12 Golf Mental Game Tips: Raise Your Golf IQ

 “Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears.”

Robert Tyre Jones Jr. (Bobby Jones)

Introduction

Golf is arguably one of the hardest sports from a mental perspective. This is because you have such a long time between shots where your thoughts can wander and doubts can creep in.

Many other sports are reactive so you don’t have time to think, unlike golf where the ball sits there waiting for you to hit it.

It is also an individual sport. Even if you are lucky enough to be able to hire a caddy they can provide only so much assistance.

A good mental game is a great club to have in your golf bag.

In my 30 years of playing golf, I’ve definitely made my share of mental mistakes. I’m going to run through some golf mental tips to help you improve your game and show you how I completely failed to follow the advice, generally to my cost.

Golf mental game tips
A golf course can be a beautiful place

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Pre-shot routine

When most people think of a pre-shot routine, they are thinking of a series of physical actions to prime themselves to be ready to hit the shot. Possibly the most important part of the pre-shot routine is actually to keep negative thoughts at bay

Many players could improve if they adopted a basic pre-shot routine. You should be careful to avoid slow play however by having long-winded actions that serve little purpose.

A simple pre-shot routine that would help both the physical and mental side of your game might be as follows:

  • As you approach your ball take a note of the wind direction and strength and any elevation changes between your ball and your target.
  • Based on your assessment In point 1 and factoring in the distance you need to hit, choose your club
  • Stand behind the ball facing the target. Take a couple of slow deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth while visualizing the shot you want to hit.
  • Stand to the side of the ball as if you are going to play the shot and make a couple of practice swings using your normal tempo.
  • Address the ball and hit the shot.

The key point to take away is not to allow doubt or indecision to interfere in the process. If you are standing over the ball with second thoughts about your club selection then it is usually best to walk away and start again.

You regularly see amateur golfers frozen like a statue over the ball for 30 seconds or more. This is going to be counter-productive, giving them far too much time to think about the shot. Their game would improve if they were able to make the whole process shorter, simpler and less static.  

My best golf usually occurred when I wasn’t consciously trying to play well. Just work out the yardage and the type of shot, pick the right club, couple of practice swings and away you go. This gives you no time for second-guessing yourself or getting in your own way.

Aim
Picking a small target will help your focus

Aim

This can be broken down into three problems. Not having a specific enough target to aim at is a major mental mistake. Always pick something very specific as your target. For example, don’t stand on the tee and just randomly aim at the fairway. Pick a specific target to line up with, a bunker or tree in the distance.

When you are away from the course practice lining yourself up so that it becomes second nature when playing. 

Another aspect of aiming that most people fail at is actually where they focus on the ball. Beginners especially will sometimes be looking at the top of the ball. You actually want to hit the back of the ball so that is where you should be focusing your mind.

The final mistake that people make when it comes to aiming is thinking about not going somewhere. For example, I don’t want to go in the lake, I don’t want to go in the bunker or I don’t want to go in the trees. This is completely the wrong way to think about things. Your brain doesn’t understand that you don’t want to go there. In fact, by thinking about not wanting to go in the lake you are very much likely to end up in the lake. 

As a beginner, I was definitely guilty of all of these. I would just pick very general targets to aim for and then wonder why I missed them. I also found myself topping the ball when I was first learning to play. It wasn’t until I saw the tip about focusing on the back of the ball that my ball striking improved.

“It’s such a psychological and mental game, golf, that the smallest wrong thing at the wrong time can distract you from what you’re trying to achieve.”

Lee Westwood

Stay In The Present

These days a round of golf is likely to take four hours or even more. It’s impossible for you to concentrate the whole time. Between shots, you need to distract yourself from the shots you’ve already played and from thinking too far ahead. You must stay in the present. 

Chat with your playing partners about anything other than the round of golf you are playing. If you’re playing in a competition then the other members of your group might not be keen to talk. In that case, you could try singing to yourself or counting your steps between shots.

The last thing you need is to dwell on the mistakes of previous holes or dream of the score you might make. The only shot you have control over is the next one that you play. Thinking about that tee shot over water on the 16th is not going to do your game a lot of good if you start thinking about it on the 5th!

On many occasions, I’ve been guilty of looking too far ahead only to stumble and miss out on the win or good score. Dwelling on past mistakes has also been a big problem. The successful rounds I’ve had have usually been ones where my mind has been clear and focused on the next shot rather than what might be.

