Silent Mind Golf - What makes a winner?
What is the single quality that is consistently found at the heart of golfing greatness? What is it that makes the difference in those golfers who are immortalised as being amongst the ‘greatest players’ of the game? If we study the background of those players who have become part of golfing legend, what was it that gave them that critical edge. In today’s parlance, if you like, what gave them the ‘X-Factor’?
I have long been fascinated by those in life who achieve something that is way beyond the levels of success and expectation of the average person. In golf, if we read the biographies of these great players we can gain a little insight into what made them tick, but guess what? No two backgrounds are ever the same. The search for the secret to golfing greatness is golf’s Holy Grail – if we could only put our finger on the elusive ‘secret’ we could all enjoy the transformation in our game. Dream on!
Perhaps a Sherlock Holmes-style of deductive reasoning can help us to pick up on some clues. Is it the swing? Without doubt the basic swing fundamentals need to be in place in order to deliver the clubhead consistently to the ball, but no, it is not the swing. There is simply too much variety of style and technique in swinging a golf club for that to be a major factor. If it were that simple then the ten golfers with the ten best golf swings would be the top ten ranked golfers in the world – and we know that’s not the case. I am pretty sure that if Old Tom Morris were alive today playing with his long hickory shafted clubs, two handed grip, feathery ball, and long flat swing he would comfortably be able to beat your average club golfer – even with their advantage of modern technology.
Speaking of technology, could that be a factor? Again, no. We know it isn’t technology, for every golfer believes they have the latest technology – even Old Tom Morris in his day must have jumped for joy with the introduction of the gutta percha ball which made the previous breakthrough in ball technology, the feathery of old, an expensive collectible.
Family background and/or socio economic status appears to have little or no part to play in the creation of greatness. So we quickly whittle the possibilities down to one area where there seems to be a definite correlation – practise. Or is there? In his fascinating book Outliners, Malcolm Gladwell identifies the investment of 10,000 hours’ practise in a short period of time as being a familiar quality in those who go on to succeed above the normal expectation of others. He says that when someone becomes absorbed by a game a science or any other endeavour, if, over a three or four-year period in their early exposure to their particular interest invest 10,000 hours in practise and learning development. Then they have laid the foundation for greatness.
But he states repeatedly that the 10,000 hours alone is not enough – the subject also needs luck (i.e. opportunity and timing) as well as a degree of both emotional and intellectual intelligence. He then gives examples to support his hypothesis. I recommend the book as a interesting read, and Gladwell makes a convincing case, but when you apply it to the great golfers then it does not make an obvious fit.
In my search for clues as to why winners win, I concentrated my focus in an era before sports psychology and technological breakthroughs became the norm; on players who did not have the benefits of video analysis. I wanted to find out what it was about their lives and their approach to the game that made them different. And, if we look at the golfers of a bygone era, there are I believe lessons we can learn and, critically, clues to their greatness. I looked at three players in particular: Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Ben Hogan. I knew for each it would be different. But I also knew that the guiding principle at the heart of their ‘greatness’ would be the same. I was convinced i would find something common in all three of them which would help the average club golfer.
BOBBY JONES, THE GREATEST AMATEUR OF ALL TIME, was a natural golfer with a fierce determination to win. At 14 he won the Georgia Amateur Junior title and also became the youngest player to qualify for the US Amateur. In his very first attempt at the US Amateur he beat a former winner before being knocked out in the third round by the defending champion, Bob Gardner.
When Bobby Jones was learning to play golf a Scottish professional called Stewart Maiden came to be the pro at the East Lake Country club, where Bobby Jones learned to play the game. Maiden was one of the famous “Sons of Carnoustie” who left the Scottish seaside town to travel the world and teach golf. Maiden was Jones’ first golf teacher and Jones would also follow him around the course taking in everything about the Maiden swing and adapting it for himself. This swing with very few changes was what Jones used for the rest of his life.
