I’ve listened to and read about many winners over the years. I love to hear about their thinking process while they are in contention, and as they become aware that they can win.

The Mind in Golf

Dr Deon van Zyl

From the Monthly Medal winners to the Majors, I always hear one common theme: On the verge of winning, while being in contention, winners don’t think about winning or beating their opponents, but about the SHOT AT HAND, about what needs to be done in the moment, to the best of their ability. A winner thinks, “WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE NOW?”, and “HOW BEST CAN I DO IT?”

Winners are engaged with the PROCESS, not the RESULT or the OUTCOME. Outcome focus is on scoring, trophies, prestige, winning, beating others, birdies & eagles, and the team’s/coach’s/parent’s/public’s expectations. When your focus is on that, you get ahead or outside of yourself. Process focus is on taking it HOLE BY HOLE, SHOT FOR SHOT, and just following your concentration routine of “WHERE AND HOW”, target and swing thought (see Golf Digest, Nov. 2005).

Nick Price learned a very important lesson from the 1983 British Open when he was two shots ahead on the 15th tee and then remarked to his caddy that they had the Open in the bag. He was getting ahead and outside of himself (the Claret Jug in the clubhouse), and lost to Tom Watson. But like all great champions, he learned from his mistake. When he won everything in sight from 1992 to 1994, including the British Open and two PGA Championships, he thought like a true winner: ”I’ve been really disciplined in my ability to isolate each shot I play. I’m not thinking of winning, or finishing second or what score I’m going to shoot”. He realized that scoring and winning come as a result of playing the shot, as a byproduct of focusing on, and playing each shot as it comes, one at a time.

One of the best examples ever of this kind of thinking came from Jack Nicklaus at the age of 46, during the last nine holes of the U S Masters. His son Jackie, who was caddying for him, kept on reminding his dad that they could win, to which Jack replied: “That would be nice Jackie, but what’s the job at hand?” He brought himself back to the process, the present task, the here and now, and the green jacket took care of itself later on.

In the process of chasing Tiger Woods for the number one spot in the world rankings, both Ernie Els and Vijay Singh discovered at some stage that they were too focused on beating Tiger, instead of playing their own games. When Ernie came back to what he called “focusing on the next 5 minutes”, he immediately started playing better. After winning the PGA Championship in 2004, Vijay said: “My focus two months ago was the wrong thing. I was focusing so hard to get to the No. 1 spot; I started not focusing on my own game…Right now, I am totally focused on what I am doing, my game and not worried about the rankings…it doesn’t bother me at all”. In 2004, he won 9 times, posted 18 Top 10s, won the Vardon Trophy, lead the PGA Tour in money, and was named Player of the Year. It was one of the best seasons of all-time, AND then he did become the No. 1 golfer in the world! The outcome happened as a result of the process.

This kind of thinking is not just reserved for Major winners. We hear it from our local tour winners as well. When Ulrich van den Berg claimed his fourth Sunshine Tour title with the Parmalat Classic at Paarl, he said: “Coming in over the last 9 holes, I really felt like a seasoned professional – clinical, measured, thinking about the best way to play each shot”. During the last few holes at the 2005 Dunhill championship he might have though differently when he dropped so dramatically out of contention. Hopefully he will learn from it, and he can do so from himself, because he knows how to think during the process of winning. On the last hole of the 2005 arivia.kom Classic on the Ladies and Legends Tour, Paul van Zyl had a full eight iron and one putt for the win. Just before playing the iron-shot he said to himself “Take dead aim” and then “Complete backswing/stay behind”. This is a great example of “where and how” process thinking. The shot finished about 4 feet from the hole, and again his thinking just before the winning putt was spot on the process instead of the outcome: “Keep posture – follow through”. The trophy and the cheque happened as byproducts, not as main objects of focus.

I asked Gary Player the other day what he thought of just before sinking that famous long winning putt on the 18th green at Augusta to claim his second U S Masters. From his answer it was clear that he became totally absorbed by the process of choosing the best line, comparing it to the previous days, and deciding to take less break. He was in other words fully engaged with the “where”. And then, just before the putt, he reminded himself to “be still” (in other words “the how”).

So, ultimately, think like all winners do, not about winning or beating others, but about the shot at hand. Make the present process your purpose, and let the outcome take care of itself.

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.