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Have you got Golfzheimers?

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While it has taken more than a quarter century of teaching golf to arrive at this point, I have come to the conclusion that there is an as-yet-unnamed epidemic condition afflicting a great majority of players. This condition is so prevalent that I think it is high time it was given a name. So let me be the first to navigate those uncharted waters and give it one in hopes that, once formally recognized, it will begin to be more seriously studied in search for a cure. I will call this condition “Golfzheimers,” as it is the complete inability most golfers have to remember the vast majority of good shots they have ever hit (even those hit only moments before), while having the uncanny ability to instantly recall every chunk, shank, skull, and chili-dip they’ve hit since sometime back around when balls were still covered with balata.

Now trust me, I’m not making light of a very troubling and serious disease. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s, and it is a heartbreaking condition. In truth, I could have just as easily named this “A Golfer’s Senior Moment,” since the term is ubiquitous enough, if I really believed someone would actually take offense (and I am truly sorry if you do). I didn’t, though, because it was after a conversation with my late grandmother one day that I was suddenly struck with how oddly similar her lack of short-term memory, combined with her ability to vividly remember things that happened 40 or 50 years ago, was in some ways to how most golfers tend to think.

As long as I have been playing and teaching, I’ve been searching for different ways to learn to accept bad shots, keep them in perspective, and move on without letting them affect the next shot, hole, or round. When it comes to swinging the golf club, I can generally teach someone how to hit pretty good shots in a fairly short period of time, but teaching them to remember them with the same level of clarity as those of the more wayward variety often seems like trying to teach a blind man to see. Despite a general awareness of this phenomenon by most players and its detrimental effect upon their golf game, little has been suggested until now as to why it exists and what if anything golfers can do about it. And while research in the field of neuroscience suggests that our brains are hard-wired from the caveman days to catalogue and assign more importance to events that are considered dangerous or threatening, what about the game can have become so dangerous (other than to our egos) that we all seem to be fighting such an uphill battle?

Numerous psychological studies have found that the majority of people can remember five bad experiences more readily than five good ones, and assuming this is true, it speaks a great deal about how we have been conditioned to think since an early age.  The concept of scarcity, a term popularized in the self-help world, essentially describes a lens through which many of us have been conditioned to look upon our world, our lives, and apparently our games, with far too much regularity. It is through the use of this concept that many of our parents kept us at the dinner table as children, far beyond our wishes and long after our dinners were cold. We were guilt-ridden, not because we might be unappreciative of the time and money that went into providing us with that dinner, but because there were millions of starving children in China or some other far-off country that would have been tripping over themselves for even the remnants of that liver and onions our mothers had beset upon us.

As a proud parent, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve used the scarcity tactic a time or two myself during moments of desperation. Being naturally an optimist, though, I try to avoid succumbing to its siren song because I prefer to teach my daughters a far better lesson. At the same time, my girls are proof positive of these same studies and our ability to recall, as evidenced by another thing we do at that very same dinner table — we play a game called high and low. I’m sure you’ve heard of it; it’s where you ask your kids what their high and low moments were during the day. With my kids, I ask them to tell me the low first, preferring to close their day’s reflection with something positive, but it’s uncanny how often recalling something positive makes them really pause and reflect, while if something negative occurred, their recall of it is nearly instant and typically very descriptive.

The good news for both my daughters and the general golfing public, however, is there is a very effective way to short-circuit this type of thinking, and it comes from the field of hypnosis. From this moment forward, make a point not only to remember every good thing that happens to you, but to stop and savor it. If you are paid a compliment, don’t just brush it off. Stop to relish it for a moment and recognize the responsible person with more than just the perfunctory, “Thanks.” If you accomplish a goal, regardless of how small, reward yourself in at least some small way, all the while reminding yourself how good it feels to follow through on your intentions. And if you actually hit a golf shot well, reflect a moment, make a point to enjoy it and remember the moment vividly, and actually thank your partners when they say, “Nice shot” rather than blowing it off with some sort of, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while” type of comment.

Hitting the golf ball well is actually a near miraculous achievement when you consider the complexity of the swing and the incredible timing and hand-eye coordination it requires. Enjoy it (or anything else for that matter) when it actually comes off right. Do it several times a day for a month or more and there will be subtle changes in your brain chemistry, how you feel, and your outlook on life. You will notice, and so will those closest to you.  Make it a long-term habit and you might even be able to avoid ever having your playing partners ask this unfortunate question: “Have you got Golfzheimers?”

