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Why I can’t tell a 15-handicap he’s thinking too much

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You’re thinking too much. Just hit it. Stop thinking about it. Paralysis by analysis. 

Does any of this sound familiar? If you’ve ever been to a driving range or played at your local course, I’ll bet you’ve heard it. The spirit of the message is always the same: that too many golfers are caught up in mechanics and thoughts to be able to swing and play golf freely. And it’s a great idea for the maximum enjoyment of golf, so long as you are not concerned with results.

If your goal in playing golf is to enjoy your time with friends, the fresh air, the bucolic setting and all the rest, I suggest you:

  1. Hit the ball.
  2. Go find it.
  3. Repeat steps one and two.

If your golf goals have to do with improving your shot quality, shooting lower scores or competing against your peers, however, you may not have the liberty of not thinking. That is, you may have to focus on certain motions UNTIL they become ingrained enough to be executed instinctively. 

This can be Pandora’s box of golf if one is not careful. Any experienced teacher would agree that too much thinking is not a good thing, however, to get to the point of non-thinking — the Zen of golf if you will — you will likely have to think. There may very well come a point when the body begins to act intuitively, but it has been my experience that the time and point where this occurs is sometimes later in one’s development.

There are many examples of this. 

Let’s start with the grip. When we hand a golf clubs to people who have never played golf, they rarely hold it “correctly,” by which I mean functionally. So we show them how it should be held, and at first, it appears quite strange. They practice it over and over again until it feels natural, until they do it without thinking. I have been playing golf for some 55 years so I grip the club instinctively, but I you that at one time I had to think about how to do it.

Now ask the same people to make a backswing. Again, they won’t make anything resembling getting to the top of the swing in a favorable position to start down. I teach them the sequence, and then they practice it (and think about it) until it becomes more natural. And on it goes.

I can remember my early days of driving a car. Hands at 10 and 2, clutch in, shift, brake, etc. It was all quite confusing, to the point where I’d have to pull off the road, gather my thoughts and start again. I had to learn to drive the car. I did this by thinking about how to do it, practicing it and then executing it. Now I drive home and have no idea how I even got there, or where my hands or feet were. The point is this: muscles, tendons, joints, etc., do not act on their own. They need to be programmed — told what to do by the brain — at least for a period of time, which brings me to my role as teacher.

I cannot tell someone with a terrible grip to just go play or stop thinking so much. I cannot teach the art of mindless golf to someone standing at the golf ball in such a way as to not allow them to make anything resembling a swing. I MUST correct the grip and the posture if they wish to improve; it’s as simple as that. If you’re a regular reader of my work, you know that everyone is quite different in their method, but the commonality is at some point all golfers will need to focus (think) about making a new move if the one they’re making is not getting the desired results they want or expect.

I also teach professional golfers and highly skilled amateurs who have reached the point of instinctive golf. And yes, it’s true that at times they do get in their own road by thinking too much. It’s an entirely different animal and is worthy of a whole other discussion. The vast majority of golfers, however, especially those who took up the game later in life, may have to accept the fact that some processing — some thinking about how to do certain things — will always be a part of their routine. They do not have the liberty of mindless golf, at least not to the degree that those more accomplished players who have played since a very young age (and often with good guidance) do. But once a move or position has become instinctive, swing away.

One more point on this. The setup and the swing, although quite closely related, are separate parts of a golf game. So let’s say you take a lesson and the instructor recommends a grip change, a ball position change and re-routes your back swing. After you learn the new grip and ball position, you can free your mind. You are fully operative at that point, and free to practice the new takeaway until it becomes instinctive.

Questions? Concerns? Post your comments below. If you’re interested in my online swing analysis program you can contact me at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the Marco Island Marriott in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

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31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Steven

    Nov 16, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Great advice Dennis. I am a little biased because I tend to think a ton about the swing. When people say a golfer is overthinking, my guess is the golfer is trying to think about too many different things at once. Incremental improvement with focused thinking on a limited number of changes is necessary to make changes. If it takes 21 days of conscious choices to break a habit, then changing a small thing in a rapid golf swing would take similar conscious thoughts over a significant amount of time.

  2. Mongoose

    Nov 15, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Also watching the golf channel for instruction, geez what a joke…

  3. Grizz01

    Nov 14, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    I’ve been playing golf for 47 years. The more I watch/read the instructions from professionals, the more I see them actually making the game harder/difficult. A person only has so much talent/ability. These guy just keep pushing it… they just an’t look at a student and say… “That’s the best its going to get for you.” They got to keep them coming back to pay the bills. The game is not as difficult as you all make it out to be.

