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What Works for Whom? The Pragmatic Approach to Golf Instruction

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The very first thing a golf instructor should do, in my opinion, is ask the student her/his short-term and long-term goals. When and only when that has been determined can the collective effort commence.

The next thing is to assess is the student’s skill level to determine if the goals are realistic. If they are, the lesson can proceed; if they are not, the lesson should stop immediately, and a reassessment is in order. I’m not going to waste my time or a student’s money telling a 15-handicap he can get to scratch. Blowing smoke is what teachers who have no work do. But the 35+ years I’ve spent teaching people to play golf has revealed that unrealistic golf goals are the exception, not the rule.

The vast majority of people I’ve taught are very realistic in their goals. The 15-handicapper who just went to a 20 does not desire to be scratch; he simply wants to get back to being a 15.

No one comes to see me or any teacher if they are playing well, so we get down to the real work, which is: What’s the problem? Their very presence on my lesson tee indicates some sort of trouble, so I have to determine what that trouble is and find the source of it.

Where to begin? Well, how about with the obvious? What is the golf ball doing?

In golf, there is no other trouble: never has been and can never be. If a golfer spins around, stumbles and finishes with the club in one hand but the ball flies consistently straight at the target that golfer by definition has a good swing.

A flying elbow is not a problem. A spin out is not a problem. Quick is not a problem. Unless they affect impact.

So we come to the most critical part of the lesson: the diagnosis. I’ve seen the golf ball in flight and know from experience that the only thing that made it do what it did is the golf club at impact. Closed, open, shallow, steep, in-to-out, out-to-in, toe, heel? The answer is right there in that four ten-thousandths of a second.

Now when I find that out, then and only then can I proceed to what caused the club to move as it did. Things like flying elbows, aim, grip, spinning out, casting, losing balance, falling — back, blah, blah, blah — may need to be discussed, but only in the context of how these movements affected the golf club at impact.

For all of you who have used my online swing analysis program, what is the first question I asked? What is your ball flight? I cannot even begin to offer a correction in the absence of that knowledge. If anyone offers you a tip without seeing your ball flight, leave immediately. They are guessing, and about to spout some meaningless phrase they have seen on the Golf Channel, read in Golf Digest or heard somewhere else. They may be right, but it would be a blind squirrel finding a nut if they didn’t know your ball flight problem.

We could go right down the list of greats: Jack Nicklaus’ flying elbow, Lee Trevino’s loop, Tom Watson’s quick swing, Walter Hagen’s lunge, Bobby Jones’ narrow stance, Arnold Palmer’s in-and-over, Byron Nelson’s dip, Ben Hogan’s weak grip, Gary Player’s flat swing… Modern day, let’s talk about Jordan Spieth’s bent arm, Rickie Fowler’s laid-off position, Fred Couple’s outside takeaway, Jim Furyk’s everything, Ryan Moore’s loop, Hideki Matsuyama’s pause… and on and on and on.

My personal assessment of those swings? All GREAT! I wouldn’t know any of them (and you wouldn’t either) if they weren’t. What do they have in common other than great impact? They put all their pieces together. Each player’s swing has compatible moves, and that’s all a good teacher is trying to do; put your various pieces together. I’ve heard some people say, “Well, I don’t need lessons. I picked up this or that tip and it worked for me.” Great! Stay with it.

I am the most pragmatic instructor you’ll find. But remember that offering a personal improvement story as proof something is “right” in the golf swing is really only saying, “It worked for me.” What separates a good, experienced instructor from the myriad of also-rans who call themselves teachers is the knowledge of what works for whom. 

To finish I’ll give one classic example about “casting” and “over the top,” although there are many. Casting is a necessary ingredient in an over-the-top move. It MUST complement it. It is not optimal, but is very functional. Try coming over the top and lagging the club. You won’t even make contact. Now, tell someone who is over the top to hit from the inside. I’m giving you 10-1 odds they lay sod over it, because casting does NOT complement an inside path even though it was an essential element of an outside one.

Looking at the swing in this way offers real answers to golf swing problems, not stabs in the dark. Everyone of you reading this has the ability to solve your golf equation; you just gotta know the formula. And that’s what good golf instructors try to provide.

