Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Top Google Search Result: “Why do I suck at golf”
In all the world of people looking for answers, the second most commonly Googled question beginning with, “why do I suck at…”, is finished with “golf”. The most searched question is “why do I suck at everything”, which may have very well been asked after a poor golf round.
The problem facing most players is also reflective in the self-deprecating question they are asking google. The attitude adjustment isn’t just a matter of negativity, but also of urgency. Consider the journey of someone searching this question. Post-round disappointment leads them to need an immediate solution to resolve their frustration. They expect Google to provide an answer to a problem much in the same way that they might have asked for directions.
The real problem? Their expectations have outpaced the amount of work they have devoted to real improvement.
The Ride of Golf Psychology
For most players, golf is a series of ups and downs. Our default setting is to appreciate the highs and cringe at the lows. One part of the game that is rarely talked about as an attribute in avoiding the roller-coaster ride: boredom tolerance. This means not just playing high-percentage golf shots, but also remaining mentally alert.
Consider the moment you are waiting in line at the grocery store. As your soul feels frustrated, it rejects it’s current situation and just wants to move on to the next thing. So we pull out our phones to feel less bored. Credit to the late David Foster Wallace for his speech, This is Water for introducing me to this idea.
As a species, humans are naturally averse to the experience of monotony. The desire for immediate gratification seems so urgent, it takes a lot of experience to understand the value in exercising patience. We are chemically wired to appreciate stimuli. Dopamine is released when the mind is actively engaged. Tasks or situations that do not provide this immediate reward are generally avoided.
Risk Reward Strategy Often Changes with Golf Ability
Consider the difference in reward systems between a weekend golfer vs. a competitive player. A weekend golfer gets one round a week to go out and try to make a heroic effort. Hunting pins, bombing drives etc. are the highlight of the round. If they happen to stumble on a good score with this strategy, they are ecstatic. They might win some bucks from their friends and take home a story that their significant other probably won’t relate with (excellent memes in this vein @wife_of_a_golfer).
The competitive player is playing multiple days in a situation where a single stroke can make the difference in thousands if not millions of dollars. The risk-reward profile is entirely different. Because of this, the competitive player is more geared toward bogey avoidance. Despite the fact that they have the training to more likely pull off high-risk shots, the intelligent competitor has intuitively learned to avoid bigger numbers by being selectively aggressive, yet unfazed by some of the challenges posed to less experienced players.
If Bogey is Bad, Double Bogey is Double Bad
A mathematical fallacy in golf is the idea that “they are all worth one”. While this phrase is commonly used to relate the value of a 3 foot putt is the same as a 320 yard drive, when observed over the course of a round, the fact is, they are not all worth one.
When a player makes a bogey, they can recover that singular shot with a birdie. This is a 1:1 ratio where one good hole makes up for one over par, (minus one hole opportunity cost of .05555556% of the round lost to bogey). However, when a player makes a double bogey, they need an entire hole (birdie) to make up for a single shot. The single stroke above bogey is worth the same value as a bogey on an entire hole. This eats up a scorecard because it takes twice as many good holes to negate the single shot. Crazy game.
Beyond the training and physical attributes that the competitive player might possess, one of the biggest psychological advantages they enjoy is the ability to enjoy tedium. This expresses itself in many ways.
How to Enjoy Improving at Golf
Finding joy in practice and performing drills for huge amounts of time (often derived by incentivized practicing games)
The ability to find enjoyment rather than stress or lack of focus during a competitive round
Not getting frustrated or angry when waiting for other players
Enjoying the process of strategizing for the course rather than hitting bombs and hunting pins at every turn
Improving brick by brick over the course of a lifetime rather than drastic mid-round swing changes. Accepting that the better you get, the more time it takes to see improvement.
When we watch players on TV attacking pins and making putts from 40 feet, these are the highlights of the entire field of 200 of the world’s best players. Even in a victory, there are probably at least a few lengthy stretches of very conventional par golf. No fireworks, no fan-fare, no highlights, no problems.