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 16, 2016 at 9:23 am

      Actually, I appreciate your cynicism, but having done this work for 35+ years I’ve got a long line of people who want to see me for help with their game. The LAST THING I want is for anyone to come back; one and done! Point them in the right direction — now go tell someone else I’ve helped you. That’s my marketing model. A good teaching pro’s day has fresh faces every day and a new problem to solve every hour. Thanks.

    • RCCM

      Nov 17, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Caveat, I’m not an instructor. So many people who throw shade at instructors are the same ones who are unable to accept any new movement or setup position in their golf game. You can give golfers the correct instruction but you can’t give them the mental fortitude to put it into practice. I see it with my friends, and I’ve been through it myself.

      The real battle is not finding and getting the correct instruction, the real battle is getting the student to accept the instruction and practice new and uncomfortable feelings. The difference between those who will get better and those who will not is between the ears.

      If you’re not willing to be uncomfortable, you will not get better.

  4. Martin Chuck

    Nov 14, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Dennis, great article. I’ve been teaching for 30 years, and when I hear somebody with a high handicap tell me they’re thinking too much, I say “good, now I have you right where I want you.” With my golf school students, I will ask the group if any of them have played a musical instrument. I find those that have suffered through the learning and skill development of a musical instrument understand the process of learning. That can apply to golf really nicely. On the other hand, The “athlete” just expects to do something because of their physical skills in other areas. That’s problematic 🙂

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 14, 2016 at 4:09 pm

      Hi Martin, as a 20-handicap guitar player and singer I can soooo relate to that. Patience is a learned skill and one of ther few times we get to practice it is when challenging ourselves with learning a new task. Ive worked with some of the greatest athletes ever, Dr. J. MJ, (taught in AC New jersey for some time and many of them would come on casino outings) and they can’t believe they cant hit that little white ball just sitting still in front of them! The less physically talented, as you mentioned, are not as shocked by slices and and ground balls!

  5. Modog

    Nov 14, 2016 at 11:14 am

    tried to tell a 22 h/cap to keep it simple. pick the club, 1 practice swing and hit it, no overthinking. he said how do you turn off your brain. couldn’t answer.

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 14, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      Mo…”brain dead” bodies do not move. For obvious reasons. Every movement we make has to start in the brain. It can become instinct but needs programming first! So as much as i would prefer non-thought it wouldn’t help me learn a skill! Thx for reading.

  6. Bob Jones

    Nov 14, 2016 at 10:52 am

    What this means to me is to set up feeling the shot, not the stroke. I don’t know if a recreational golfer can ever have enough repetitions to get to that point. I’m not there, and I’ve been playing for almost 60 years.

  7. Cap

    Nov 14, 2016 at 10:46 am

    So much truth here. I recently read an article about how ones fondness for pseudo-intellectual quotes (‘By blossoming, we dream.’ or ‘You and I are dreamweavers of the quantum soup’ etc.) is inversely proportional to their IQ. Well, golf has it’s own lexicon of bollocks babble–golfisms, if you will. We’ve all heard them: ‘keep your head down’, ‘hold the club like a baby bird’, ‘take 2 weeks off then quit the game’ (actually, this is pretty solid). Much like psycho-babble quotes, golfisms are appealing because they are concise and have an element of truth. In fact, they might even work for you provided you don’t spend too much time thinking about ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’. But an effective golf swing is a shape-shifting beast. People are built differently both mentally and physically and even a layman who sees Arnie’s swing next to Hogan’s can tell you that there may very well be more than one way to play the game. The reality is, there are precious few blanket statements when it comes to the golf swing and if you read the time-worn clichés as gospel, you’ll probably never see the light.

    • Double Mocha Man

      Nov 14, 2016 at 11:48 am

      Good post. If I ever hear the phrases again, “Keep your head down, you’re hitting behind the ball, swing easy…” I will hurl. Both my stomach contents and the club I happen to be holding at the time.

      • Dennis Clark

        Nov 14, 2016 at 4:20 pm

        Mocha, LOL. here’s one for ya…In over 35 years of teaching I have NEVER seen a student “pick up their head”. They come to the tee swearing that’s the problem, then look at the video and are SHOCKED that their head is down and they are looking right at the golf ball! John Jacobs used to tell me that he heard so much about keeping the head down, he thought the object of the game was to kick the ball.

