Playing Conscious Golf – Preparing for Competition

by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychologists

My dentist has a sign in his office that reads, “Just floss the ones you want to keep.” Playing conscious golf involves the same principle. Mental conditioning for good tournament play is not a matter left to happenstance. In fact, many of the key factors that help people enjoy the game more require them to improve the way they manage their minds and hole-by-hole execution on the course.

I’ve known zillions of club players who defeat themselves before they reach the 1st tee, and it is no surprise that competent competitive golfers achieve that distinction for a reason. They understand and practice the precursors for playing conscious golf and their preparation before the round is both strategic and vital to sound play. Here are the pivotal steps for tournament preparation….

A proper warm up before play includes a good stretching routine, a process for relaxing the body, and bringing the mind into the “NOW” moment. Techniques are employed before one even picks up a club. Breathing in a deliberate manner is essential and at least a dozen different techniques exist to help calm or energize the body by choice. Focusing techniques follow with the really competent players starting with the short game employing techniques such as “soft” hands to enhance feel. “Quieting the mind” is a trained technique that requires disciplined self-talk between every shot practiced on the range. Conscious golf specifically employs routines to center oneself, to recover on demand, and effectively maintain the mental toughness to manage distractions, chatter, and our own mistakes….to play our best and enjoy the challenge completely. There is no better method than perfecting the pre-shot routine to maximize consistency and when properly constructed, this routine enables us to set ourselves up to score.

I call this approach “conscious golf” and have found that it is never more valuable than in competition. Competitive golf includes tournament play of all kinds. Match play or stroke play, alternate shot, one-on-one, four-ball, member-guest socials and even slug-fests qualify. Informal competition amongst friends and family where the stakes might be no larger than beers at the 19th hole may be more relaxed, but the one thing that does stand out is that we really want to perform well.

I like to tell the story of Billy Bob, who was practicing 4 footers, and had sunk 25 of them in a row. Just then his “buddy” showed up and bet him $50 bucks that he’d miss the next putt…..which he certainly did miss, costing him 50 clams. He was so upset that he broke his $200 putter. Competition comes in all forms and it’s important that we’re consciously ready for it when the challenge presents itself.

This article is dedicated to those who choose to put themselves on the line, purposely engaging in competition to hone their wits and their skills in performance. The tournament enthusiast may be professional or amateur, is committed to their game, loves to win and hates to lose. There are four aspects of conscious golf that this article is dedicated to, all designed to help you better prepare for tournament golf. They involve preparation (on and off the course), the 80/20 rule for scoring, and finally, course and game management.

Preparation On and Off the Course

Preparation begins when we sign up for a tournament. In almost all cases, we’ve got to pony up an entry fee so there’s more at stake than just pride. Every tournament is a little bit different. Some are city wide and involve play on consecutive days at multiple courses. Others may involve a summer long commitment in match play where a different opponent is faced each week until one is eliminated. The important thing is to understand the mechanics of the tournament, assess the competition as best you can before play begins, and to be familiar with the layout of the course by having scheduled a couple of practice rounds in the weeks preceding tournament. Sometimes tournaments involve teams, with best ball and alternate shot formats. Choosing your partner can be fundamental to the outcome. Make sure you think about the goodness of fit amongst personalities. My favorite choice of a partner involves someone who has a good sense of humor, is positive, has substance, keeps their cool and realizes that perspective is all important when keeping the stress levels manageable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about fueling our bodies nutritionally the night before and prior to the beginning of the round. By keeping certain foods in our bag, we can keep our blood sugar and hydration needs met. Fueling ourselves optimally might involve a banana to keep our potassium up and a power bar to keep from bonking on the course. The first symptom of bonking on the golf course is a mind that spaces out, makes a mental mistake and fails us in managing our attitudes or committing to the shot (not second guessing our choice as we stand over the ball).

After a couple of practice rounds, it’s a good thing to have a course yardage book to go by. A good many courses now have GPS yardage and distance guides with graphics, distance marks to and from hazards and recommendations for optimal approaches to scoring. These books are likely to cost about $4-5 but are fabulous tools in preparing for tournament play. Since few of us are scratch golfers, and we’re not shooting for the million dollar prize money in a PGA tour event… is important that we take into consideration the best and worst of our game in planning our strategy for playing a tournament. Some holes should be played as a par 5, even though they may be listed as a par 4 for the scratch golfer. Choosing our shots before a round, so as to minimize trouble and maximize our course management is always a good strategy. Mistakes will happen. However, our ability to minimize lost shots and “blow-up” holes often makes the biggest difference in our ability to score. Preparation before the round should focus on the short game the most – putting and chipping – because 60% or more of our score will be comprised of these kinds of shots.

Dedication to P3 Thinking

P3 thinking is an applied sport psychology technique coined by Dr. Robin Vealey. It requires us to be disciplined in our mental preparation before, during and after the round. The first characteristic of P3 thinking is that our mental preparation is purposeful. We have a purpose and an intention as we approach the round, and each shot within the round.

The discipline is never more apparent than the self-control employed in thinking productively. There are two prerequisites to productive thinking: focusing in the “now” moment, and attuning oneself to the “task at hand.” Selective memory comes into play in this circumstance, with the qualifier remaining productive, constructive, useful, centered and focused on execution. Swing thoughts are kept simple. They employ a fixed point concentration on “how” we will execute “this” shot.

