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Opinion & Analysis

Learning the mental approach to golf

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I have taken a lot of lessons in the 22 years since I started playing tournament golf. A few were from of some of the “best” teachers in the country, controversial as that term may be.

Interestingly, only one of those golf lessons ever addressed the mental process — how to approach and prepare for shots on the course to achieve an optimal result. A sports psychologist gave me that lesson 13 years ago, not golf professional, and it was also one of the most valuable learning experiences I ever had. But, few of the things we worked on during that first mental game lesson were beyond what a teaching professional can pass on to their students.

I work with sports psychologist and fellow GolfWRX Featured Writer Greg Liberto now, and continue to use ideas and habits I developed as a result of that first mental game lesson when I teach. Although most golfers stand to gain just as much by learning how to approach the psychological challenges a golf course presents from an experienced teacher, most students (and many teachers) seem to focus just on technique.

Like a lot of players, as I’ve matured, I’ve become a smarter golfer. In so doing, I’ve realized that my mental state before and during a round controls everything. A sense of calm and trust can control your rhythm, which controls balance and sequencing, and can thereby affect club head path, speed, face angle at impact and centeredness of contact. Calm and self-assuredness comes from practice and experience, but also from effective self-talk and visualization, and properly addressing negative thoughts when they arise.

Learning how to visualize your next shot and control what sports psychologists like Liberto call ANTs — Automatic Negative Thoughts — is central to developing a golf game that can stand up to pressure. Combine this with performance-based practice, and you can make faster progress and develop golf skills that are rapidly transferable to the course.

Any time you have an important round coming up you should prepare by trying to reduce your stress the day before. I often take a day off before playing in an significant event. Ben Hogan said that he would drive under the speed limit on the way to the golf course regardless of whether it was a tournament or not. Aside from preparing yourself away from the course, most of us know that a reliable pre-shot routine helps reduce stress and increase focus over the ball. Any good routine starts with the player standing behind the ball where he or she assesses the conditions and visualizes the desired ball flight. A golfer has to be able to see the ideal shot based on the conditions to execute it.

After visualizing the shot, the player should rehearse the motion that will produce that shot. How a golfer goes about aiming after that can be a matter of style, but it shouldn’t take long, and he or she should remain engaged with the target. Finally, the player needs to trust his practice swing and hit the shot he saw from behind the ball. The key is keeping the image of the ball flight in your mind’s eye while you are standing over the ball.

I’ll leave you with an example from a lesson I taught one of my students this year. One of my more talented juniors, we’ll call him Billy, came to me early in the season for a playing lesson. I met him on the range, where he seemed happy and calm, and was hitting the ball very well. It was a cold day and our course is a links layout that can be very windy in the spring. The temperature was barely 50 degrees and the wind was blowing close to 20 mph as we headed to our first hole.

Billy’s tempo changed on the first hole. He was rushing and not spending a lot of time behind the golf ball before hitting it. He wanted to impress me, and the wind was also probably making him feel he had to swing harder. We worked for the next several holes on having him settle down and think his way through shots before pulling a club and making a rhythmic swing.

High Bridge Hills Golf Club

We finally reached No. 8, a long par 3 over a 120-foot gorge. You have no other choice than to hit a good shot at High Bridge Hills’ 8th hole — there isn’t a bailout area anywhere on the hole. The shot was playing 174 yards into a crosswind that was quartering into us and to the right. We began talking our way through the shot, how the wind would affect it and what club to hit. Knowing he had to hit a 4 hybrid, I asked Billy what club he wanted to hit and his first words were, “I can’t hit my hybrid, it won’t get there.” The visually intimidating shot over the gorge and the wind had already beaten him.

I asked him how far his 3-wood went and he said 210 yards. I noted that hitting the ball long would leave him with a difficult downhill pitch. Then I asked him how far he hit his 4 hybrid and he said 195. I asked him to pull the 4 hybrid and stand behind the ball. He did, and then I told him to see the ball starting at the left side of the green and gently fading to land on the green pin high. Then I asked him to take a smooth practice swing that would produce that shot. He took two swings, after which I told him to trust that the swing he just rehearsed would make the ball fly to his target. He set up and hit the ball flush with a smooth, balanced swing. The ball flew perfectly, the wind pushing it slightly from left to right until it landed softly 15 feet from the flag.

Teachers live for the smile Billy gave me after hitting that shot. It came as no surprise that he felt so good after that that he holed the putt.

Until 25 years ago, good golf psychology was considered an intangible that players simply either had or didn’t. Later it became the realm of professionals — something that only a few sports psychologist like Greg Liberto, Dr. Dick Coop or Dr. Bob Rotella were able to grasp and communicate to their privileged students. Many of the newest generation of golf teachers, however, have read many of these experts’ books and have adopted their teachings in their own development as players. If you can find a teacher who has implemented mental coaching as an integral part of their playing and teaching, chances are you will get more out of their instruction and achieve your playing goals faster.

