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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

GolfWRX Book Review: Phil by Alan Shipnuck

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The most awaited golf book of 2022 is titled “Phil: the Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized) Biography of Golf’s most Colorful Superstar,” featuring a look at Phil Mickelson’s life and times. Alan Shipnuck, long a respected writer in the golf interweb, has produced another long-form contribution to the vast library of golf tomes. Early leaks did nothing but heighten the anticipation of the residents of golfdom for the book’s release. Shipnuck wrote for GOLF Magazine for years, before heading out with other proven and decorated scribes to form The Fire Pit Collective. His place at GM reveals how he was able to get close to Mickelson and his inner circle. Before we continue on with the book review, it’s important to determine how Shipnuck and I have a cosmic bond. It is summed up in two words.

Bob Heppel

Bob Heppel was the guy who stood me up in the fifth grade, swim locker room. I swung and bloodied his nose. I was more stunned than he was, but I retired as a fighter with a debatable record of 1-o. Alan Shipnuck tells a similar story in the introduction to his most recent literary effort. No kindred-spirits malarkey here; the type of coincidence that the cosmos allow on occasion.

How does the book read? Well, it has an element of stream of consciousness, combined with a heavy reliance on anecdotal sequencing. It is necessary to stack story after story, to connect the dots of a sometimes-indecipherable image. That’s Phil, to a T (or a P.)

Back to me for a moment. I received the digital copy of the volume about three weeks before the release date of the paper edition. On Friday the 13th, I finally opened the PDF. As I held the PgDn button on my laptop, stopping intermittently to catch up, a random turn of phrase caught my attention:

a man’s man with big calloused hands and the briny demeanor that came from having been at sea for weeks at a time. 

It takes a special awareness of how language intersects with life to string words like that together. Those words describe one of Phil Mickelson’s grandfathers. Shipnuck gives us so much information on Phil’s ancestor that we forget for a moment, that this is a book about Phil. This is a good thing, because we need to learn about the others that helped to forge the Phil Mickelson from whom we cannot avert our eyes.

The chapter in the book that will most ally you as a Mickelson sympathizer is, predictably, the one about Winged Foot and the 2006 USGA Open. The one that will most distance you from Lefty, is the one that begins around page 150, concerning his gambling habits. The section that will have you question golf administrators in general is the one about the 2014 Ryder Cup. In other words, there are a lot of chapters that expect the reader to suddenly jump up and scream at anyone who will listen, You won’t believe this, but …

At times throughout the reading of this book, you feel like a student in a statistics class. The author presents anecdotal evidence in tens and twenties, and you try to determine if Phil Mickelson is enviable or pitiable; sincere or counterfeit; ultimately, good or bad. And then, Shipnuck delivers a knockout punch in which he melds the detached storyline of wealthy professional golfers with the reality in which the rest of us live. Shipnuck resists the temptation to offer too many of these body blows; the book is, after all, about Phil Mickelson.

At about the midway point of the book, it is revealed that Mickelson might have something of a James Bond complex, a need to put himself at greater risk than before, to determine if he can handle the pressure. This notion explains a purported interest in gambling, or a suggested enthusiasm for abandoning the US PGA tour in favor of mideast money; the latter would be the straw that broke the back of Mickelson’s most loyal sponsors.

Without giving too much away, nor attempting to drive the reader toward any sort of conclusion (which would probably have been impossible, in hindsight) there are two, late-volume sequences that lead us toward an understanding of Phil Mickelson and of Alan Shipnuck’s intent:

even Mickelson’s failings feed his image as an uninhibited thrill-seeker

This is the image that he has cultivated over the course of a lifetime. It is the gift that his parents and his grandparents bequeathed to him.

In his public statement, Mickelson allowed that his comments were “reckless” but couldn’t resist making himself both the victim and the hero of his narrative …

This statement reveals the cleverness of Shipnuck’s efforts. He allows the readers to determine which one Mickelson is. My guess is that the readership will be split down the middle. As if I needed to tell you, go buy this book. You’ll enjoy revisiting the glory days of the southpaw, but be warned: you won’t feel the same about him when you turn the final page.

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Opinion & Analysis

Viktor Hovland can dominate if he addresses this key weakness…and it’s not his chipping

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Ahead of the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, the expectations for star Viktor Hovland are sky high. Hovland is a native of Oslo, Norway but played his college golf at Oklahoma State University before turning professional in 2019.

During Hovland’s time as an amateur, he won the 2018 U.S. Amateur and earned invitations to the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open the following year. He became the first player to win low amateur honors at both the Masters and U.S. Open in the same season since 1998.

As if expectations for the 24-year-old weren’t already lofty enough, he is now returning to Tulsa, Oklahoma, as one of the favorites in a major championship in the state that he played college golf.

There is an argument to be made that Viktor Hovland is the most talented golfer on the PGA Tour. Since he arrived on the scene in 2019, the young phenom has dazzled the golf world with his tee to green excellence. He’s also become a fan favorite due to his abundance of charisma and infectious smile.

