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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

2022 John Deere Classic: Outright Betting Picks

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After an incredible week of golf at the Travelers Championship, the PGA Tour makes one final stop at TPC Deere Run to play the John Deere Classic. Last year, we saw Lucas Glover capture his first win in more than a decade by firing a final round 64 to claim victory.

TPC Deere Run is a 7,268-yard par 71 located in Silvis, Illinois. The course historically fails to present a major challenge to golfers with easy-to-hit fairways and bentgrass greens. Most players will have short approach shots into the greens, and the event often turns into a bit of a putting contest.

The John Deere Classic will play host to 156 golfers, and as expected, the field is considerably weaker than we have gotten used to this season.

After a long run of top tier events, many of the world’s top players are taking the week off.

A few of the notable golfers who will make the trip to the Midwest include Webb Simpson, Jason Day, Adam Hadwin, Denny McCarthy and Sahith Theegala.

2022 John Deere Classic Best Bets

Cameron Davis (+4000)

Cam Davis is a player who has the skill set I am targeting at TPC Deere Run this week. In the field, he ranks 17tin Strokes Gained: Putting on Bentgrass and 3rd in the field in Strokes Gained: Approach.

The Australian had some stretches last week at the Travelers where it looked like he was going to contend deep into the weekend and some other stretches where he struggled mightily. While the poor play at times was a bit of a concern, it wasn’t as important as what he showed when he was playing well.  In a weak field, we are betting on the ceiling of Cameron Davis.

The 27-year-old has already proven he can win on Tour and won at this time last year. It may not seem like it at first glance, but Davis offers us relative value in this field.

Cameron Champ (+5000)

It’s more likely than not that Cameron Champ plays horribly this week. He’s missed four consecutive cuts and has had a pretty disappointing year overall. However, if you play this event 50 times, I feel very confident in saying that Champ wins at least once. Therefore, there is relative value in betting the 27-year-old this week.

Since Champ has arrived on the scene in 2018, he’s already accumulated three PGA Tour victories. “Win equity” is a term I often use in these articles, and Champ is a great example of a golfer who finds a way to win more often than his odds tend to indicate.

Yes, there’s a good chance he struggles this week. But there’s also a chance he gains eight strokes putting and wins the tournament.

Chez Reavie (+5000)

Reavie comes to the John Deere Classic quietly playing some very good golf. He has four top 27 finishes in his past five starts, including an 8th place finish at last week’s Travelers Championship.

The 40-year-old is gaining an average of 3.7 strokes from tee to green in his past five events. In many ways, Reavie is a similar to player to Lucas Glover (who won this event last year). He is a strong iron player who is good with a wedge. If he can gain a few strokes putting instead of losing strokes to field as he typically does, he is super live to win at TPC Deere Run.

Chesson Hadley (+15000)

Chesson Hadley used an excellent Sunday to catapult him to a top-5 finish at the Travelers Championship. His excellent round of 64 was one shot shy of the low round of the day, and it’s within the realm of possibility that he can use the momentum to propel him into contention at the John Deere Classic.

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The John Deere Classic is one of the few spots on the schedule where journeymen have been able to get it done and is as good of a spot as ever to end Hadley’s nine-year winless streak on Tour.

Brandon Wu (+15000)

Brandon Wu is a golfer who’s ceiling I believe in long-term. Since his second-place finish at the Mexico Open, he’s been quite disappointing, but this is a tournament where I believe in taking chances of golfers with a high upside.

The Stanford product has loads of talent. He won the 2020 Korn Ferry Tour Championship and beat out many players in this field in doing so.

This is a low risk, high reward bet on a golfer who is still developing on the PGA Tour.

Hayden Buckley (+15000)

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In an event where I feel as though most any player in the field is live to win, it’s a good opportunity to bet a young up-and-comer in hopes that his ceiling comes to fruition against a weak field.

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