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 JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

41 Comments

41 Comments

  1. Bobalu

    Dec 18, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    More teachers need to do what is illustrated in the article’s accompanying photo. A golf teacher needs to put his hands on a student and show them correct positions. Words often just confuse a lot of students, even better golfers because of preconceived ideas and repetition of bad moves. Top golf coach Dana Dahlquist not infrequently makes a complete video lesson (using Trackman) for a non-local golfer to review at home over and over, emphasizing the key things that need to be changed, and how to get the proper feel for the new move. Zero old-school band-aids and goofy drills like the ‘Flamingo’ drill. LOL. A student can make his own range videos and use mirror work for followup. In contrast, most golf instructors teach using an ineffective “slow drip” method. One lesson to strengthen grip with specific drills, one lesson for impact with specific drills, etc, etc. You get the picture…painful and actually a very poor way to get it done. Here is an example of a better way- a well-communicated lesson summarized on video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzEhFvYmoLE. IMO, the more logical way for better golfers to make solid improvements- a total video template!

  2. Eric Fugate

    Dec 16, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    I like the article. I think Mr. Clark’s opinion is well on point. Every golfer is different and every swing is different and each lesson plan for the golfer should be to different and not cookie cutter, the same for every person, but the goal is the same, square club face at impact and to enjoy the game.

  3. PineStreetGolf

    Dec 16, 2016 at 10:14 am

    I don’t understand the “if he doesn’t know your ballflight, leave immediately”. That would probably be good advice if the point of every single golf lesson was to hit the ball straighter. But there is much more in play (fat, thin, clubhead speed, etc…). Seems silly to me to demand that from a pro.

    It took me about two years to go from a 12 to a 2. I’ve had the same pro the whole time, once a month. The entire first six months we worked on nothing but increasing clubhead speed and didn’t care a whit for where the ball went. I realize thats the exception (we built a two year plan) but there is a whole lot more to getting better at golf than making the ball go straighter.

    If you are a “resort instructor” (i.e. you see people once or twice and thats it) then this is a fantastic article. If you are more of a “coach” (getting someone a great swing over years and years) then this advice seems awful.

    PSG

    • PineStreetGolf

      Dec 16, 2016 at 10:18 am

      As an aside, after reading some of the comments, this article is too negative on what students can achieve. Alot of golf work (working out, doing mirror work with tape, swinging with a medicine ball,e tc..) can be done at home, off the range. I guess I have much more faith that a 15 who really wants to get to scratch can do it, and that that isn’t silly. In 2008 i was about a 23. Now I’m a 2 and falling. Its not easy, but there are people out there who do it and who can do it, and this article saying immediately that 15->scratch is just ludicrious and should be written off is not only wrong but borderline offensive.

    • Dennis clark

      Dec 16, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      Ewe I teach at a resort with 600 members, and I have coached many top players to collegiate careers, PGA Tour, web.com, so…Thin, fat,toe, heel, shank, are all forms of “ball flight” or in this case LACK of it, they are under the general category of IMPACT. I have two players with over 120 MPH club head speed and several in the 80 category. The instruction does not change…I’m either working on club face, attack angle or swing path/plane. Without knowing those I’m teaching golf, not teaching THAT person to play golf. Thx DC

      • PSG

        Dec 16, 2016 at 2:48 pm

        Just so I understand, you ask people what their ball flight is, and if they tend to hit it fat they say “my ballflight tends to be fat” ?!??! I find that hard to believe.

        I think its odd that you preach the “every golfer is different and should be taught differently” philosophy (which I agree with) and then speak in absolutes (“15 cap can’t become scratch”, “must ask what ballfight is or run”, etc…) If everyone is different, why do you have these hard and fast rules?

        I’m not doubting your credentials, I’m doubting you actually do what you say in this article. I’m also not doubting that you are a good coach.

        I’m doubting two things: first, that a coach who doesn’t immediately ask what your ballflight is is by definition bad and, second, that you “can’t” go from a 15 handicap to scratch, as though that is a ridiculous thing like growing a third arm.

        Both of those things seem really silly.