Though Bobby Jones is still revered as one of the greatest golfers who ever lived (he retired at 28 having won three Open Championships, four US Opens, five US Amateurs and one British Amateur) he didn’t fit the mould of what coaches or psychologists today would consider pre-requisites for winning. Because, by his own admission, Bobby Jones reckoned he played a maximum of 80 rounds a year. His golf was played in a four-month season because he hung his clubs up in the winter and only played in other tournaments as a warm-up for the majors. He did not appear to practise to any significant degree.
No, Jones was not the relentless practise ground junkie that we believe is essential to long term success. Walter Hagen was another contemporary who did not practise all that much; Sam Snead another who preferred to play golf, not beat balls. But one golfer made the practice range his office, and it is due to his exploits that the generations that followed adopted his mantra of looking for the secret “in the dirt”. For Ben Hogan – more than any golfer before or since – the practice ground was a research laboratory.
Hogan was a legend in the game of golf who is as much an enigma today as he was when he was playing. His upbringing was tough: like Hagen he was born into a working class family. His father committed suicide when Ben was nine. Hogan’s personality could not have been more different from that of Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen.
When he was eleven years old Hogan started caddying at the Glen Garden Country Club. Like so many caddies before him, the young Hogan was fascinated by the game and taught himself to play by watching other players and using elements of their swings. Just after he became seventeen years old he turned professional and at the age of twenty he joined the then small touring professional circuit. It was a challenging life. Hogan was frequently broke and regularly came home from the tour with no money. His game was marred by a severe hook which he claimed was so bad that he could get no lift in his 4 wood and which meant that any dogleg right hole was impossible for him to play.
Determined to solve these problems, Hogan worked so hard on his game that the adjective “Hoganesque” became a byword for perfection. He was sometimes accused of being aloof or indifferent to his playing partners but this was down to the intensity of his focus when he was on the course. Hogan was committed to practice, never had a swing coach – and went on to become recognised as the best striker of the ball of all time.
Commentators used to presume that Hogan had discovered the “secret” to golf and they would frequently ask him what the “secret” was. To which Hogan’s answer was usually, “The secret lies in the dirt” – a curt reference to the amount of time he spent beating balls on the practice ground. He was known to practise for up to eight hours a day. Once when asked what he needed to get better, he replied “More daylight”.
Like many great golfers, it took Hogan time to get on the winning trail, but when he did he became relentless. In 1948 he won 10 tournaments and during his career he won a total of 65 professional events, including nine majors. So for Hogan the route to greatness was practise and for Jones it was hanging the clubs up for eight months. In a sense you could not get two more contrasting approaches to golf, yet they both worked. Why?
Studying the background of these players, what Jones, Hagen and Hogan had in common was that they each went through a period of failure before their big breakthrough came. But once they had their first wins they seems to be able to develop a mindset that worked on every shot. My own reckoning is that they each found a process which gave them the mental confidence necessary to play the game. They each had complete faith in their own ability to hit a golf ball.
Allied to ambition in the mind of a champion must be that self belief – or confidence. It has been my experience when meeting high-achievers in life and in sport that one quality they share is that they genuinely believe they are going to succeed. They have a confidence which goes beyond words, coming from a deep inner belief.
If we have learnt one thing it is golf is a game of confidence, where the confidence comes from differs, and ridiculous as it may seem, golf more than most games is steeped in player superstitions. Lucky ball markers, shirt colours on the final day, ball numbers that must not be used, tee colours that must not be played and so the list goes on. Rationally, we know that these things make no difference at all.
And yet most of us know from personal experience that, daft as it seems, they do, because they are part of our belief system. They are things that we hold to be true – and consequently our subconscious mind works to make sure that the evidence validating them remains constant.
Here’s a good example. Let’s say you believe you always make bogey when you use a white tee peg. You find yourself without a tee and your playing partner throws you one – a white one! – which you accept (rather than admitting to a silly superstition). Your subconscious mind recognises the deeply-seated belief that you always make bogey when you use a white tee, and sets to work undermining your confidence to help make sure you do, indeed, make a bogey. You hit the drive, knock it on the green then make two poor putts, before knocking in the third putt for a bogey five.