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Paul Kaster was selected by U.S. Kids Golf as one of the top 50 Kids Teachers in the world in 2017 and was named by Golf Digest as one of the top teachers in New Jersey for 2017-2018. He learned the game on Chicago’s only 18-hole public golf course, Jackson Park G.C., and went on to play Division I college golf, and on mini tours including the Tar Heel Tour (now EGolf Tour), and the Golden Bear Tour (now Gateway Tour). After suffering a wrist injury, he left the golf business to pursue a career in the law but after passing two bars and practicing for several years decided to return to golf to share his passion for the game and for learning with his students. He is a a level II AimPoint certified putting coach, a member of Foresight Sports’ Advisory Board, Cobra-Puma Golf’s professional staff, Proponent Group, and is a National Staff member with the SeeMore Putter Company. Paul coaches his clients out of a state of the art private studio located in Little Silver, NJ, featuring a Foresight GC Quad simulator and putting software, K-Coach 3D system, and Boditrak pressure mat. His studio is also a SeeMore Tour Fitting location and features a fully adjustable putting table that Paul uses to teach putting and fit putters. Website: www.paulkastergolf.com

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Mental Golf Edge

    Aug 14, 2014 at 12:16 am

    Thanks regarding the post. It’s good to listen to one other individual’s opinion. I certainly agree with exactly what you are saying regarding the data. Please keep up the nice work as I’m definitely going again to read more.

    Best Regards,
    Mental Golf Edge

  2. Greg Liberto

    Aug 6, 2013 at 8:12 am

    great article Paul, thanks for sharing this. To play your BEST, it truly is imperative to think better, on and off the course.

  3. 8thehardway

    Aug 6, 2013 at 7:17 am

    My sudden impulses have a warning sign – shallow, shorter breathing. Once I began taking three deeper, slower breaths before each shot or stroke those sudden urges almost vanished.

  4. Paul Kaster

    Aug 5, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    Hi Martin, I understand how you feel. It’s better not to think about “blocking” negative thoughts or doubts as much as replacing those doubts with positive ideas. You should try to remove the word “don’t” from your vocabulary when you play. For example, instead of “don’t slide,” it’s better to see your shot and think “swing around a steady head.” Certain movements need to be ingrained with drills when you practice, but on the course you want to be as positive as possible in your self talk. Good luck!

  5. Martin

    Aug 5, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    I understand the importance of a good preshot routine and good rhytm is of course important. But what can you do when you, during the swing, cant resist certain impulses, for example slide in a attempt to hit the ball straight. My practise swing is slow and with good rythm but when I take my stance, start my swing and hit it there are room for a lot of thoughts. How can I block this thoughts, often thoughts that circle around bad confidence and uncertainty?

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Opinion & Analysis

The differences between good and bad club fitters—and they’re not what you think

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Club fitting is still a highly debated topic, with many golfers continuing to believe they’re just not good enough to be fit. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s a topic for another day.

Once you have decided to invest in your game and equipment, however, the next step is figuring out where to get fit, and working with a fitter.  You see, unlike professionals in other industries, club fitting “certification” is still a little like the wild west. While there are certification courses and lesson modules from OEMs on how to fit their specific equipment, from company to company, there is still some slight variance in philosophy.

Then there are agnostic fitting facilities that work with a curated equipment matrix from a number of manufacturers. Some have multiple locations all over the country and others might only have a few smaller centralized locations in a particular city. In some cases, you might even be able to find single-person operations.

So how do you separate the good from the bad? This is the million-dollar question for golfers looking to get fit. Unless you have experience going through a fitting before or have a base knowledge about fitting, it can feel like an intimidating process. This guide is built to help you ask the right questions and pay attention to the right things to make sure you are getting the most out of your fitting.

The signs of a great fitter

  • Launch monitor experience: Having some type of launch monitor certification isn’t a requirement but being able to properly understand the interpret parameters is! A good fitter should be able to explain the parameters they are using to help get the right clubs and understand how to tweak specs to help you get optimized. The exact labeling may vary depending on the type of launch monitor but they all mostly provide the same information….Here is an example of what a fitter should be looking for in an iron fitting: “The most important parameter in an iron fitting” 
  • Communication skills: Being able to explain why and how changes are being made is a telltale sign your fitter is knowledgeable—it should feel like you are learning something along the way. Remember, communication is a two-way street so also being a good listener is another sign your working with a good fitter.
  • Transparency: This involves things like talking about price, budgets, any brand preferences from the start. This prevents getting handed something out of your price range and wasting swings during your fit.
  • A focus on better: Whether it be hitting it further and straighter with your driver or hitting more greens, the fitting should be goal-orientated. This means looking at all kinds of variables to make sure what you are getting is actually better than your current clubs. Having a driver you hit 10 yards farther isn’t helpful if you don’t know where it’s going….A great fitter that knows their stuff should quickly be able to narrow down potential options to 4-5 and then work towards optimizing from there.
  • Honesty and respect: These are so obvious, I shouldn’t even have to put it on the list. I want to see these traits from anybody in a sales position when working with customers that are looking to them for knowledge and information…If you as the golfer is only seeing marginal gains from a new product or an upgrade option, you should be told that and given the proper information to make an informed decision. The great fitters, and I’ve worked with a lot of them, will be quick to tell a golfer, “I don’t think we’re going to beat (X) club today, maybe we should look at another part of your bag where you struggle.” This kind of interaction builds trust and in the end results in happy golfers and respected fitters.