        • Dennis Clark

          Dec 16, 2016 at 5:10 pm

          I don’t take your comments as an affront to my credentials at all. You have every right to raise these points. And since you have done so politely, I’ll take a minute to respond…

          I saw a lesson a range recently where the instructor asked the student to set up to hit a golf ball. BEFORE the ball was hit, the “teacher” said “first your stance is too wide and your grip is too strong”. This is the type of approach I am objecting to in this article. “Wide” or “strong” mean nothing in and of themselves. That would be like seeing Jim Furyk’s backswing and saying it is WAY too vertical. Hence my point about watching some impact, seeing path, plane and angle BEFORE i make a suggestion. I have been doing this work for near 40 years, and have seen FAR too many people offer suggestions simply based on a book, a theory, a recent TV comment etc. The teacher MUST see it in action, and internalize the entire dynamic (which is ball flight as a result of impact) before he/she suggests a correction. If a teacher suggested to Furyk, that he get his takeaway “on plane” and he then dropped the club well back under as he tends to do, he would be a club golfer. He’s one of the best in the world because he and his dad put together a sequence that works for JIM.

          Now about the realistic goals comment…You are correct in saying a 15 may be able to get to scratch; technically there is no question. That’s why I begin by asking “what are your goals”? There are two distinctly different lessons: One I call correction and the other creation. If a student says, I’m 15, I wanna be scratch, I have to assess the situation, and inform him/her how REALISTIC this aim actually is. If the physical ability is there, as apparently yours is, AND if the student can afford the time and investment, then we set out to do a “creation lesson”, by that I mean we begin by rebuilding the swing from “scratch”- no pun intended. But when I said I’m not going to kid the student, I’m referring the guy who plays on the weekend, hits balls only to warm up, has no speed etc. If HE says I’d like to be scratch I’m not about to say “OK no problem I’m your guy”– JUST to get work. Too many instructors mislead students with wild flights of fancy. I’m not demeaning or insulting ANYONE, I handle the conversation with courtesy and professionalism but I make it clear that more realism might be a better way to enjoy the game.

          Thank you for your interest and I hope this explains my article a little better.

          • PSG

            Dec 16, 2016 at 8:14 pm

            That was a very good response. Thank you.

            You make good points here. I would really enjoy a future article from you on how to determine if goals are realistic. I set out to just ‘get better’ but it has taken a whole lot more than I thought. As an instructor who has seen improvement, I’d love to read what you “look for” in a student in terms of who can and can’t’ rapidly improve so that even if a reader isn’t taking lessons he can gravitate toward becoming more “teachable”.

            Thanks for replying to each point. Makes sense.

  4. Jalan

    Dec 16, 2016 at 10:08 am

    This is common sense. Who are the morons ‘Shanking’ this article?
    Well, I see one of them.

  5. Dennis Clark

    Dec 16, 2016 at 9:00 am

    I can have anyone hitting the golf better in an hour, and won’t change your whole swing to do it either…or there is no charge for my time! Match the parts, get the club face, attack angle and path/plane right and don’t worry about the method of application-I’m sure that every experienced teacher would tell you the same.

  6. Noel

    Dec 15, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Dennis-
    You are spot on in your article- Almost all things we see in a swing are results and not causes- attempts by athletes golfing brains to take the club face and square the face through impact with a reasonable angle of approach-
    Owning what you do is just as important in tournament golf as anything else- and it’s certainly more important than being correct to some “scientific standard” – just ask a long list of hall of famers

  7. Ron

    Dec 15, 2016 at 9:45 am

    “I’m not going to waste my time or a student’s money telling a 15-handicap he can get to scratch.”

    Just a question – wasn’t every scratch golfer a 15 at some point? Or is it more that people with innate skill can get to single digits on their own before they seek out a coach? Because I used to be a 6, then medical problems made me quit the game for 7 years. And now I’m back, but I’m a 15. I want to be a 6 again. Actually, I want to be a 4, but I’d settle for a 6. And as bad as I’ve been off the tee recently, I know there’s 9 shots right there. 🙂

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 15, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Was every scratch player a 15 once? Maybe a week, month, no ore than half a season probably when they 12 yrs old? of course I’m talking about the guy who has been a 15 most of his career, or at least for a good long while. In your case, if you were actually a 6, and not TOO long ago (age factor) you likely have the ability to get back there. I could have you hitting the ball better in an hour, but rest of that climb would be the time and work you put in. Thx.