Sounds ridiculous? It’s exactly what happened to Doug Sanders in the 1970 Open, when Lee Trevino gave Doug Sanders – who needed a par to win – a white tee on the 72nd hole. Sanders would never play with white tees because he believed that he would make bogey when he did, and guess what, he did.
So it would appear that a deeply held belief in our ability to hit the shot, to make the putt to hold up when the pressure is on, and most importantly of to win lies at the heart of greatness. If you were to look at the consistent champions of yesteryear and today you will see competitors who truly believe they can win. They have mastered the inner game because their will to win and their belief in themselves that they have what it takes to win, gives them the crucial edge. The person we most have to fear on the golf course is ourselves, and the best golfers have learnt to ‘get out of their own way’ to be in the moment and not to get emotional over outcomes, good or bad, until the final putt.
The key is training our minds to get into the right state where there are no destructive thoughts, no self doubt, no recrimination about a missed putt or a wayward drive, no superstitions and no feelings of injustice. The key is to simply believe you can, because when you believe you can and hold that to be your reality, you will free your mind from taking over when you are playing.
So, wonderful as that may seem, it comes with one simple caveat – you train yourself to do this by regular daily practise, a minimum of 10 minutes a day, sitting in a chair engaged in active visualisation, creating the positive memories of success and calmness you want to take on to the course. If you do not practice mental conditioning techniques (and there are a number of these included on the CD with my book), then it will be impossible for you to benefit from them on the golf course. For consistent results you have to put in consistent practise. Ask yourself a question: how badly do you want to be the best player you can be? How much of each day are you willing to give us to be that player? Simply quit 10 minutes a day of doing another pointless activity (which you were probably unaware you were doing anyway). If you can manage 10 minutes a day you will rapidly see improvements. The more you practice silencing the mind, the easier you’ll find it. And when you are able to do this on the course you will find you trust your swing, and are able to strike better shots more often.
When we learn consciously to get out of our own way, to stop thinking and let our subconscious mind operate through muscle memory, we then allow our mind to do what it does best: help us execute complex physical actions with ease.
1. Sit down in a chair and relax with both feet on the ground, slightly apart. Rest your hands in your lap
2. Visualise yourself 200 yards from a green, playing a close game that you want to win. See yourself smiling, looking and feeling relaxed, with the knowledge you are going to make a good swing and put the ball on the green
3. Now, step into the scene, and observe yourself up close; see how calm, confident and relaxed you are, fully prepared to hit this perfect shot
4. Now step into your body, and see and feel the scene from your own point of view – no longer an observer. Breathe deeply, taste the air, feel the club in your hands. Tell yourself you are feeling confident. Be aware of the lack of tension in your body Take a full but relaxed practice swing and look at the target on the green. Focus on the place you want the ball to come to rest
5. Step up to the ball, and as you settle in and take position, look one more time at your target and say 'Focus' as you settle over the ball. Prior to initiating the swing, say quietly to yourself, 'Faith'
6.When you are ready to swing say 'Presence'. (I use and recommend this as a trigger word, but if you wish you may use another word – or a small physical action if you prefer. This word or action becomes the initiator for the first move in your swing). Feel yourself making a balanced swing, striking the ball, and rotating through to a perfect follow-through position. As you look up, you see your ball flying directly towards the target you have selected
7. Repeat steps 2 to 6 a number of times, until the image and scenario are clearly felt and experienced in your imagination.When you have done this, take a few deep breaths and slowly open your eyes, to finish the exercise
The purpose of this exercise is not only to have you visualise; it also enables you to feel, subconsciously, your pre-shot routine.When you are on the course you will have a record of it in your subconscious mind. Repeat this exercise daily, focusing on different shots from tee to green.