousal is just a feeling that goes with high Adrenalin levels. If you can enjoy this feeling, and learn to find it pleasurable, you will perform better. After all, it is exactly the same feeling as when your date at the matric dance asked you to park the car on the hill overlooking the city, after the party!

Quote “When the pressure is on, I stand back, take a deep breath, and say to myself ‘enjoy the challenge’.” Jack Nicklaus

Whether your emotional energy is too low or too high, one of the best ways to bring it back to the zone of performance, is to concentrate with full attention on the task at hand. This bring us to the third, and probably the most important key to successful mind management.


The purpose of having confidence and composure is to free your mind of all the unnecessary personal issues and negative emotional distractions, so that you can focus on the job, on the here-and-now moment of the next shot.

Concentration consists in essence of doing a pre-shot routine that engages your mind in the present challenge. Tiger Wood’s dad called it a S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure – from the US Marines) and taught it to Tiger from a very young age. Each person has a different routine because our concentration styles differ, but the three components of any good concentration routine are:

  • Assessment: An evaluation of external factors such as distance, wind, slope, terrain and humidity, which leads to a decision on the kind of shot to play and club selection. Remember to do what Phil Mickleson started doing in 2004: to elect a shot and choose a club that gives you a feeling of confidence.
  • Visualisation: Picturing in your mind’s eye the specific target and trajectory for the shot. It can be a spot on the green, an area on the fairway, a marker in the distance where you want to send the ball to. You can also imagine the ball flight and shape through the air, or its behaviour on landing. Be as specific as you can. Jack Nicklaus was great at making what he called “private Hollywood spectaculars” in his head before he played each and every shot.
  • Swing thought: A key or a cue that helps you to rehearse the kind of swing or stroke you need to make to get the ball to the target. This is where we differ a lot, depending on whether our dominant sense is visual, auditory or feeling/sensing. The secret however is SIMPLICITY. If you’re a visual person, you will see a good swing in your “mind’s eye”, either of yourself or a good player. If you’re an auditory person, consider using a simple one-word or short catchphrase that will trigger your ideal swing. When Gary Player was younger, he used to say to himself “chicken on a spit” to give him the sense of rotating around the spine instead of swaying. When Seve Ballesteros won the US Masters, he simply said to himself “one piece” just before each and every shot. If you’re more a feeling/sensing person, you need to cultivate the internal sensation of what the swing or stroke will feel like. This cannot be described in words as it is an internal feeling, and it is often developed through a practice swing or two that exactly rehearses the swing to come. Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie are good examples of “feel” players. This is often called kinesthetic awareness. Simon Hobday won his first tournament in 10 years on the Sunshine Circuit in the early 1980’s, by triggering himself with a feeling/sensing word “oily”.

Very few golfers can concentrate for five hours.  Ben Hogan was definitely one who could, while Retief Goosen is certainly more able than most of the current crop of greats.  It’s important to manage how you expend your mental energy.  You need to learn how to give your full, focused attention to the shot just before you play it.  Then, when you’re walking to the ball for the next shot, you need to be able to switch off – smell the flowers on the way, relax, talk to your fellow competitors.  If you’ve hit a good shot, commit it to the memory bank. If you’ve hit a bad shot, simply show yourself what you need to do instead, and go back to your pre-shot routine before the next shot.

You also need to know yourself to understand how you concentrate best.  If you’re more of an extrovert, you’ll crave stimulation from the outside world.  You need it to be able to concentrate and succeed.  Someone like Lee Trevino could only concentrate over the ball for a few seconds, and then he had to interact with his caddie or the crowd or his fellow competitors.  That’s how he got into his own comfortable zone of concentration.

On the other hand, if you’re an introvert, chances are you have a lot going on inside your head already, so you don’t need much stimulation from the outside world.  Ben Hogan, David Duval and Retief Goosen are classic examples.  The pre-shot routine is often easier for introverts, because they are already shut-off from external stimuli.  They tend to be more inwardly focused anyway.  But introverts often have to learn how to deal with unwanted stimuli, like cheering crowds, the media or even chirps from fellow competitors.

A Dr Jim Loehr found that we need to “high wave” our energy for maximum performance in sport and in business. This means to concentrate and perform at your maximum peak of energy output, and then to take a complete break, a rejuvenating “battery charge”. On the golf course, this can be between shots, between rounds and between tournaments. At the office, it can be during the day for short breaks, in the evenings, over weekends etc. The so-called “flat liners” who tried to perform at maximum level of output all the time, where actually the poor performers, and pretty soon went into “burnout”.

Most golfers disassociate themselves from golf after tournaments.  Tiger Woods and Nick Price go fly-fishing, while Jack Nicklaus used to love tennis and Gary Player’s other passion is horses.  It’s also why most own corporate jets.  It allows them to get away from a tournament quickly, back into a normal family environment, where they can unwind.

There’s also a lot to be said for living in the moment, and enjoying the journey.  It’s good to be goal-oriented, but that mustn’t be your focus – the process of reaching that goal is more important.  This type of psychology is also relevant in business. The execution of a company’s strategy is more important than the strategy itself. For example, an above avarage strategy executed brilliantly will have better results than a brilliant strategy executed in a mediocre way.

For maximum performance your attention needs to move from outcome or result focus to process focus. This is easier said than done, but all winners will tell you that in the heat of the moment they were absorbed with the process of focusing, with their pre-shot routines before each and every shot, and not too much on winning the tournament or beating their opponents. Winners do not think about winning the tournament or beating others, but about doing the present job to the best of their abilities. The result take care of itself.  When Jack Nicklaus at the age of 46 was in the last round of the 1986 US Masters, his son who was caddying for him kept on reminding his dad that they can win this, to which Jack replied “That would be nice, but what’s the job at hand?”. He kept on bringing himself back to the process of the next shot, to the current task, not the green jacket waiting for him in the clubhouse. That came later!

The consequences of thinking too far ahead are dire.  Nick Price in the 83 British Open was 2 shots ahead on the 15th hole, when he made some remark to his caddie that they’ve got the Open in the bag.  He went on to lose to Tom Watson.  The pros call it “getting ahead of yourself”. When Price won the World Series that year, he mentioned that thinking too far ahead in the Open had cost him the title, but that it was the biggest golfing lesson he had learnt. In 1993, when Price won everything in sight, he said: “I’ve been really disciplined in my ability to isolate each shot I play. I’m not thinking about winning, or finishing second or what score I’m going to shoot. When you add it up at the end of the day you have a pretty good score.” Process versus outcome focus.

When Tiger was at his peak, Ernie became very focused on catching Tiger for the No.1 spot in the world, but suffered for it in his own game.  Ernie’s mental coach made him realise that he doesn’t have control over what Tiger does.  All Ernie can do is control how well he plays, and to focus on the next step, the next five minutes of his own game.  His performance started increasing almost immediately.

Make the present process your purpose and you’ll perform at your peak!

Quote “It is nothing new or original to say that golf is played one stroke at a time. But it took me many years to realise it.” Bobby Jones

So, in the end, cultivate your composure, confidence and concentration, and you’ll give yourself so much more opportunities to hit good shots and perform well. If all else fails, enjoy the surroundings, friendship and the game. If you find that difficult, apply one of the best tips ever given about self-management on the course, by Chi-Chi Rodriguez: “I never prayed that I would make a putt. I prayed how I would conduct myself at all times.”