      • Ron

        Dec 16, 2016 at 11:14 am

        I’ll be back to single digits by spring. I only started playing again in July. Then I’ll come see you.

  8. Frank McChrystal

    Dec 15, 2016 at 9:23 am

    “We in the PGA do not do a good job at training teachers. Many are permitted to hang out their shingles well before they are ready to do so.” Congrats Dennis, that is a good start. Step one.

  9. HeineyLite

    Dec 15, 2016 at 1:22 am

    My question Dennis with the advent of technology over the past few years, hasn’t that made instruction from the past obsolete? I’m confused by Nick Faldo, Peter Kostis, and even Michael Breed, to name a few, when they make a swing analysis of what they think is going on. And I’ll see other swing analysis of the same players by younger more recent instructors debunking what the old guard has said… Confused…

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 15, 2016 at 11:49 am

      Old or new, if they are dealing with truth, I.E. impact, they are on the right track. HOW the player got there matters not one bit IF they can repeat it. Technology is a big help no doubt, but radar for example Trackman, measures impact numbers but it ignores how the player got there. THE best tech is GEARS but I doubt they guys are allowed to suit up the GEARS outfit while playing! Tiger has been squatting into impact his whole life, or at least since Stanford, right? How come the commentators only thought it was a problem when he went sour? He lowered into impact for every one of his 14 majors to some degree. So do most great players, but when he stopped winning , now its a a swing fault? Something like Tiger has a “tendency” or a propensity to get the golf club too far behind him, and that MIGHT cause this or that would be a more fair and accurate assessment, no?

      • HeineyLite

        Dec 15, 2016 at 3:01 pm

        Thanks Dennis… Also what’s your assessment on Chamblee’s rants on Tiger of today. Especially his right elbow in the downswing?

        • Dennis Clark

          Dec 15, 2016 at 6:28 pm

          HL,Here’s what I think about the right elbow…

          https://youtu.be/cTuTrpWCZhU

          Now according to Chamblee, Jim Furyk cant play at all.

          • Double Mocha Man

            Dec 15, 2016 at 8:16 pm

            … nor can Fred Couples…

            • McPickens

              Dec 15, 2016 at 9:21 pm

              wrong, Chamblee stated on GC not long ago that Fred Couples was the envy of all tour pros back in the late ’80s and ’90s because they didn’t think he tried very hard but was still an elite world class pro. Chamblee also stated that Freddie was probably the most naturally talented golfer of all time.

              • Dennis clark

                Dec 16, 2016 at 2:41 pm

                Mocha is talking about Couples’ RIGHT elbow, not his ability which Chamble or no one else questions.

            • Dennis Clark

              Dec 16, 2016 at 5:40 am

              Exactly!

          • HeineyLite

            Dec 15, 2016 at 10:46 pm

            Thanks for your time… I’ve always thought Chamblee was an A hole…

          • Double Mocha Man

            Dec 16, 2016 at 11:52 am

            I was being facetious regarding Chamblee. But some pro out there had better correct Freddie’s flying elbow!

  10. Mike Barnett

    Dec 14, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    You can also add the cookie cutter approach that many instructors dispense on a regular basis. It’s tiresome and frustrating to hear them say the same things to different people without giving effort to the one individual they have in front of them. Like a broken record, with the same old same old. You sir appear to be one that treats the individual.

  11. Dennis Clark

    Dec 14, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    Look this is not a swipe at good, qualified instructors, it is a word of caution to those who takes lessons. Buyer beware! The truthof the matter is this: We in the PGA do not do a great job at training teachers. Many are permitted to hang out their shingles well before they are ready to do so. And this demeans the industry as a whole…I’m telling the lesson takers of the world to be careful. There are warning signs out there and I’ve offered a few here. No one, pro or a, should be offering tips without seeing you hit balls or at least knowing your ball flight. I’d be very wary of that instructor. That’s ALL I’m saying

    • BC

      Dec 14, 2016 at 9:17 pm

      Well, it’s interesting that you think “No one, pro or a (sic), should be offering tips without seeing you hit balls or at least knowing your ball flight. I’d be very wary of that instructor.”