Hovland’s career thus far cannot be categorized as a disappointment. He has three regular PGA Tour victories: one at an alternate field event in Puerto Rico, and two at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. He also became the first Norwegian to win on the European Tour (Now DP World Tour) when he won the BMW International Open in June of 2021.

Despite the relative success, it would be hard to argue with the fact that something is missing.

In terms of skill set, one of the most accurate comparisons for Hovland is Rory McIlroy. By the age of 25, McIlroy had four major championships. It would be unfair to compare Hovland to McIlroy in terms of career trajectory, but I find it reasonable to expect more out of him.

Hovland will also draw many comparisons to Collin Morikawa. For better or worse, Viktor Hovland will always be mentioned in the same breath as Morikawa due to the fact that both golfers arrived on Tour at the same time, are within a year of each other in age and rank in the top five in the world.

For all of their similarities, Hovland and Morikawa are in many ways polar opposites. Hovland is a flashy, big hitting, birdie maker. Morikawa is steady, sharp, and has what I believe to be the highest golf IQ since Tiger Woods.

The Norwegian is every bit as talented as his friend and rival, but Morikawa has five PGA Tour victories, including two major championships and a World Golf Championship victory. Hovland is still searching for his first win in a marquee event.

Much has been made in recent months about Viktor Hovland’s troubles around the green. The 24-year-old has lost an average of 1.0 stroke to the field in his career in Strokes Gained: Around the Green. Hovland will be the first to tell you that he has a major weakness in his short game.

“I just suck at chipping,” The Norwegian said after his first career victory at the Puerto Rico Open in February of 2020.

While his chipping undoubtedly needs improvement, it is not his fatal flaw. Poor course management is.

Thus far, course management has been the most consequential detractor to Hovland’s career.

There have been numerous instances where Hovland has had a chance to win or at the very least contend at a tournament that would qualify as a “signature win” on Tour for Hovland. Yes, his short game has been a hindrance, but his poor course management has been a non-negotiable disqualifier.

There are countless examples of this, but in particular, three of them stuck out to me.

Back in February of 2021, Hovland was in the midst of a spectacular second round at the WGC-Concession in Bradenton, Florida. He had seven birdies and no bogeys and found himself two shots back of the lead with one hole to play.

Then disaster struck.

After driving it into the fairway bunker, Viktor put his second over the green and into the palmetto bushes. Instead of taking an unplayable and trying to get up and down for bogey from a decent lie, he decided to try and punch it out of the bush.

After his failed punch out left him in a terrible spot in the greenside bunker, he put his next shot right back into the palmetto bush where he started. He continued to mangle the 18th hole until he finally made his quadruple bogey-8. He went from two back of the lead and possibly in the final pairing to six back of the lead with a slim to none chance of contending.

There’s that infectious smile again.

Back in March, Hovland once again found himself in contention on Sunday with a chance to win the most meaningful victory of his career at The Arnold Palmer Invitational. As he approached the par-3 17th, he was tied for the lead with Scottie Scheffler at -5. The conditions in the final round were very challenging, and the obvious play was to the middle of the green to try and make par. Instead, Hovland went for the pin and came up short, leaving himself a short-sided bunker shot. He went on to make bogey. Scheffler played it to the middle of the green and two-putt for an easy par and went on to win the tournament by one stroke.

Hovland’s course management issues continued to plague him in the first round of The Masters Tournament. After ten holes, he was -1 for his round and three shots off of the lead as he headed to back nine with some birdie holes in front of him. That’s when the lack of proper course management hurt Viktor once again.

The 11th hole at Augusta National is notoriously difficult, and even more so this year as it was lengthened by fifteen yards. With very few exceptions, the entire field played the approach shot into 11 short, not daring to go over the penalty area left with such a long iron shot coming in. At the time, there was only one birdie on the hole all day.

After a beautiful tee shot, Hovland had 221 yards into the green. Inexplicably, he decided once again to attack a pin that he had no business trying to take on. In the late part of the afternoon, there had only been one birdie made there all day, and it was a 35 foot putt. Predictably, his approach shot was left of the target and splashed in the penalty area. After grinding out a very good front nine, he made a double bogey-6 on the hole. As has happened so many times in the past, his poor decision making cost him precious strokes in an event where he can’t afford to give them away.

Hovland has had a good start to his career, but with generational talent comes lofty expectations. He has plenty of time to redirect his career trajectory and accomplish all of the feats his talent should all him to, but first he must address his fatal flaw.

The PGA Championship at Southern Hills would be a good place to start.

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Podcasts

TG2: Max Homa talks about his club changes, JT’s new putter, Jason Day’s WITB

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This week we have a great interview with Max Homa on some recent club changes. Max seems to love gear and is one of the nicest guys in golf. Justin Thomas has a new putter in the bag and we go through Jason Day’s interesting WITB. A few other equipment news stories from the AT&T this week.

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