Mind Play
By DougE on 1/24/12
Doug "DougE" Ely is quickly becoming a regular contributor on oob. DougE, you'll have to correct me if I'm wrong, but this is his third column. You can catch the first two here and here. Enjoy!

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t the power of the mind at play on the day of my worst fiasco on a golf course---I’ll get to that shortly---but there is no denying that when you think too much in this game, things can often go completely awry.

On the one hand, you’re taught to “visualize your shot” as part of a good pre-shot routine to help your mind make your body do what it needs to do to make it happen. I believe in that concept, to a certain extent. I can’t say every time I visualize the good shot I want to pull off, I can actually do so. Yet, it surprises me how often I can. And the more I’m able to do it during a round, the more it seems to work. Grasping that positive energy and making it work for you is an integral part of playing the game well.

On the other hand, how many times have you stood over a shot and thought: don’t go left, don’t go left, don’t go left? Then you pull the trigger, swing away and to your dismay, you pull it LEFT, directly into the bunker, or woods, or hazard that you told yourself specifically not to do!

In golf, the mind can work for good and the mind can work for evil. I think it all depends on your level of confidence when you stand over the ball. And it seems your confidence depends on how well your mind is helping you control your shots. Sort of a catch-22.

In any case, back to my worst fiasco on a golf course….a day my mind worked clearly for evil. In fact, I mentioned this in a post here on Oobgolf a couple years ago, but as you might guess, it still must be gnawing at me or I wouldn’t bring it up again.

So to set it up, I am about to go out to play 18 as a single, late one afternoon at my home course. As I approach the first tee I see two middle-aged guys getting ready to tee off. Rather than go out behind them and be on their butts all day which might pressure them and frustrate me, I figured I’d ask if they’d mind if a third middle-aged guy played along with them. They seemed friendly enough. It would be a nice time. Both were very welcoming chaps.

We teed off on the par 4, first. Neither of them hit it very well off the tee, while I drove it 40 yards past both, straight down the middle of the fairway. My confidence inches up. They each hit their 2nd, then 3rd, before finally reaching the green in 4. I stand over my 2nd shot, plan where I want to land it on the green, “visualize” it and then do it. Ends up just as I planned. Man I’m good. Confidence creeps up higher. I jar my putt for bird. Confidence oozing out my pores. They both congratulate my impressive play. My feathers are in full bloom.

We start the small talk. “So where ya from?” “What do you do for work?” “Play here much?” Yada yada. Come to find out that Rich and Charlie both live in the nice development that encompasses the course and both are regular golf club members here. Rich lives just off the 12th hole overlooking the green and Charlie’s place looks down on the 4th fairway. We’ll be going right by it in a few minutes.

We tee off on the par 3, 2nd. It‘s playing about 180 yards. All down hill and nearly surrounded by water. My tee shot finds the green, while theirs’ both require some chipping. I two-putt for par, while they card 4s or 5s. I hear a “Nice par, Doug.” I reply with a simple “Thanks,” though there may have been a touch confidence attached to my voice as well.

We head off to the near-600 yard, par 5, third. This is a long, uphill, difficult hole with no room for error on either side. No matter how well I played the first two holes, the third is really the test of whether I am as good as I think I am at that moment. But, my confidence is flying high now. So far I have hit all quality golf shots. My mind has me believing I’m gonna par this baby before I even tee off. I hit my drive dead down the middle. Then stroke a nice 3W up the long hill to center fairway, then I’m on in regulation with a nice 7-iron approach. It‘s a tough green, which I again, 2-putt for par. I have now played the first three holes very solidly. Rich and Charlie each doubled or tripled the third. I really wasn’t paying much attention to their games I was so into my own. I was on fire. I’m overflowing with confidence now. They were impressed. They asked “Why don’t you play in more tournaments here Doug?” You should join our men’s association. We have tournaments nearly every week.”

As we approach the fourth tee, Charlie mentions again that his house is on the right side of the fairway and points it out up high on the top of the ridge that runs along the fairway, way out of bounds. “Even way up there” he says, “I get balls hitting my house off the tee, seems like every day.” “Really?” I reply, “That’s surprising. It seems so far out of range.” It looked to me to be about 270 yards away.