If you tend to dwell on your mistakes a good tip is to use the 10-yard rule. You are allowed to chastise yourself (internally) up to the point where you have gone 10 yards from where you hit the bad shot. After that, you need to accept it and forget about it.

stay in the present
Remaining calm on the course is usually the best option!

Giving Up

Too many golfers tend to give up on a round far too soon. While it is always tempting to post a no return when you are having a frustrating day there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t. Firstly, under the new WHS handicapping rules you may end up with no handicap index at all for repeat offenses!

More importantly, giving up shows a very poor mental state. There are always milestones you can set even if you’ve had a bad start to the round. For example, you could try to get your lowest ever back 9 score/beat your handicap on the back 9 etc.

I’m particularly bad at this and if I am honest get worse every year. At one particular club that I was a member of, I fired three balls out of bounds on the first hole before even getting near to the green – it was a 616 yarder! This meant my handicap had gone before I’d even completed the first hole. NR!

It’s a sign of being a bad loser and having no mental strength. Often some of my best or most enjoyable rounds have been ones where I had a poor start and managed to play well later and ended up managing to get in the buffer zone.

lining up your putt
practice under pressure!

Finding the Positive

Even professional golfers aren’t able to hit every shot how they’d like or shoot 10 under par every time they walk on the course. Unfortunately, many amateurs seem to think they should be beating their handicap by five or six shots every time they go out.

It’s just not realistic. When you do find your game is lacking, what you need to try to do is identify the positive aspects in spite of the fact your score might not be very good. For example, rather than concentrating on your gross or net score, why not set yourself a different goal.

Try to improve your fairways hit percentage, greens in regulation, sand saves or total putts per round. You can even take it one step further than that and count the shots you hit where you made the correct decisions even if the execution wasn’t very good.

As I got older and had fewer opportunities to play golf I have become better at finding the positive. This is due to the fact I am unlikely to play to the level that I used to and getting frustrated about that is totally pointless. It is a much more pleasant experience to look back on a round of golf and say you hit more shots with the correct attitude than with the wrong attitude. Rather than totaling up your score and realizing you used to be able to shoot 10 or 20 shots better than that!

Too often amateur golfers dwell on what they did wrong rather than on what they did right.

Patience

Particularly important in tournaments, patience is an excellent mental weapon. Even in club competitions, the pins might be placed in trickier spots. The rough might have been allowed to grow a little longer. Patience is most definitely a virtue worth having. The winner is often going to be the one who makes the fewest mistakes rather than the one who makes the most birdies.

Jack Nicklaus often said that he did better in majors because other players often beat themselves.

My scores improved when I adopted a more patient approach by firing to safe areas of the course rather than always attacking.

basket of driving range balls
Practice makes permanent not necessarily perfect!

Ignore Unsolicited Advice

Golf is difficult enough without having competing swing thoughts sloshing around in your brain. The last thing you need is well-meaning advice on how to improve some aspects of your game. In fact, it is probably best to try to stop people if they attempt to give you technical advice as it is likely to harm your efforts.

I was always particularly amused by 28 handicappers who thought they could offer me advice on my swing (when I was playing off single figures). You need to let it go in one ear and out the other as loads of conflicting advice is only going to make it more difficult.

Be True to You

Some people like to socialize on the golf course, others are more introverted. You need to be true to this side of your nature. Whatever suits your personality best is going to be best for your golf. You need to match your golf with your own natural rhythm. If you tend to walk and talk quickly, then it is best that you play quickly and vice versa.

I would sometimes try to use this to my advantage in a match-play situation. If I was playing someone that I knew was a slow player then I would try to play faster than normal to get them out of their comfort zone. If there were a very fast player, I would do the opposite and slow my game right down to try and gain an edge. It was amazing how often this tactic seemed to work.

sign to clubhouse
Keep expectations in check

Avoid the Hype

While we all dream of winning ‘majors’ at whatever level of the game we play at. You need to avoid building up your expectation about the tournament you are due to play in. You are building up more and more pressure on yourself which in the end will be counter-productive. 

In my younger days, I did have a habit of building up my hopes prior to a competition and therefore putting even more pressure on myself. As I got older, I realized the best tactic was to treat every round the same. That way you are more likely to get out of your own way and produce the golf you need to actually have a chance of winning.

Focus on the Process not the Result

This will actually reduce the pressure on you and should consequently allow you to perform better more often.

The more you focus on the result, the greater pressure you will apply to yourself resulting in performance anxiety. 