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Mike Dowd is the author of Lessons from the Golf Guru: Wit, Wisdom, Mind-Tricks & Mysticism for Golf and Life. He has been Head PGA Professional at Oakdale Golf & CC in Oakdale, California since 2001, and is serving his third term on the NCPGA Board of Directors and Chairs the Growth of the Game Committee. Mike has introduced thousands of people to the game and has coached players that have played golf collegiately at the University of Hawaii, San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, University of the Pacific, C.S.U. Sacramento, C.S.U. Stanislaus, C.S.U. Chico, and Missouri Valley State, as men and women on the professional tours. Mike currently lives in Turlock, California with his wife and their two aspiring LPGA stars, where he serves on the Turlock Community Theatre Board, is the past Chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission and is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock. In his spare time (what's that?) he enjoys playing golf with his girls, writing, music, fishing and following the foibles of the Sacramento Kings, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and, of course, the PGA Tour. You can find Mike at mikedowdgolf.com.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Dan Jones, PGA

    Dec 18, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    Personally, I can’t really think of any bad shots as I sit here and think about it, but I do remember several of my fathers because he would freeze up whenever he was near water. He once hit 22 straight into the drink (long story).

    That said, I personally typically remember my good shots, like my double eagle in which the second shot was absolutely covering the flag the entire flight of the ball, and the 3 wood I hit around and underneath a pine tree to save par after hitting my first shot OB on a par 5, which I consider one of the best shots I ever hit.

    I also remember unusual shots, be they bad or good, just because they were unique. Such as the 3 wood I mentioned above, or the time playing in Diamond Bar, CA, when I was a kid and everybody in my group commented that the net along the 57/60 freeway was definitely high enough to block any mishits, then I promptly hit my tee shot into the number 2 lane in heavy traffic and it bounced around 5-6 times without hitting a car. Or the time I was playing in a scramble and purposely tried to cut the corner on a par 5 dogleg left by landing on a road out of bounds, then letting it bounce back in bounds. I pulled it off and our group was only about 100 yards out for our second shot.

    Anyway, as someone with a masters in sports psych, we would have called it something to the effect of Intrinsic Focus on Negative Outcomes. That said, the above poster who mentioned Negativity Bias is probably on a much easier and less academic track, so I’d go there.

  2. Simms

    Dec 18, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    100% correct, I know I have that….Had three hole in ones in 2017 and had absolutely no clue how to hit a golf ball after every one of them…double bogies followed two of them and an 11 on a par four followed the latest one…how many 39’s on front nine are followed with 45’s or worse on back nines…and on a good day it is 45 on the front and 36 on the back…happens all the time…

  3. Hawkeye77

    Dec 17, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    All the apologies and explanations in the world don’t change the fact that the title is click bait and personally, I wish you had thought about it a little more. There is nothing about what you are talking about that relates in any way scientifically or anecdotally to what someone who has Alzheimers or their family may be going through. Obviously you were/are not immune to this tragedy and my prayers are with you, but simply saying “my grandmother has it” isn’t the free pass the article implies you give the impression you have.

    Not offended, but it really isn’t an appropriate title or comparison,. in my opinion.

    • Mike Dowd

      Dec 18, 2017 at 10:13 pm

      I do really appreciate your opinion Hawkeye. Having lost a close family member to this tragedy, I don’t tread these waters lightly, nor was I Iooking for a free pass. I apologize if I erred on the side of insensitivity in your estimation and will certainly accept the prayers in my efforts to avoid doing so again in the future. And while I didn’t claim the title related scientifically, it did occur to me that people’s inherent curiosity about it might make them more inclined to read it and subsequently be exposed to what is not only scientifically sound advice, but a very positive message that I believe can help people get not only more enjoyment out of their game, but out of life. Now that I think about it, I guess you maybe could call that “click-bait”. So while my intentions were good, if anyone else feels duped I will in turn apologize for that as well. Thanks for the feedback.

