Inside Golf Psychology: Mastering Your Mental Game

By Todd Mrowice

Golfer imagining celebration

Golf’s mental game is a lot like a slot machine. At least, according to golf psychology expert and best-selling author Dr. Joseph Parent.

You’re standing on a 175-yard par-3 surrounded by water. You take the club back, swing through, and perhaps say a little prayer. When you open your eyes your ball is 15 feet from the pin and your playing partners are anointing it the shot of the day. You have officially reached golf euphoria.

In many ways, this scenario is what drives amateur golfers mad. You know that you can hit great shots, but why can’t you repeat them?

“Golf actually has a similarity to slot machines,” says Dr. Parent. “It’s called Random Intermittent Reinforcement. With a slot machine, you win or hit a jackpot. It could happen on your 10th pull, your 40th, etc. Then, your next jackpot can happen five pulls later, or maybe 20 later. It’s the same with golf. You hit a perfect shot, you know that it’s possible. But when that perfect shot happens again is the intermittent part of it.”

Dr. Joseph Parent is an expert in Performance Psychology and Applied Mindfulness and has sold over one million books. His golf-specific books include “Zen Golf: Mastering The Mental Game” and “Golf: The Art of the Mental Game: 100 Classic Golf Tips.”

Dr. Parent also worked with professional golfers Vijay Singh and Cristie Kerr, having coached both players when they reached No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking.

For many golfers, amateur and professional alike, the hurdle of mastering golf's mental game stands in the way of success on the golf course. It's easy to become discouraged by golf, but your approach to the mental game can be the difference between a good round and a bad round.

The Mental Game of Golf

If this is your first venture at looking into the mental side of golf, Dr. Parent makes a few things clear so that you have a baseline for how to proceed. For starters, frame everything as a positive.

“This is very important to know, there are no weaknesses, only strengths that need to get better,” said Dr. Parent. “Language is a huge thing when it comes to mental golf.

“Also, understand that the mental game is a component of your overall golf game,” he continued. “The most common thing is that people tell me they can’t take their range game to the golf course. There’s no better example. You’re not getting everything out of your golf game, and it’s not physical.”

Possessing an open mind and allowing yourself to be vulnerable can pay dividends in the early stages of exploring the mental game of golf. It’s like any other accomplishment you’ve had in your life in that everything has to start somewhere.

Why is Golf Unique?

While it’s nearly impossible to perfect the game of golf from a physical standpoint, the mental side of the game is incredibly unique. Many people who have been successful in other sports struggle with golf.

“Nobody hits a golf ball back at you,” said Dr. Parent. “You are initiating the action, which is similar to a pitcher in baseball or a basketball player shooting a free throw but you don’t have teammates, you don’t have a defense. Nothing is there for you after initiating the action.”

The sooner you can accept the reality that, for better or for worse, the result of your next shot, hole, or round is entirely in your hands, the easier it will be to take your next steps.

Common Mental Pitfalls

You’ve got the new clubs fit just for you. Your swing mechanics are in check. You’re confident in your ability, and then you tee off. Sometimes it only takes a single bad shot to send you to Negative Town where your neighbors are hesitancy, doubt, and frustration.

We’ve all experienced these feelings on the golf course. They can be tough mental hills to climb, but there are resources to help tune up the mental side of golf. Here are some of the more common occurrences that golfers run into that can wreak havoc with the mental part of the game.

Playing Partners

The people that you’re surrounded by on the golf course have a big impact on your round, but should they? After all, golf is an individual game. Playing in the same group as golfers that are playing better than you can create strong feelings. These are typically self-inflicted.

Try This

Keep your own score and on your own scorecard. You’ll still have to share your score with your group, but having your own card in your back pocket with only your name on it gives you a visual reminder that you’re playing your own game. Plus, it gives you an excuse to buy a cool scorecard holder.

Another tip is to walk a few holes instead of riding in the cart. It allows you some time to clear your head while your playing partners drive away. Bonus, it’s also great exercise.

Specific Trouble Shots

Maybe it's the tee shot on a narrow hole, or an approach over water that always seems to get the best of you. If you play the same golf course enough, you become aware of specific shots that give you the most trouble.

Knowing that you've had a bad experience on a particular hole, or knowing that you always hit your ball into a specific penalty area can create doubt before you even take the club back.

Overcome Trouble Shots

Incorporate visualization into your pre-shot routine. Stand behind the ball before you address it. See the shot that you want to hit in as much detail as possible. Doing this will give you the visual of a successful shot, rather than cloud your mind with what happened previously.

Carrying Over

Forgetting about a bad shot or a bad round is easier said than done. We’ve all hit a bad shot because we were still thinking about what we did wrong on the previous shot. Taking it a step further, thinking about your last bad round before you even tee off on the first hole is not a recipe for success.

Start Fresh

Ben Hogan famously said, "The most important shot in golf is the next one."

It can be terribly difficult to move on to your next golf shot after a poor attempt. But the sooner you allow yourself to concentrate on the next shot, the better off you’ll be. A good practice is to not get too high on great shots, or too low on poor ones. It’s easy to follow up a birdie with a double-bogey because you were still focused on what happened on the previous hole.

For the Doubters

It’s alright if you don’t believe the mental golf game exists. There have been plenty of doubters-turned-believers over time. Everyone addresses their mental golf game at their own speed. If you want to start improving your mental game, you’re already on your way to learning more about how your mind works on the course.

“Compare your mental golf game to working out physically,” said Dr. Parent "What are we trying to achieve with our golf swing? Speed, strength, flexibility, balance. Would you play better if all of those physical aspects were in tune? Absolutely. A well-tuned mental game is part of the overall success.”

For some, acceptance of the mental side of anything, not just golf, is difficult. They get stuck on the idea that if an issue isn’t physical, it can’t be the problem.

If you’re hesitant, embrace the concept of golf psychology at your own speed. You don’t have to dive into every chapter of Dr. Parent’s books in one night. Try finding something small, perhaps a visual or a tip, to use on the driving range or your next round. You’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll enjoy adopting other mental golf practices.

Conclusion

Seeking help for the mental side of your golf game is a great place to be because it means you’re one step closer to improving that aspect of your game. Dr. Joe Parent’s books, Zen Golf: Mastering The Mental Game” and “Golf: The Art of the Mental Game: 100 Classic Golf Tips” can both gide you through the journey to a strong mental game. It’s amazing how much you will learn about not only your golf game but yourself.

About the Author

Todd Mrowice is a Staff Writer for GolfLink. He has been writing about golf for over 10 years including a long tenure at GOLFChicago Magazine. Todd has covered all aspects of the game including travel, products, business, and professional tours.