Golfers living in the Northeast have to contend with a brutally long off-season. Last week the PGA Tour kicked off the 2014 season and for the next few months, as we endure the latest polar vortex, we will be taunted by televised images of good golf in balmy locales. Fingers unconsciously grip phantom clubs. Legs twitch. Outside, our courses are covered with ice and snow – what’s a snowbound golfer to do?
There’s an old story that a Vietnam-era POW went to war playing to a 12 (handicap) and upon release quickly became a scratch golfer. He is said to attribute his improvement to having played, in his mind, his home course once a day for 4 years. He took his time to carefully imagine (i.e., create, not remember) each shot of every round. One can speculate…. But let’s consider the idea of playing golf in one’s mind, and the potential benefits.
This exercise will teach you how to use mental imagery to your advantage and to control your ability to focus, essential skills for good golf. The exercise assumes you have a basic familiarity with visualization techniques.
Bring to mind a golf course with which you are very familiar, one where you can remember the details of all the holes. Choose a course you like to play. You are going to “play” the course in your mind, taking time to fully visualize every shot. This is harder than it sounds. Keep in mind that this is practice, and while practice can be fun, it’s hard work. The more effort you put into this exercise, the more you will be able to use visualization to your advantage on the golf course.
To familiarize yourself with this process, play a practice hole. Begin with the eighteenth hole. You can do this with your eyes open or closed; the important thing is to stay focused on the task for as long as possible. Imagine yourself standing on the tee box, looking toward the green. Decide where you would like to hit your tee shot. Now go through your pre-shot routine. (If you don’t have one, this is something you should consider developing for yourself. Basically, it is a routine you regularly use to prepare your mind and body to execute a shot. A pre-shot routine generally involves a pre-shot analysis of what you need to accomplish, relaxation techniques, swing rehearsal, and visualization.) As you mentally go through your routine, try to create the scene in as much detail as possible.
After you have completed the practice hole, take a break and think about your experience. How did you play? What was difficult for you, and what did you like about it. Did you see the relevant aspects of the course? Did you feel your swing, and the flight of the ball? Were you able to keep your focus, or did you get distracted? Were you able to bring your attention back to the exercise?
Ready or not, go out and play a round of mind golf. While you’re at it, play as well as you can imagine yourself playing. Play the best round of your life. On every shot, imagine hitting the best shot you could make. Think of your best shots ever (how did they look and feel?) and use them now, as you play this round of mind golf. You might make birdies on every hole; that’s fine if you make mental shots that you could conceivably make in real life.
However, it’s important to be realistic. Don’t drive the green on a 400 yard hole. Hit a shot that you can realistically make. But give yourself the liberty to hit your best shots; shots you have hit before, even if only rarely. Include feelings of hitting the ball perfectly, nailing the sweet spot. Watch the ball seek the target.
The more details you can bring into the visualization process the better. This is not speed golf. Remember that every minute that you are able to maintain your focus is strengthening your abilities to focus and visualize. You will be thankful later for the effort you put in now. That being said, don’t try to play all 18 holes in one sitting. Take breaks. Play a few holes one day, a few more the next day.
As you use mental imagery to improve your level of play you must also get used to being a better golfer. Strange as it may sound, many golfers unconsciously avoid changes in their golfer identity (but that’s a different story!). To make sure you don’t fall into this trap, practice. When you are finished with your round of mind golf, think about the score you posted. Take a minute to familiarize yourself with the feeling of having scored so well. Get used to it! Now imagine a conversation with someone important to you (a buddy, family member, someone in the press, Tiger… whomever). Imagine them congratulating you on your round. What would you say to them? How would they respond? Go ahead and imagine the conversation. This piece is important to your evolution as a golfer. It will help you allow yourself to shoot lower scores, and believe that it is possible.
When you are finished with your conversation, take some time to once again reflect on your experience. You may want to write down your observations and discuss them with someone. What parts were difficult? What did you struggle with? What surprised you? What did it feel like to score better than usual? Can you imagine playing that well on the course? How was the conversation? Was the person accepting of you? Skeptical? Envious? Proud?
When you return to the golf course, remember the good shots you played in your mind. Allow these memories to calm your nerves and build your confidence. If it doesn’t happen on the course as it happened in your mind, don’t get down on yourself. Positive visualization isn’t magic; it simply helps put you in the most effective frame of mind for making successful golf shots: clear about what you want to achieve, mentally prepared to make the shot, and confident that you will do so. No matter what happens on a given shot, start over on the next one.