  4. JimW

    Dec 17, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    Golf is a game of fantasy and delusion for most because a vast majority of those who claim to play the game of golf are non-athletic crudd. They just show up at the first tee with their clubs and equally non-athletic buddies looking for a good time of clowning.
    Those who take up the game seriously usually start the wrong way by purchasing the ‘best’ clubs thinking they will help their deficient swing. They think the swing starts at the clubhead! Totally bass aawkard thinking!
    How many are willing to make a 2 – 5 year commitment to developing a decent golf swing entailing basic conditioning, sport-specific training and then performance play? None, because most consider golf a recreational pastime for social fun and yuks.
    Golf is truly the sport of last resort based on the performance of the 50 million worldwide ‘golfers’. Attempting to teach golf is truly an exercise in futility.
    Based on PGA statistics, 93% of all golfers cannot break 100… and they don’t seek out help from golf instructors either. Perhaps a new set of golf clubs will help them in their abject existence, and they buy buy buy!!

  5. Raidernut12345. "Russ"

    Dec 17, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    Mike is a fantastic and deep writer. Think about. Do you say I had 2 birdies today, played solid 90% today…first? Or do you say I had 2 doubles and 4 bogeys, fell apart on he back etc!? I changed from the latter to the first 5 years ago and it changed my attitude and performance.

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How often should you actually get “Up-and-Down” based on your handicap?

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‘Up and Downs’ have long been the accepted measure of skill in the short game. The chart below shows average performance in this area for the PGA Tour and an array of handicap levels. How do you fit in?

A few points of definition: The above refers to short game shots around the green, other than from the sand. [Stay tuned: sand shots will be my next article.] I consider the short game to be all shots from within 50 yards of the hole. This distance was a topic of debate 30 years ago when I was developing my golf analysis program. I was fortunate to be working with Golf Digest Golf Schools and some of the top instructors were good enough to embrace the better form of game analysis that I was creating. In particular, I owe a great deal to Chuck Cook, Jack Lumpkin and Hank Johnson. Their help and encouragement in my early stages gave me a much needed boost of momentum. Little did we know that what I then called “Strokes Lost and Saved” would ultimately become the accepted standard of analysis on the PGA Tour — now know as “Strokes Gained.” Anyway, we agreed that 50 yards was the right distance range for the short game for two reasons:

  1. It represented the short game for virtually every handicap level, men and women.
  2. It was a short enough distance that it didn’t need to be sliced even further.

That said, I do NOT believe that “Up and Downs” are an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill for two reasons:

  1. It represents the combination of two skills: Short Game and Putting.
  2. It ignores the ERRORS or shots that actually miss the green.

In my 30+ years of studying performance at all skill levels, I have found that it is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad shots (errors) that do more to influence a player’s scoring level than do all the good shots. Accordingly, I built the ability to capture data on the common errors in the game into ShotByShot.com.

The true measure of a player’s short game skill is their Strokes Gained in that facet. BUT, that is simply a number — a positive number is good and a negative number, not so much. But how then to best display the skill that is associated with the Strokes Gained number? I believe the combination of three stats to be the correct way to display short game skill:

  • Average putting distance, when the green is successfully hit.
  • Percent shots hit to within 5 feet of the hole
  • Percent errors, or shots that miss the putting surface.

Where does your game fall in these two important categories?

Note, that the two lines cross at about a 16 handicap. That is actually a better than average golfer yet for every Chip/Pitch shot that they successfully get to within 5 feet of the hole, they are also chunking or sculling one and missing the green altogether. Work to dramatically reduce the errors and that 16 will drop to 12 or 13?

You might ask: How can the PGA Tour make more errors than the scratch golfer? Good question! I have two explanations:

  1. They really are that good! Regardless of the relative difficulty of the shot, Tour players will go for it. They have the confidence that when they miss they will get the next up and down. At the same time, the amateur that has reached the lofty level of Scratch has generally done so thru rigorous consistency and the avoidance of errors. At the low handicap levels, a bogey can be acceptable but a mistake that results in a double is NOT.
  2. The tour Shotlink data considers the fringe of the green to be a miss whereas I recommend that players count the fringe as a green hit and a putting opportunity. Your long game has been efficient enough to get there and should be rewarded with the GIR. At the same time, to count the shot from the fringe as a short game shot will unfairly reward your short game skill for what was actually a putt.

That reminds me again of my very early days when Chuck Cook said to me: “Pete, Tour players don’t make errors in the short game!”  See Chuck, I was right, they do! For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to: ShotByShot.com.

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