There has been a lot more attention paid over recent times to the importance of the mind in golf. While much of the teaching from years gone by focussed primarily on the mechanics of the golf swing, great players have always understood that golf is a game played primarily between the ears. In fact, it is, of all the athletic pursuits, the most cerebral game there is.
Bobby Jones famously said that golf was played on a five and a half inch course; the distance between your ears. He also noted that the saying that golf is played one shot at a time was well known, but it took him a long time to learn it. It did. As a phenomenally talented fourteen year old, who burst on the golf scene, Bobby spent seven years learning how to actually break through and win his first Major. What he had to learn had nothing whatsoever to do with his swing.
If simple ability to hit the golf ball well was enough to make someone a champion, there would be a lot more champions than there are. Jordan Spieth is an excellent example today of a modern day champion. Why is he apparently on the path to greatness? He doesn't hit the ball better than his opponents. In fact, in almost every statistical category, he is middle of the pack, or worse. He is, however, the best putter in the fifteen to twenty feet range, and I believe he sports the lowest scoring average, which is the most important stat of all. What I think separates him from the rest of the pack is his mind. He has the champion's competitive attitude.
It has become fashionable to believe that the best golf is played in a sort of Zen-like state, where you are not thinking about mechanics, and simply hone in on the target and let it go. It is probably the best way to play golf, but it only works, as Bobby Jones also pointed out, when you are actually able to get into that happy state called "the zone," and when you actually have your best stuff. For most people that happens only rarely. The rest of the time we must think our way around the course, doing the best we can with what we have to work with on that particular day.
There are also those who belong to the "power of positive thinking" school. Apparently, being positive on the golf course, setting goals for yourself, visualizing success, etc., is the way to play this game best, or at least it's the way we can each maximize our potential as golfers. It may be true, but Bobby Jones, who was one of the greatest, if not the greatest champion of all time had a different impression of what it took to be a champion, and how great champions thought.
In his book, Bobby Jones on Golf, Bobby Jones pointed out that championships are seldom won by more than a stroke or two. The difference between the champion and the also-rans, whose names often end up being forgotten, often amounts to one putt, or one shot played carelessly over the course of seventy two holes. That's why Bobby wrote the following description of how a champion really thinks:
"I suppose it is consideration of a slender margin such as this (the generally slender margin of victory the champion enjoys over the next man) that led J.H. Taylor to say that the difference between the winner and the near-winner is the ability on the part of the successful contestant to be ever on the lookout against himself. Never too certain of what the result may be, he plays not one shot carelessly or with overconfidence.
In competition, I have not regarded seriously the tendency of some people to endow golfers with superhuman powers. Because on occasions a few players have staged spectacular finishes to retrieve victory by last-minute rallies, I have heard it said of them that they are able to pull off whatever is necessary to win. Such an idea is absurd, for if these men were capable of playing golf as they willed, they would never place themselves so they had to beat par to win; and when I hear someone criticized for cracking at the finish, I always think of the query Grantland Rice propounded at Scioto--whether it is better to blow up in the third round or the fourth. Every player has his bad patches in every seventy-two-hole journey. It is mainly a question of who averages up best over the entire route, and that, I think, is the feature the winner remembers and the field forgets... we must see the importance of each stroke, whether it be drive, approach, or putt; and we ought to see also that in a medal round to hole a long putt for a six is just as helpful as if it were for a three. It is every shot that counts.
In defining the difference between the great and the near-great, J.H. Taylor pointed out a lesson for every golfer. He was not merely explaining why some fine golfers win championships and others equally fine do not. He was telling you why you missed that easy pitch to the fourth green yesterday and why, after you had missed your second shot to the eighth, you took a seven instead of the five you should have had if you had played sensibly. All of us, from duffers to champions, would do better if we would play each stroke as a thing to itself."
Ben Hogan was a great champion. He was one of the greatest ball-strikers the game has ever known. But Hogan was also a great thinker. He said that the most important shot is the next one. I had tended, when I first heard this quote, to think of this in terms of Hogan, who always played every round in his mind before he played, and his penchant for hitting his shots in such a way as to provide himself with the best possible position and angle to play his next shot. I realize now, of course, that he was indeed referring to the next shot as being the one he was about to hit, not the one he hoped to set himself up for. He was actually referring to the importance of playing one shot at a time; and he was a master at playing golf that way.
Playing one shot at a time sounds easy enough. When interviewed, you hear almost every player who is about to take a lead into the final round saying that he plans to try to play one shot at a time in the final round. It sounds like something they are just repeating, almost like a mantra. But the reality is that this is the only way they are likely going to be able to finish the job and win. And, if you've ever tried to play one shot at a time, you will realize just how difficult it is to do.
I doubt I've ever played eighteen holes--let alone seventy two--where I've succeeded in playing one shot at a time; where I have given every shot my full attention, picked a precise target, and taken dead aim. It's hard to do. That's a big reason why I am not a champion golfer; though lack of talent might definitely be another.
Bobby Jones continues by writing:
"No man can expect to win at every start. Golf is not a game where such a thing is possible... The best competitive golfers are, I think, the distrustful and timorous kind, who are always expecting something terrible to happen--pessimistic fellows who are quite certain when they come upon the green that the ball farthest from the hole is theirs. This kind of player never takes anything for granted and cannot be lulled into complacency by a successful run over a few holes. The most dangerous spot, where the cords of concentration are most likely to snap, comes while everything is going smoothly; when the hold upon concentration is a bit weak anyway, there is nothing like prosperity to sever the connection...
One shot carelessly played can lead to a lot of grief. I think a careless shot invariably costs more than a bad shot painstakingly played, for it leaves the morale in a state of disorder. It is easy to accept mistakes when we know that they could not have been avoided; we realize that many shots must be less than perfect, no matter how hard we try. But when we actually throw away strokes without rhyme or reason, it is pretty hard to accept the penalty philosophically, and to attack the next shot in the proper frame of mind."
I am not one of Tiger's biggest fans. But, he was, when he was at his best, a perfect example of the great champion's ability to grind it out; to give every shot his all, and to take nothing for granted. I particularly remember his incredible win at Pebble Beach, where he won the U.S. Open by fifteen shots. He was in a position where such a lead could have easily caused him to take a little holiday mentally and lose his focus long enough to perhaps open the door a crack. But, he ground out every shot by trying not to make a bogey in the last round. He succeeded.
One shot at a time sounds easy. If it really were, we'd all be able to do it; and probably more of us would be champions. Next time you hear a player being interviewed, and he says he's going to try to play one shot at a time; perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt, and realize that he may not just be repeating an old tune; he may actually be on to something. In fact, the reason he's probably being interviewed is because he's learned to do just that better than most.
I used to say, "One shot at a time, like the drunks." But I guess I've got it wrong. It's one shot at a time, like the champions. Playing golf one shot at a time, like thinking, is hard work. That's why so few of us actually do it.