Composure is the ability to be level-headed under pressure, to keep the emotions of competition from interfering with your performance.

The Mind in Golf

Dr Deon van Zyl

Ernie Els (“The Big Easy”) is of course one of the best modern-day examples of composure, while Jack Nicklaus in his prime was one of the most patient players around. Patience is a form of composure, to maintain the same emotional state through all the “ups” and “downs”, but we mustn’t confuse composure with only calmness and peacefulness. Composure is also the ability to motivate yourself when you’re down or depressed.

Sam Snead described composure best when he referred to it as being “coolly mad”. So it’s a state of being laid back and fired up at the same time, both relaxed and intensely focused in one. This is what great champions refer to as “the zone”, and it is a fine balance to maintain.

There are basically three emotional states that disturb your composure and get you out of the ideal zone for performance: anger, anxiety and depression (giving up). These emotions can wreak havoc with a golf swing. The whole body chemistry changes amidst high emotion, and it directly affects the muscles and good co-ordination as well. For example, anger makes you want to rush, force and overdo things. Anxiety makes you tentative and tight, with subsequent steering and “holding on”. Depression just makes you weak and without energy, with no commitment in your movement. We all experience these emotions. They are part of the game, but they need to be managed to avoid their interference with your golf swing and your game.

The best overall strategy then for handling any high emotion is to become TASK-FOCUSED. Emotions like anger, anxiety and depression take away your ability to reason and think logically and systematically. They are self-centered and not task-centered. One of the best antidotes for any emotion therefore, is to become absorbed in a task, a step-by step procedure. On the course, this is your pre-shot routine. Sticking to a systematic and step-by-step procedure, where your focus is on the job of “where” (my target) and “how” (my ideal move), will cool you down considerably.



ANGER: Anger is often due to your perception that some standard of yours was not met. It is the emotion of focusing on what you see as a mistake, mostly in the past. So whenever you feel angry, ask yourself: “What standard of mine was not met?”, and also “Was my standard fair?” If it was fair, takes steps to rectify it. I often used to watch Gary Player in his prime. Whenever he hit a poor shot, he immediately showed himself what he did wrong, by repeating the poor swing, and then followed it up by three or four good swings, the opposite motion, how he wanted to swing it. Jim Furyk did exactly the same throughout his 2003 US Open win. It is called a post-shot routine. Instead of being irritated with a poor shot, venting your anger and allowing your blood pressure to rise, show yourself what you felt the mistake was, and show yourself the ideal alternative. Get back to the job through a good post-shot routine. If your standard was too high, lower it or let it go. Remember even the great Ben Hogan once said that he only plays 4 to 5 perfect shots per round. Who are we to get upset about every miss-hit or offline shot?

Hale Irwin once said: “No matter how mad I get or how poorly I play, I will not let on to my opponent or fellow competitor how I feel”. This is commonly called “playing poker”. Giving vent to feelings makes them worse. Feel them, but don’t act them out. Follow Sam Snead’s philosophy (that he borrowed from the old Samurai Warriors) when he felt angry on the course: “I feel the fire but I control the flame”.

ANXIETY: Where anger focuses on the past, anxiety focuses on the future. It is an anticipation of disaster, of not being able to cope, or the fear of loss of some kind. In anger you have thoughts about past mistakes, while in anxiety you have thoughts about future catastrophe, failure or humiliation. Anxiety is very close to the feeling of excitement and being in the “big moment”. The physical reactions and internal sensations are the same (adrenalin pumps), just the thoughts in the mind differ. With anxiety the thoughts are on possible disaster, while with excitement, the thoughts are on possible glory. BOTH EXCITEMENT AND ANXIETY NEED TO BE MANAGED.

For example, where can you get worst anxiety/excitement than during the last 9 hole of the US Masters? This year, after sticking to his guns on the last 9 holes and forcing Tiger into a playoff, Chris DiMarco showed us one of the secrets of managing it well, “I told my caddy as we were walking on 18, ‘If you’re not having fun doing this, boy, something is wrong with you’” His stomach was going crazy he said, but he was still performing, because he ENJOYED it! This is exactly what Dr Jim Loehr found with all top sport people and winners, they love and enjoy the anxiety/excitement of competition. Winners interpret, and experience, the adrenalin rush of the first tee or being in contention as pleasurable, while “also runs” experience it as unpleasant and anxiety-provoking. So, do you enjoy and love pressure? If you do, the pressure will not be a source of stress, but of excitement and peak performance. After all, the adrenalin rush of competition is exactly the same as during your first kiss at the Matric dance!

Tom Watson once said: “We all choke, the one who does it last, wins”. One can perform in spite of anxiety/fear. You can postpone it or prevent it from influencing your game by walking a touch slower, stretching in-between shots, and taking a good old deep breath or three, where your out-breath is slightly longer than the in-breath. Then always get back to focusing on the details of the next shot – the “where and how”.

Bobby Jones observed how “fearing leads to steering”, so “trust, release and let go” is also a good antidote for anxiety and the impulse to steer. Make sure that your swing thought or swing feel has some form of release in it. This will counteract the impulse to steer, born from anxiety.

DEPRESSION: When you’re angry, it is normally for something specific that happened, while when you’re depressed you over-generalise it to yourself as a person: “I’m not up to standard. I’m a loser”. When you are really having a bad day on the course, and feel depressed and like giving up, do what Johhny Miller did: give yourself a small challenge for the remaining holes, like a challenging but realistic score, or a little side-bet with your caddy. He said the $10 side-bet became more important than the thousands that they were playing for. Then revert back to just ONE swing thought or feel that always worked for you in the past. This will help you to re-focus and start again. If you’re still having a bad day, then just enjoy the surroundings and the company, and learn afterwards from the causes of the poor round (was it technical, physical or mental?). As the famous saying goes, “If you’ve lost the game, learn the lesson”.

If all else fails, just play the game with as much character as you can, and apply the great Chi-Chi Rodriguez’ philosophy: “I never prayed that I would make a putt. I prayed how I would conduct myself”.

Dr Deon van Zyl is a Clinical Psychologist and a former Associate Professor at the University of Pretoria. He’s been working in the field of Golf Psychology since the early 1980’s, and has assisted many of our top golfers and teams. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.