Possibility thinking characterizes the third characteristic of the disciplined mind in tournament play. Each shot is shaped in our mind. A clear target or landing area is not only recognized but planned for. This aspect of the game is managed with flexibility and resiliency, and, it depends on how we may be striking the ball that day, weather or course conditions. Possibility thinking, however, NEVER involves anticipating a score or even calculating numbers during the round. The possibilities are channeled into the execution of one shot at a time, period.

The 80/20 Rule for Scoring

The 80/20 Rule for scoring comes into play most often the closer we get to the hole. The first rule is to “do no harm”. Keep the ball in play. Out-of-bounds and lost balls do happen, and can destroy the best of rounds. By playing a par 4 as a personal par 5, we can choose shots that increase our likelihood of staying out of trouble and those that put us in position to score. A difficult tee shot might best be made with a 5 iron instead of driver. The distance may not matter nearly as much as the ability to play for position and even avoid trouble.

Most golfers in tournament play give away shots unwittingly around the putting green, chipping and putting. Target selection and club selection are paramount here. A chip shot over a sand trap, with a short landing area is not a good percentage shot, especially if we chunk it into the bunker. Choosing the play that puts us in position to score is first priority. Oftentimes, that means we avoid the trouble strategically and purposely. The terrain approach and pin position will dictate our shot selection. Having the ability to pitch and run a 5, 6 or 7 iron vs. lofting a wedge may teach us about the speed of the green and allow us to read the green better for the putt that follows. Watching our opponent’s ball (and not our opponent) can let us learn from both their successes and their mistakes and give us valuable information we can use later in the round.

Partner golf (best ball/alternate shot team play) is a particular challenge in both the ability to stay in synch with one another, but also in communicating effectively to maximize the partnership… thereby minimizing lost shots to mistakes. In best ball play, “ham and eggs” is a good thing and refers to how one partner scores optimally while the other is having a less than stellar hole. Teams that effectively communicate shot selection and strategy increase the effectiveness of the partnership. In alternate shot play, it is really important to consider each player’s strengths and weaknesses in course management and to agree on strategy before each hole.

Attitude adjustment is probably the single most important aspect of the 80/20 scoring rule. Choosing an attitude that has a short memory for poorly played shots, and a long memory for successes is hugely beneficial. Letting go of self-criticism, guilt over failing a partner and any thought that intrudes on our ability to “Be Here Now” and sustain the principles of P3 thinking is imperative to play your best.

Course and Game Management

Anyone who plays this game with any degree of consistency will tell you they are not sure who is going to show up on the 1st tee. We have our ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ games and we can’t always tell when we are going to see which. The ‘A’ game, of course, is the one we most want in tournament play. We are “on” and in the “zone”… hitting the ball crisply and putting in such a way that we see the hole like we’d see the Grand Canyon…big. Sometimes we have that ‘A’ game to keep us company in a tournament. However, sometimes we don’t. What then?

Course management goes to our advance preparation and our knowledge of the course itself. Club selection, shot selection, target zones and “personal par” strategy are the hallmark of course management. No matter what game, ‘A’ ‘B’ or ‘C’, on that day we can do our best if we properly manage ourselves and our choices during the round. Looking over the course layout the night before, it would be useful to plan contingencies for each hole….and keep our notes handy during the round itself.

Managing our game means managing our attitudes during play. Keeping our emotions in check, staying in the “Now”, and keeping our wits about us as we approach each hole and select each shot is the key to playing our best tournament golf. After each round, it may be valuable to review the round and chart fairways hit, greens in regulations, up and down opportunities, sand saves, and putts. This realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses after the round channels our practice sessions and preparation for upcoming competitions. A purposeful, productive and possibility-focused game improvement strategy becomes the norm. Of course, there are many other strategies and tools for maximizing our performance on game day, but none are more important than those we discussed in this article. The methods for successful play in competition pale in comparison to the healthy attitude and joy of the game.

John Updike once said that, “Golf appeals to the idiot in us and the child. Just how childlike golfers become is proven by their frequent inability to count past five.”

Of course, if we don’t play well, the Irish had an answer for us. Did you ever wonder why there are 18 Holes, not 15 or 20? That would be because there are eighteen shots of whiskey in a bottle, and they figured a shot on the tee box of every hole would have them all playing their ‘A’ Game by the time they reached the clubhouse at the end of the day. It’s no wonder most amateur tournaments have no shortage of partying and revelry in between each day of golf.

Happy Scoring.

By Stephen Walker, Ph.D.

2 thoughts on “Playing Conscious Golf – Preparing for Competition

  • August 13, 2018 at 5:45 pm

    I found this article very helpful for me to prepare my club games
    against other colleagues and other clubers. I will do my best to discipline myself to practise the preparation the full extend.
    In fact, I have recently improved my score before I was doing preparation in advance of the game. This article confirms that I am heading in the right direction, plus some other useful tips.
    Thank you very much.

    • August 14, 2018 at 1:15 pm

      Glad it was helpful! Good luck! If you have some more ideas on a couple of articles that you’d like to see, let us know.


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