Conscious Golf – The Mental Game


It is good sportsmanship to not pick up lost golf balls while they are still rolling.
– Mark Twain

by Dr. Stephen Walker – CC-AASP

This article is dedicated to the millions of people chasing that little white ball around the meadow, forests, canyons, and lakes otherwise known as the golf course. Living where I do on the eighth hole of a local links, I am witness to some amazing things. I’ve seen golf clubs thrown farther than a javelin. I’ve witnessed “sevensomes” that had less order than a Keystone Cops episode. I’ve seen weeping and jumps for joy, the stylish and the tank topped, the old and the young with swings that defy the laws of physics……all trying to put that little white ball in the hole, golfing fools like myself.

Usually, the golf course is peaceful and offers a gorgeous view with ample opportunities to watch the birds and other wildlife enjoy their habitat. Only occasionally is the peace and calm of a lovely day shattered by language that normally resides on construction sites and in the sewer system. But then again, these are people….. playing what has to be the easiest and most difficult game in the world. These folks, and to tell the truth, I include myself among them…..“love” this game. They only hate certain aspects of their game. They practice their game. They subscribe to 3 or 4 magazines to improve their game. They watch their own TV channel to learn what they can about their game. They spend millions of dollars on clubs and gadgets annually to retool their game. They obsess over their game…..they love to hate themselves playing the game they love. You might have to reread that statement a couple of times for understanding, unless of course, you are a golfer.

Golf at its Best

Golf at its best has an almost spiritual quality. We play our best when we are at ease within ourselves. We are in the “zone”, in the “now” moment and we are able to concentrate absolutely without distraction. Our body and mind are quietly focused, and we perform with simplicity and intention. We make our turn effortlessly, and we are able to move confidently through the ball “seeing it and feeling it” as an extension of ourselves. That is, when we are at our best.

Unfortunately, we are not at our best often enough…..

What happens then? Well, golfers struggle with “their” game. They often struggle. They make mistakes. They react to those mistakes. They ask themselves; “Why me?”, “Why can’t I?”, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Where did my game go?” That’s just about the time they start getting personal about it, and then they get mad….start calling themselves names, using pejorative terms to describe their game, the “gusfraba mantra” for anger management or just give up and throw clubs. Many swear that they are going to quit the stupid game and avoid the aggravation altogether. That is how they resolve to end the nuisance, right up until they hit a great shot or par the eighteenth hole.

Getting the Most out of Our Game

Golf reveals more about one’s approach toward life than almost any other recreational activity I know. It is a game that constantly challenges us to manage ourselves, our minds, and our game. How we accomplish this makes the biggest difference in both our pleasure and our score.

Surely it is a game of skills, requiring touch and power all at once. That in itself is a quite a challenge. When you add the course design into it, and the multitude of challenges to shot making each architect has in mind for us, it can be daunting. So what is the hook? Why do so many people get obsessed by it?

I believe it is because we are able to combine an experience of nature, beautiful surroundings, lush and ever-changing landscapes, and a social opportunity that enables entire families, groups of friends, business associates and complete strangers to bond in a way they might never have discovered. For one, the challenge is met by all equally and the camaraderie that comes from such an experience tends to stay with you. At a minimum, for fitness buffs you can get an aerobic workout playing golf. When you walk, it’s a good five mile hike at a leisurely pace. A recently published article, citing research from the Harris Interactive Study (2004), titled “The Outdoors is a Natural Cure to the Blues” certainly reinforces golf as an outdoor enthusiast’s answer to depression and stress. Keeping these things in perspective with the emotional challenges of the game truly is the key. Because our minds move so much faster than our bodies, exercising self management along with course management proves to be a significant part of the challenge.

The “Conscious Golf” Approach

I have found that people who develop an approach to the game that enables them to remain centered and calm, enjoy themselves and their game to the max. Acquiring this kind of presence is a skill and requires one to “relax the body”. I am a strong proponent of pre-round practice routines that begin with short game work, especially putting and chipping. Breathing is highly underrated as a relaxation technique, as well as emphasizing soft hands during putting practice. A good stretch before picking up any club is suggested with an emphasis on “letting go” of tension in your body, as the goal.

