The great Jack Nicklaus once said: “Confidence has to be the golfer’s greatest single weapon”.


Dr Deon van Zyl

But what is confidence? What does it really consist of? This greatest weapon is simply the belief in your ability to be successful, and can be summarized in two short phrases: “I will” and “I can”. Lee Trevino certainly had both these feelings when he said: “I’m going to make so much money this year, my caddie’s going to make the top 10 on the money list!”

One of the best ways to give yourself a feeling of “I will” is to set challenging but realistic and achievable goals. Goals build positive expectations, prepare you to act and take charge, and create laser-like focus. You can set two kinds of goals, outcome and process, but in essence you ask yourself: “What do I want to achieve with my game?”

Outcome Goals
Process Goals
Order of merit (points or money)
Wining a certain amount of tournaments
Finishing in the top 5
Score average over a period of time etc.
Percentage fairways hit
Greens in regulation
Number of putt
Number of sand-saves
Percentage up and downs etc

The average weekend golfer doesn’t need such an extensive analysis. He/she basically needs to set an overall handicap goal, maybe aim to win some important events (outcome goals), but then ask which aspect of the game (process goal) will have the biggest positive impact if it is improved, towards achieving those goals. And please remember, your handicap goal should always be a lower one, not a higher one!

Whether you are a top player or a weekend golfer, it is then important to follow up with the following questions:
  • By when do I want to achieve this?
  • How am I going to get there? What is the next step?
  • What have I done towards these goals today?
Another way to develop confidence through the feeling of “I will”, but this time on the course and during play, is to teach yourself before each shot to be decisive, and then committed to the decision. Make up your mind about what you want to do with the shot, and commit fully to the decision. Phil Mickleson attributed his success in the 2004 US Masters to “…choosing the shot I’m confident with”, and then executing it with gusto, with full release. Debbie Massey, two-times British Woman’s Open Champion compares it to show-jumping: “The first thing that goes over the fence is the rider’s heart”. So, make up your mind, stand up to the challenge, put your heart into it, and commit yourself fully. If you miss, you’ve done everything you can.

Gary Player always had a plaque on his desk with the following inscription: “I CAN’T. Notice the “T” is crossed out. He always was, and still is, a living example of confidence in action. To give yourself the feeling of “I can”, we cannot over-emphasise the importance of good coaching, practice and repetition. There is no substitute. Do you think Ernie Els will be confident with your job, or confident with doing a double summersault off the high diving board? Of course not! He hasn’t practiced it. The same applies to us in his job. Ben Hogan once said: “Every day you miss practicing means one day longer to be good”. From good coaching, practice and repetition, you develop a method, a feeling or a swing thought that works for you, and there’s no better way to get confident than that.

Another way to give yourself a confident feeling of “I can” is to remind yourself of past successes, good shots, good rounds, good tournaments. In his first US Open win, Retief Goosen constantly reminded himself during the playoff of all his Alfred Dunhill match-play wins. During his 2004 US Open win, he constantly said to himself during the last round: “I’ve done it before, I can do it again”. Just before hitting the winning 5-iron shot to the 17th in the 1994 US Open, Ernie Els though back to a great 5-iron shot that he played previously. During this years’ USPGA, just before that perfect lob wedge from long grass next to the 18th green, Phil Mickleson reminded himself of hitting similar shots from the long grass in his back yard as a child. Thinking back to past success instills a feeling of it’s possible, of “I can”. The average golfer might say: “But I haven’t had any success in the past to think back to, to give me confidence”. “What comes first, success or confidence?” l would answer that your memory is too short for success. You have hit many good shots in your life to remember. Even a beginner hits good shots here and there. So, make mental notes of your good shots. Have a long memory for success, and a short memory for failure.

In summary, develop confidence through cultivating the feelings of “I will” and “I can”. “I will” comes from good goal setting and being decisive and committed on the course. “I can” comes from good coaching, practice and repetition, and reminding yourself of past successes.

Gary Player loves to quote A P Peabody regarding confidence and energy input: “The force, the mass of character, mind, heart, or soul that a man can put into any work is the most important factor in that work”.