I started trying to “visualize” how anyone could hit his house. It didn’t really seem possible off the tee, except for the biggest hitters with the wildest slice. Even on my worst swing, I couldn’t slice it that far, and on my best swing I couldn’t hit it that long.

But, the seed was planted.

As I stepped up to the tee I could not get the image of Charlie’s house being hit out of my head. I tried, but the more I tried the deeper ingrained it became. I addressed the ball with an uneasy feeling that this wasn’t going to end pretty. I started my takeaway. For the first time this round I showed I was just a mere mortal golfer. I heard the crack of the ball and, you guessed it, watched in surprise as it headed directly for Charlie’s house.

Now don’t jump to conclusions. As I already said, even on my best swing, I could never reach it. And, I didn’t. Yet the look on all our faces was one of pure disbelief. Even after playing the first three holes at 1-under and hitting virtually all quality shots, with just the simple suggestion from Charlie that hitting his house was possible, my crazy mind decided to see if it truly was! Well, thankfully, as it turned out, it wasn’t. Though I came close, I ended up 30 yards short of his home, way up high on the side of the ridge in the rough. Charlie and Rich, by the way, hit their drives straight down the fairway. Of course they did. This all put a crack in the confidence. And, not just a little one.

Okay, so now is really where things start to get a little twilight-zonish for me and greatly supports my belief that your mind can SO control your game. (Oob member merlin3driver---at least I think it was he who---once posted a quote that “Golf is 90% mental. The other 10% is all in your head.” It rang so true after the following.)

I get to my ball and find, as expected, that it will be well above my feet at address. I am still 180 or so out, yet have a clear shot to the green, albeit from a very awkward lie way up on the side hill. I’m trying to focus on making a good shot with my 4H. I look up diagonally to my right and now see Charlie’s wife, a mere 30 yards away, standing out on the back terrace waving hello to he and Rich.

Now, the thought of that last shot, which I still could not believe that I pushed way right, combined with the image in my head of Charlie’s wife standing within talking distance was starting to take over my head, be it consciously or subconsciously. I had just hit it way right when I didn’t think I would. Could it happen again? That would not be good. Go away bad thoughts, go away. Confidence leaking like a sieve.

I take a last look at the green, then start my hybrid back on an inside flat path to account for the ball so far above my feet. I get to the top of my swing and everything goes into slow motion. I can see the club head coming in at the wrong angle as the toe barely clips the left side of the ball sending it speeding (in slow motion) directly at Charlie’s wife! Nooooooooooo! Foooooore! Too late.

Luckily, it missed…..his wife. But, not the custom-made glass wind chimes they had found at some quaint country store many years ago in a sleepy little town in Vermont. It was priceless to her. And now it was gone. Smashed to smithereens. Why couldn’t I have hit a window? That’s easily replaceable. Well, at least it wasn‘t her head.

I am now mortified. I don’t know what to say or do. I run up the hill to Charlie’s wife, who is livid. I am so embarrassed. I apologize profusely. She won’t even speak to me other than to say “just go away.” I am just another a--hole golfer in her mind, though she may have said that out loud. I look back at Charlie and Rich who are still down on the fairway looking up in disbelief. They too are at a loss. How could this happen? Mr. Hotshot golfer from the first three holes has been exposed and proven to be a simple hack.

What’s to blame? My weak mind control. I say to them, trying to keep my ego in tact, “I don’t know how that happened. That’s never happened to me before. Really, I’m not that bad! ” They agreed. “Yes, we saw the way you played previous to this.” They were feeling sorry for me. Not as much as I was. (Why do we have such egos? I nearly killed his wife and I’m making sure everyone knows I’m a better golfer than my last shot would suggest.)

I told Charlie that I had tried to apologize to his wife up there on the hill, but she would have none of it. He said, there’s nothing I could do right now, so don’t worry and let’s just continue the round. He wanted to get out of there as badly as I did. I think he was afraid of what his wife might do. He explained to me how important those wind chimes were to her. Very sentimental. Something special she so cherished. She and Charlie had found them many years ago on a long weekend they spent driving around New England. I promised to make good to her, somehow.

