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Friday, 7 August 2015

How Do You Play Best?

Do you know how you play your best golf? If you ask most people that question, they look rather mystified. In fact, in their search to play better, or play their best, most golfers support a booming golf business by purchasing books, videos, swing aids, and especially new clubs promising to give them extra distance. And yet, the search for improvement continues, often with very little change in their game, or their scores.

I think there is a real problem with many golfers' approach to the game, and it isn't that they lift their heads, pull their putts, or fail to keep their lead arm straight. Most golfers, myself included, are much too adept at telling you what they are doing wrong, or what isn't working for them. They are much too aware of their weaknesses, and not aware enough of their strengths. We hear it almost every time we tee it up on the first tee, especially if we're playing with someone for the first time. I'm not playing very well. My putting is awful. I haven't played in two weeks. All statements offered to manage expectations and avoid embarrassment. But also comments virtually guaranteed to promote more failure.

And, not just prior to the round, but while you are on the golf course, you often hear players exclaiming what they did wrong when a shot goes astray. Many golfers really believe themselves to be quite capable of identifying their mistakes. How often haven't I heard golfers, including myself, cry something like, "I lifted my head," or "I pulled that putt." This, often in spite of the fact that I, or they, really did no such thing. 

But how many golfers really understand what works for them? Most self-proclaimed golf fanatics are working on fixing some perceived fault in their swing, or their game, or searching for a secret, instead of analyzing, identifying, understanding, and repeating the things that have worked for them in the past. Sure, It's important to learn from your mistakes, and know your weaknesses, or limitations. If you don't learn from your mistakes, you're probably doomed to repeat them. But, I think many of us need to learn to be more expert in terms of identifying what we have done right on the golf course. I know this is true of myself. I don't spend enough time remembering, savouring, and analyzing what I've done right when I've hit good shots, or played my best rounds. I tend to, instead, focus on what I've done wrong and think about how to try to fix it. That approach may really be, as the saying goes, ass backwards. It may just be why I so rarely seem to manage to play as well as I think I should, or know I can, and why I have often felt miserable during and after a round. It may also be why I haven't made more progress in my game.

Despite my ongoing preoccupation with swing mechanics, looking back on the rounds that I've played that were good ones, I realize that it wasn't necessarily my swing that got me the good score. It was actually almost invariably my attitude. All my best rounds were when I had no real expectations. I was relaxed, and/or quite unconcerned with the results. My really good rounds have tended to come after a period of struggling, after which I finally just relaxed and stopped trying so hard. In essence, they appeared after I had pretty much given up. Other good rounds were shot when I was so sick, hungover, or sore, that I was just try to get it to the house, unconcerned with how I was scoring. In those instances, my concern was with survival, not score. For me, there's a big lesson in that.

We may be enamoured with the guy who overcomes and succeeds by virtue of hard work, and grinding it out. But, for some of us, grinding it out only ends in weariness and frustration. In golf, you can definitely try too hard. For some of us, there needs to be a sense of just letting it go, rather than trying to force the ball to submit to your will. My best round, of 65, came after I had made a stupid bogey on the second hole and announced in disgust to my buddy that I was now just going to play "I don't give a $&@$ golf." I essentially stopped caring, and started swinging easily. I didn't grind over my putts. I just walked up to the ball, looked at my target, and let it go. It was like magic. The ball started going where I was looking, and the putts started dropping. It was fun. Eight birdies later I'd carded a 65. The next day, I went out definitely trying to shoot another low round and shot 75. I hadn't learned a thing. The hardest thing for me to learn is that I need to stop trying hard in order to play my best.

I have had other good rounds where I was similarly relaxed and felt as though I was just "patty-caking" the ball around the course. It just felt easy. Of course, I've also ground out reasonably low rounds by sheer force of will, but, in those instances, have usually finished the round mentally and physically exhausted. So, the lesson for me at least, in looking back on my successes rather than my failures, is that I need to try a little less, and expect a little less, and not worry about my score. If you will pardon the expression, I need to play "I don't give a $&@$ golf." I need to act more like Freddie Couples or Miguel Angel Jiminez out there. I don't make a good grinder. I need to be a bit more cavalier, more of a bon vivant on the golf course.

Of course, it really depends on how you're wired. If there's one thing golf teaches us, it is that one size does not fit all. There is no one secret to success. What works for me may not work for the next guy. Perhaps some people play their best by grinding over every shot. But, what worked for Ben Hogan, probably wouldn't have worked for Fred Couples, and vice versa. The key is to identify what works for you. I really believe most of us need to spend more time analyzing what works, instead of what doesn't. We need to understand our strengths, as well as our weaknesses.

When we hit a good shot, we need to take the time to consider it. We shouldn't just take it for granted, thinking "that's what I should be doing," something I'm often guilty of doing. Analyze it; not just considering how you swung the club, or what you did mechanically, but how did you feel? What were you thinking about when you hit it? Did you swing hard, or easy? Was your body relaxed, or tight, or somewhere in between? Rather than telling yourself what you did wrong, when you hit a stinker, forget the stinker, and focus on what you did right when you hit a good one. No matter what level we are at, we have hit some good shots, or surely we'd have quit by now. So, how did we do it? How can we do it more often? If we think about it, there will be clues.

Not everyone cares enough about their game to analyze it. And, that's okay too. But if we are serious about our game, and given to doing some analysis, we owe it to ourselves to analyze what we've done well as much or more than what we've done poorly. It's important for our enjoyment of the game, our mental health, and it may just be the best way to improve.

It's true that we can learn a great deal from our failures in golf, and we probably do need to spend a bit of time working on our weaknesses. But success can be a good teacher as well. I want to better learn from my successes. I want to build a bigger store of good golf memories. I want to become more expert at knowing what works for me, instead of what I'm doing wrong. If I can make some progress in that regard, perhaps another 65 is just around the corner. If not, at least I'll have some better golfing memories, and some better stories to tell after the round.