      What do you think of teachers giving golf swing advice over the internet without as much as a video of the person’s golf swing? Tell the truth now Dennis!

      • Dennis Clark

        Dec 14, 2016 at 10:16 pm

        IF this, THEN try this…the IF is the operative word…IF you slice, try this or these things…or this CAN cause, the CAN is the operative word. When “giving advice” in that context it is alluding to some possibility of BALL FLIGHT…very different animal than “this is right or wrong”. in terms of absolutes there is only one one: impact

  12. Jack Conger

    Dec 14, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    Dennis, loved the article. The number problem I see with 99.9% of all golfers is alignment. Always to the right. ( right handed player) This as you know causes an outside to in path all day long. Pretty hard to be consistent trying to hit a ball at a target that you aren’t aimed at. Makes sense to me. Jack

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 14, 2016 at 6:58 pm

      You’re saying that aiming to the right causes an out to in path, why? I don’t see that many people aiming right- in fact i see more aiming left. As far as aim is concerned, golfers typically aim AWAY from their BAD shot. That is, slicers aim left, hookers aim right etc. It’s a reflex. Thx

    • Jack

      Dec 14, 2016 at 9:05 pm

      You talking about alignment of the body or the clubface? If the alignment of the body is to the right but the clubface is to the right as well but less it’s a draw. What’s wrong with that? I’m not sure you understand what you are saying. And yeah it causing an outside in? That’d be a double cross, which is highly unnatural since it could be all arms. At which point the legs don’t matter as much.

      • Dennis Clark

        Dec 14, 2016 at 10:32 pm

        I’m not sure what he’s saying here either. He MAY mean that if one is aligned right, he reacts by swinging swing left of his aim point– an attempt to pull the ball back to the target? Just a guess though…

        • Jack

          Dec 15, 2016 at 10:06 pm

          I don’t understand honestly why so many people are having problems with your article. Perhaps you are stirring the pot too much but IMO that’s a good thing. Different golfers want different things, and instructors can offer that or tell them to go somewhere else. Some people are perhaps a little sadistic (like me) and want to make their swing look as textbook as possible. Some just want to get a quick fix or two and be able to hit the ball straight (not to mention just focus on scoring better).

          A pretty swing doesn’t equal a good score anyway is what I’ve learned playing with random people lol. A guy I’ve played with who has been a scratch golfer most of his life doesn’t have a perfect looking swing but it sure is consistent and his short game and putting is just right on.

  13. Monte Scheinblum a.k.a. The Mad Bomber

    Dec 14, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    I can’t believe people pay me money to give them lessons! I don’t know how to teach.
    MY RATES:
    $150 per hour
    $600 for a five lesson package (5 one hour lessons)
    MY PLAYING LESSONS:
    $250 for 9 holes (fee includes greens fee and cart)
    $400 for 18 holes (fee includes greens fee and cart)
    MY CLINIC FEES:
    $350/$450 for 2/3 days.
    Range and green fees are always around $50 per day.

  14. Double Mocha Man

    Dec 14, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Wow Dennis… loved it. You just took a lot of teaching pros out behind the woodshed. The guilty ones will know who they are… if they read your article.

  15. Tom

    Dec 14, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    I liked it. The opening statement ( four paragraphs) sets the tone for the rest of the article. Comprehension plays a big part in what one gets out of reading an article. Much like a golf swing.

  16. Markallister

    Dec 14, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    i did not like this article, because it was self-promoting, but not very insightful. everyone knows that pragmatism trumps.

    • Double Mocha Man

      Dec 14, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      Maybe a bit self-promoting. But until you take a video lesson from Mr. Clark you won’t know what you’re missing. You won’t see what you need to see.

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Instruction

Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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Instruction

WATCH: How slow-motion training can lead to more power and consistency

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Eddie Fernandes has made big changes to his swing (and his power and consistency have gone up) by mastering the key moves in slow motion before he speeds them up. Everyone should use this kind of slow motion training to make real changes to their swing!

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WATCH: What you really need to know to control the direction of your shots

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In this video, Top-100 Teacher Tom Stickney shows you how to better control the direction of your shots by understanding how both the club face and swing path determine where your ball goes.

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