The signs of a bad fitter

  • Pushing an agenda: This can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Whether it be a particular affinity towards certain brands of clubs or even shafts. If you talk to players that have all been to the same fitter and their swings and skill levels vary yet the clubs or brands of shafts they end up with (from a brand agnostic facility) seem to be eerily similar it might be time to ask questions.
  • Poor communications: As you are going through the fitting process and warming up you should feel like you’re being interviewed as a way to collect data and help solve problems in your game. This process helps create a baseline of information for your fitter. If you are not experiencing that, or your fitter isn’t explaining or answering your questions directly, then there is a serious communication problem, or it could show lack of knowledge depth when it comes to their ability.
  • Lack of transparency: If you feel like you’re not getting answers to straightforward questions or a fitter tells you “not to worry about it” then that is a big no-no from me.
    Side note: It is my opinion that golfers should pay for fittings, and in a way consider it a knowledge-gathering session. Of course, the end goal for the golfer is to find newer better fitting clubs, and for the fitter to sell you them (let’s be real here), but you should never feel the information is not being shared openly.
  • Pressure sales tactics: It exists in every industry, I get it, but if you pay for your fitting you are paying for information, use it to your advantage. You shouldn’t feel pressured to buy, and it’s always OK to seek out a knowledgeable second opinion (knowledgeable being a very key word in that sentence!).  If you are getting the hard sell or any combination of the traits above, there is a good chance you’re not working with the right fitter for you.

Final thoughts

Great fitters with great reputations and proper knowledge have long lists, even waiting lists, of golfers waiting to see them. The biggest sign of a great fitter is a long list of repeat customers.

Golf is a game that can be played for an entire lifetime, and just like with teachers and swing coaches, the good ones are in it for the long haul to help you play better and build a rapport—not just sell you the latest and greatest (although we all like new toys—myself included) because they can make a few bucks.

Trust your gut, and ask questions!

 

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Podcasts

TG2: TaylorMade P7MB & P7MC Review | Oban CT-115 & CT-125 Steel Shafts

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Took the new TaylorMade P-7MB and P-7MC irons out on the course and the range. The new P-7MB and P-7MC are really solid forged irons for the skilled iron players. Great soft feel on both, MB flies really low, and the MC is more mid/low launch. Oban’s CT 115 & 125 steel shafts are some of the most consistent out there. Stout but smooth feel with no harsh vibration at impact.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Improve your transition for better wedge play

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In my opinion, one of the most misunderstood areas of the golf swing is the transition from backswing to downswing, but I don’t read much on this in the golf publications. So, here’s my take on the subject.

Whether it’s a short putt, chip or pitch, half wedge, full iron or driver swing, there is a point where the club’s motion in the backswing has to come to a complete stop–even if for just a nano-second–and reverse direction into the forward swing. What makes this even more difficult is that it is not just the club that is stopping and reversing direction, but on all but putts, the entire body from the feet up through the body core, shoulders, arms and hands.

In my observation, most golfers have a transition that is much too quick and jerky, as they are apparently in a hurry to generate clubhead speed into the downswing and through impact. But, just as you (hopefully) begin your backswing with a slow take-away from the ball, a proper start to the downswing is also a slower move, starting from this complete stop and building to maximum clubhead speed just past impact. If you will work on your transition, your ball striking and distance will improve, as will your accuracy on your short shots and putts. Let’s start there.

In your wedge play, your primary objective is to apply just the exact amount of force to propel the ball the desired distance. In order to do that, it makes sense to move the club slower, as that allows more precision. I like to think of the pendulum on a grandfather clock as a great guide to tempo and transition. As the weight goes back and forth, it comes to a complete stop at each end, and achieves maximum speed at the exact bottom of the arc. If you put that picture in your head when you chip and putt, you will develop a tempo that encourages a smooth transition at the end of the backswing.

The idea is to achieve a gradual acceleration from the end of the backswing to the point of impact, but for most golfers, this type of swing is likely much slower than yours is currently. I encourage you to not be in a hurry to force this acceleration, as that causes a quick jab with the hands, because the shoulder rotation and slight body rotation cannot move that quickly from its end-of-backswing rotation.

Here’s a drill to help you picture this kind of swing pace. Drawing on that grandfather clock visual, hold your wedge at the very end of the grip with two fingers, and get it moving like the clock pendulum–back and through. Watch the tempo and transition for a few moments, and then try to mimic that with your short or half swing tempo. No faster, no slower. You can even change how far you pull the club up to start this motion to see what happens to the pendulum tempo on longer swings.

An even better exercise is to have a friend hold a club in this manner right in front of you while you are practicing your chipping or pitching swing and try to “shadow” that motion with your swings. You will likely find that your transition is much too fast and jerky to give you the results you are after.

If you will practice this, I can practically guarantee your short-range transition will become really solid and repeatable. From there, it’s just a matter of extending the length of the swing to mid-range pitches, full short irons, mid-irons, fairway woods, and driver–all while feeling for that gradual transition that makes for great timing, sequencing, and tempo.

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