“Quieting the mind” comes next. Making it a point to separate from the troubles of everyday life is made easier when you take a moment to really take in your environment and appreciate the beauty in your surroundings. If you’re preoccupied with something, take a moment before your warm-up to actively write down your list of things to do when you’ve finished your round. Remember why we play the game and your goal, to relax, have fun and enjoy your company and surroundings.

I notice that every time I go to the practice tee before I play; there are a bunch of people pounding drivers. They start warming up with the driver and they finish with the driver, like that is the most used club in the bag. The fact is, the driver is the “show” club and people who are generally stressed out want to beat balls with it. Hence, they’re beginning their round in the worst frame of mind possible. I suggest spending at least three times as much time with the putter and wedges, not just for the purpose of developing “feel”, but to quiet your mind before the first hole. If you are playing with a new partner or an acquaintance, take the time on the first tee to really greet them. It will likely reduce any social tension likely to interfere with your play before the game starts.

Developing Consistency

When taking an inventory before each clinic, I ask people what they want to get from the session. The largest single category of response has to do with developing consistency. Golf is a game that requires us to repeat a swing that works at advancing the ball toward the hole with a minimum of error. There is no more frustrated a golfer than the one who’s playing military golf – left, right, left. A good teaching pro will show you how to set your stance up properly, and to provide you with tools to help you find and groove a proper swing plane for execution.

There is a lot more we can do, mentally. Having a well rehearsed pre-shot routine enhances our consistency by reinforcing our focus and concentration. Routines can help us deal productively with distractions. A clear and concise method for coping with “expectations and perfectionism” is also a useful tool. I know someone who routinely recites the Serenity Prayer after a costly mistake. Not everyone has a strategy for recovery, but because Recovery is such a big part of the game, it pays to have a method for “letting-go” of mistakes and “changing the channel” of our thoughts. Learning the lesson of a mistake, and then forgetting the damage done by an errant ball is important to improving our play. All of these guidelines implore us to stay focused in the now moment. Methods and techniques for Conscious Golf abound, and almost all of them can help us enjoy our game more and score even better.

Setting Ourselves up to Score

Managing yourself and your game is the first priority when setting yourself up to score. “Favoring the Optimal” in attitude and placement of your shots go hand in hand. Putting yourself in position to score begins with keeping yourself out of trouble. Aiming for the most open area of the green or fairway gives you a target from which you’ll almost always have a shot. Threading the needle under one tree, and over another does not give any room for error. Choosing the high percentage shot helps you recover quickly, and with a minimum of damage to your score. Doing this requires good concentration, smart course management, and most of all impulse control. Keeping your focus on the goal, and playing conscious golf is a key skill for enjoying yourself and your round.

Charting your game can help you define the areas of your game that need the most work. Keeping track of fairways hit, greens in regulation, chips and putts enable you to plan your next lesson. Not only can taking a lesson help you master a trouble area it is a very efficient way to learn advanced skills. Using your game chart to establish a quality practice program is an advanced technique, but one that enables you to progress faster and enjoy shot making to the maximum.

Golf has been touted as the greatest game and golfing fanatics will testify to the merits of the game, the ethics and courtesy involved in friendly play, and the beauty and traditions that have contributed to this phenomenal sport for hundreds of years. As people, we are prone to get off-course, and lose sight of our goal. A nice leisurely afternoon spent with friends can deteriorate quickly if we don’t keep our goal in mind. The options for how we enjoy ourselves are endless, from targeting our shot toward an interesting geological formation to get a better look at it, to choosing to play a scramble format thereby increasing the social interactions of our group. The lessons we’ve learned from other rounds we’ve played can help us keep on track to get the most out of our outing and insure that all our playing partners have an enjoyable experience. All that’s left is our execution and follow-through…no small part of the game. Mental preparation for a round of golf, consciously managing your emotions – relaxation – feel – and recovery skills requires practice, focus and a clear intention…..all played out between your ears.

This article is by Dr Stephen Walker PhD.

One thought on “Conscious Golf – The Mental Game

  • July 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    I have been following up on this Podium Sports Journal » Blog Archive » Conscious Golf – The Mental Game blog for a while and I find it very impressive. I plan to add it to my rss feeds.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.