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 14, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Very true Cap. If you hear keep your down, keep your left arm straight, slow your swing down, walk away. A lot of the psycho babble is because that person knows nothing else to say…There are NO, as in ZERO things that apply to every single golfer other than the ballistics of impact! How to get there is a highly individual matter! Thx for reading.

  8. Gary

    Nov 14, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Don’t expect so much of yourself no matter what level of player you are. Yes, you can visualize your shots but don’t fantasize about them. Play to a level that is within EASY reach, not a level that is far beyond your ability. The one thing you can focus your attention on is balance…you should strive to keep your balance no matter how good or bad the contact with the ball might be. By keeping your balance, you will become more consistent with your quality of hits.

  9. 4Right

    Nov 13, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Tell them to stop reading Golf Digest, and Golf magazine. Taking the cookie cutter lessons and thinking their way to 115…

  10. Egor

    Nov 13, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the unstoppable autoplay videos on mobile devices.

    ¯\_(?)_/¯

  11. SOL

    Nov 12, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    Stages of Learning:
    1. Unconscious Incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know
    2. Conscious Incompetence – you don’t know how to do what you know about
    3. Conscious Competence – you know what to do and can do it, but you have to think about it consciously
    4. Unconscious Competence – you have fully ingrained the correct movements and can execute without consciously thinking about them

  12. Double Mocha Man

    Nov 12, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    I play with 15 handicappers and they always have swing keys but they are the wrong ones. One guy, bless his heart, is an attorney so his swing keys are absolutely right. You can’t even question them.

  13. J.

    Nov 12, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    This even rings true when someone is custom fit for clubs.. You can pay for golf equipment, but if you have a horrible swing.. then.. go see an instructor with a Trackman.

  14. Hugh

    Nov 12, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Even just one thought that is easily repeated to give you focus and commitment to each shot has worked for me. Very good article and rings true to all of my customers that use our driving range.

  15. Rors

    Nov 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    I think with the evolution of flight scope, swing instruction has become more a science now. Instructors have a vast amount of information based on different numbers they see on data they collect. So in my opinion students gets intimidated with information, thus think swing not golf. Instructors need to be very creative when teaching, getting to know the student and theirs goals. I would never teach a recreational golfer the same as a top junior, or college player. My lesson plan would be more around him correcting mistakes made on the course, plus not trying to transform their swing other than to enhance it… Great article and it brings up many opinions, which this is mine… Thanks for reading, and would love to read yours…

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 12, 2016 at 5:53 pm

      swings and students are like fingerprints,with no two alike…over nearly 40 years and 30K lessons, I never plan a day or lesson. I react to what i see instinctively and correct (or not) from there. The principles of instruction are finite, the methods of presentation infinite. Thx for your interest.

  16. Smokin' Gun

    Nov 12, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Caveman golf… Hit ball, find ball, hit ball again…

    • Shanker

      Nov 14, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      Sometimes the 2nd part is the hardest to achieve!!!

  17. Pingback: Why I can’t tell a 15-handicap he’s thinking too much – Swing Update

  18. acemandrake

    Nov 12, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Correct. I started playing at 9 (I’m now 59) with good instruction.

    The more you play the more “natural” and instinctive the game becomes (playing golf NOT golf swing).

    Now if I can just get out of my own way…:)

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 12, 2016 at 5:47 pm

      Thats the point, you can play “golf not golf swing” from 50 years of playing not everyone can. Thx

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Instruction

A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness

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I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why?  They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.

The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.

To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.

So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand?  Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.

Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?

Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.

Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.

When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.

The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.

As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.

So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!

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Instruction

6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick

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One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.

However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.

So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.

1) Avoid Sucker Pins

I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.

Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.

So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.

2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?

A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.

For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.

3) Hitting the Correct Shelf

I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.

If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.

4) Know your Carry Distances

In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.

My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.

5) When do you have the Green Light?

Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:

  • How are you hitting the ball that day?
  • How is your yardage control?
  • What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
  • Do you have a backstop behind the pin?

It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.

6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?

There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”

Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.

Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!

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Instruction

Is There An Ideal Backswing?

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In this video, I talk about the backswing and look into optimal positions. I also discuss the positives and negatives of different backswing positions.

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