Focusing on the process greatly reduces the pressure since you are concentrating on things that are much easier to control.

Putting is a great example. Sometimes even perfectly struck putts won’t go in. There might be a pitch mark or other imperfection on the green, maybe you miss read it slightly.

By focusing only on the result you are adding to the pressure on yourself. Focus on the process. Did you look at the putt from a number of angles? Did you commit to the line? Did you make a positive stroke?

If you completed all the steps in your process then you can consider that a good putt irrespective of whether the ball finished in the hole.

The same applies to your golf swing. Were you hitting at the ball or swinging through it. I know which is more likely to produce the better result.

Good golf scores should come as a result of following good processes. If you make the score your only focus then you are likely to fail.

“Mental rehearsal is just as important as physical rehearsal”

Phil Mickelson

Keep Emotions in Check

It is true that some players perform better during heightened states of emotion. Most amateur players would probably improve their scores if they tried to keep their emotions more balanced. If you are the sort of golfer that gets too excited or angry then physiological changes in your body will make it more difficult for you to hit good golf shots.

Internal Dialogue

Are you constantly calling your ability into question on the course? If so that’s unlikely to improve your performance. Try to maintain a positive internal dialogue even if you’re not playing particularly well.

This is an area that I was pretty bad at during the time I played a lot of competitive golf. A passage of poor play would quickly lead to me calling myself names both in my head and audibly. Often much to the amusement of my regular playing partners. One of my favorite tactics to try and gee myself up was to call myself a donkey!

“Success in this game depends less on strength of body than strength of mind and character.”

Arnold Palmer

12 Golf Mental Game Tips: Conclusion

For many people, the mental side of golf can be just as difficult as the physical side. Try to evaluate your mental golf game honestly and then apply these tips to the areas where you need the most help.

Below you will find a reading list featuring some of the best golf psychology books that have helped my game. These include many mental tips for golf.

To improve your scores without working on your game try brushing up on your course management skills.

If you have some time to work on your game at home then a putting mat could prove useful along with some other tips on practicing golf at home.

Reading List

Golf is not a Game of perfect by Bob Rotella front cover
Golf is not a Game of perfect back cover

Dr. Bob Rotella: Golf is not a Game of Perfect

“It is more important to be decisive than to be correct when preparing to play any golf shot or putt.”

Dr. Bob Rotella
Inner game of golf front cover
Inner game of golf back cover

W. Timothy Gallwey: The Inner Game of Golf

“If human beings did not have a tendency to interfere with their own ability to perform and learn, there would be no Inner Game.”

W. Timothy Gallwey
Putting out of your mind front cover
Putting out of your mind back cover

Dr. Bob Rotella: Putting Out of Your Mind

“During my last 13 years with Dr. Rotella’s instruction, I have consistently improved my game, my scoring average, and my place on the money list of the PGA Tour. If you follow his direction you will greatly enhance the chances of improving your own golf game.”

Brad Faxon
Silent mind golf front cover
Silent mind golf back cover

Robin Sieger: Silent Mind Golf

“A refreshingly simple yet original approach to the mental aspects of golf her”

Golf International Magazine
Golf is a game of confidence front cover
Golf is a game of confidence rear cover

Dr. Bob Rotella: Golf is a Game of Confidence

“Bob has given me the confidence in my game to play at the highest level of competition”

Davis Love III

Frequently Asked Questions [FAQ]

Why is golf so hard mentally?

Because there is so much time between shots to dwell on past mistakes, to worry about holes later in the round or to think that you have the game licked. Also because the ball is sitting there waiting for you to hit it rather than being able to rely on your instincts to hit a moving ball.

How important is the mental side of golf?

Very. Being able to remain calm and focused is a wonderful trait in a golfer. Unlike most other sports aggression and an adrenalin rush will usually lead to golfers making expensive mistakes.

How much of golf is a mental game?

Golf is 90% mental according to 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus. Bobby Jones said, “Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears.”. Overcoming the mental hurdles can often be more difficult than the physical ones, particularly as one progresses further in the game.

How can I improve my mental game in golf?

Here are some simple suggestions to improve your mental golf game:
Work on acceptance – not every shot will go to plan even if you hit the ball how you want.
Work on your concentration – be focused when it is time to play.
If you get distracted walk away and start again.
Build a pre-shot routine to insulate yourself from “pressure”.
Put yourself under pressure when practicing, eg hole 100 3 foot putts in a row!

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