Mental Greatness Awaits
There is something conservative about earning the easy birdies throughout the round. The scoring holes (par 5’s and short par 4’s) serve as a buffer against the potential mistake elsewhere. Assuming no huge mistakes are made, on an average course, this will leave a player a couple below par. A couple below par will usually not result in a W, even in amateur events.
It is on the medium to high difficulty holes that good rounds turn to great ones. Is this contradictory to the whole idea of being comfortable with boredom? The goal is to achieve a level of proficiency where scoring well on these holes becomes routine. Better players anticipate these holes in tournaments as opportunities to separate themselves from the field. They feel the joy of competition as endorphins and adrenaline make it nearly impossible to retain that boring-ass baseline. Weekend players typically despise these holes because the skill to challenge ratio overwhelms them.
Take for instance, Amen Corner at Augusta. Year after year we see the highlights of these three holes because they are extremely difficult to play boring golf on. Green in regulation and two-putt-- with the prestige of that tournament in the back of their mind-- may be one of the most difficult challenges in golf. Even more impressive is when players at that level not only achieve the boring golf, but make birdies on some of the most difficult designs under highly pressurized circumstances. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it is to not get distracted by one’s own ambitions.
High vs. Low Energy Players
Vision 54’s Nillson & Marriot talk about how different players thrive with differing emotional states in their book Be a Player (highly recommended read).
A personal anecdote that builds on this idea: I once played in a two-man best ball with a playing partner that is an excellent ball-striker. We are new friends and have not played on a team before. We both suffered our ups and downs that are born from trying a little too hard. However, the lesson that crystalized that day was how different players react psychologically to stress. As I experienced a bad shot or hole without much display of emotion, my partner and the other guys in the group interpreted that as being checked out, not caring, nihilistic. My actual mental state was onto the next hole because I don’t have a time machine and there is no way they would be USGA approved. Similarly, I tried to not get impressed with myself during a successful streak, but stay hungry and smart. My playing partner seemed to actually play better when he was emotionally invested and was pumped up. It was as if his emotions helped keep him focus rather than served as a distraction. This is the part of the game that is never boring. Just like a tour professional’s swing has been uniquely honed by years of practice, so has the players relationship with their own mind. They have tested various attitudes and have put their best effort to a winning mentality. This includes things that could be intentional- swing thoughts and general focus as well as more deterministic stuff like their general disposition (laid back or high-strung) or mood that day.
Golf, like life, is a process of mitigating the uncontrollable elements with one's best effort. The notion of one's “best effort” is not always what it appears to be. In the case of developing players, their best results will likely come in a form that is less glamorous than what they might dream of. Doing more by doing less actually requires more than crazy/stupid calls. It requires discipline and self-awareness rather than chutzpah.
Like any part of the game or life, with focus and effort comes ability. In the case of golf, we can improve our weaknesses by acknowledging them and looking forward to those experiences as opportunities to improve.
A list of moments where focus or engagement is a potential issue:
Waiting on slow players
Putting or practice in general
Hitting a conservative shot when the course is inviting a high-risk, low/medium-reward play
A round feels like a lost cause after a few unfortunate mistakes
Dealing with stressful work or family issues
When you are hungry, tired or hungover
Countless others, add yours to the list
Internal vs. External Focus
In golf there are already enough challenges. Removing distraction or stressors is the key to improving focus. Creating systems of focus is the way top-level players stay engaged, yet, not overwhelmed. Golf is an extremely long-form game requiring a what feels like a lifetime of commitment to see moderate changes. It is extremely unlikely that your next round will be your last. But how would your mentality change if it were? I think this is the important balance to strike. To play with all the attentiveness, freedom and enjoyment as if you were to never play again, while acknowledging that every shot, hole or round is an opportunity to build on a lifetime of experiences. Onto the next...