This wretched game has exerted an almost unshakeable hold on me since I was about nine years of age and I love to observe the players, men and women, their games, their work rates, their attitudes, their beliefs and their sacrifices. I’m particularly fortunate in that I get to chat with some of them from time to time. It’s fair to say that over the last 20 years the golfers have become athletes first and golfers second. They spend many hours in the gym with their trainers preparing their bodies to withstand all the rotational forces at work in a powerful golf action. Technical expertise coupled with advances in equipment have resulted in these players hitting the ball prodigious distances. No stone is left unturned in their pursuit of excellence – nutrition, management of rest time, scheduling, planning and preparation are inherent in everything they do. It is not a world with which we ordinary mortals have much experience as regards our own games.
It seems to me that the one area that still has room for advancement in golf, and one that we can tap into, is in the area of mental skills. In this 21st century we are still only using and accessing a minute percentage of our brains. Surely this is the largest remaining area with unchartered waters? This observation was what really piqued my interest in Ariya Jutanugarn, the young Thai player who won last year’s Ricoh Women’s British Open at Woburn.
Consider Jutanugarn’s 2016 season. In April she dropped shots at the closing three holes in the first major of the year to blow her chance of a first win – and a first major – in the United States. She choked. She said afterwards, “So, I feel really nervous. Honestly, I don’t know how to win the tournament. I don’t want to have that feeling again.” She had just started working with Vision 54’s renowned mental coaches, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott. They helped her a lot, suggesting she focus on controlling only the things that she could control. This did not include winning, losing or how others played. She started working hard on creating a happy feeling before every single shot – she dubbed it “playing happy”.
One month later Ariya had her breakthrough win in the States. The following week she won again….and then again on her next outing, becoming the first ever LPGA player to win her first three titles consecutively. She later won her first major and then a fifth tournament before the year’s end. She was no longer a choker, but a closer.
It all sounds easy, doesn’t it? But, of course, it isn’t. It is a skill to develop habits of thinking that are helpful to you, particularly in the face of poor play, no matter what your standard may be. But consider this. Every action is preceded by a thought, so it makes sense that the quality of those thoughts will directly impact the quality of shot you hit. Our attitude to any task affects how we perform that task.
I often ask my pupils who indulge in a lot of negative self-talk to consider how they would speak to me and advise me were they to caddy for me. Not one of them said they would be pointing out to me that under no circumstances was I to put the ball in that left-hand greenside bunker like I did last week, because I never do get out of it first time! They all admit, however, that that is exactly the sort of thing they say to themselves!
So, let’s all catch ourselves on. It’s unlikely we’re going to hit the gym like maniacs or even find our way to the practice ground on a regular basis but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to improve our golf. Take control of your thoughts, don’t let them control you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more enjoyable your golf becomes and improvement invariably comes from a platform of enjoyment. Take a leaf out of Ariya’s book and play happy!