We were all amazed at what I had just pulled off. Not just hitting the house, but hitting the cherished wind chimes on the house of the guy I just met, who I’m playing with for the first time, right after he told me his house gets hit all the time. What are the odds?

I was shaking when I finally got to the green after hitting a substitute ball I dropped from where Charlie and Rich were hitting their approaches. There was no way I was going to drop anywhere up there on that hill. The rules were out the window by this point. I probably 5-putted, I can’t remember. Everything is kind of a blur after that. I do remember that I was not able to continue with any control of my swing. Couldn’t hit the ball straight at all. I started the round playing like a pro and quit shortly after the incident playing like a lowly duffer.

I told Charlie and Rich I was not up for finishing. My mind was shot. They could tell I was not the same guy with who they had started the round. They understood. Rich was probably thankful that I gave up, before we made it to the 12th hole, where his house sat.

I promised Charlie I was going to take care of the damage somehow (though he told me not to worry about it). I then just went home, still stunned, still mortified.

Confidence? 100% kaput.

I normally play there 3 or 4 days a week, but after that, it took me a while to go back. The first time I did, I was so nervous when I got to the fourth tee, I just skipped the entire hole. I felt like all the homeowners were looking out their windows along the few fairways on the course that are lined with houses, pointing at me. “That’s the hacker who almost killed Charlie’s wife.”

I needed some time to get over it. To this day, no matter how well I’m striking the ball, there is always a little uneasiness when I come to the fourth hole there. I could be striping the ball down the middle on all other holes, but when I come to the fourth, I rarely hit it well. I always keep my head down when I play that hole. Don’t want Charlie’s wife to notice me and have it bring back memories. And, whenever I hit one up on that ridge by their house leaving myself a side hill lie, I usually just swing easy, aim well away from their house and back at the fairway, rather than attempting to go for the green. What are the chances I can hit the new wind chimes they bought with the gift card I sent them. The amount of the card was enough to buy 3 or 4 new wind chimes, just in case.

So, this is just one very extreme example of how negative thoughts on the course usually equal negative results. And positive thoughts can often equal positive results, as evidenced by my first three holes, filled with confidence that day. Unfortunately, training your mind to be able to hold back the negative thoughts and to only allow in the positive ones, for me anyway, is the hardest part of playing the game of golf. I know I have the physical skills to play the game relatively well. Mentally, not so much.

Before that fateful day and many times since, my mind has ruined dozens of shots for me and subsequently eroded my confidence over too many rounds to count. It usually starts with a simple questioning or bad swing-thought in the middle of my backswing. A lack of commitment in any form to the shot at hand is usually all it takes. One thing leads to another and before I know it, I am questioning my ability over every shot. “What am I doing wrong?” Hitting the ball crisply, on the sweet spot, becomes nearly impossible. I know I have the ability, so what happened? My evil golf mind has won out.

Conversely, I have gotten better over the years, so there must be some good thoughts working and winning out as well. I’ve hit some really great shots when I believed I could. I’m still waiting for the day that I step up to a par three, visualize my shot going into the hole and then with the power of my mind, aided by a high level of confidence, make it happen.

I wish I could find a way to stop any thought from popping into my head during my swing. Ideally, I just want to see the target, visualize my shot, check my tempo with a practice swing, and take dead aim. Then a final waggle, focus on the ball, start the club back and not think again until I feel my right shoulder touch against my chin as I finish my follow-through and watch my ball fly perfectly, just like I pictured. It seems so simple.

Playing against other, even better, golfers is not always the toughest competition. Whether it be a friendly foursome made up of hackers and duffers vying for happy hour bragging rights or the top-tier guys in the club with mucho bucks on the line, the toughest competition could just well be in your own head. I know in my case, it always is.

If I can ever conquer the mental part of golf, the game would be easy. But, what fun would that be?

This was written by DougE, a reader/follower/fellow oober and the opinions are 100% his and do not reflect those of oobgolf in anyway. Enjoy! I'm sure he's ready for your feedback. But save the negative thoughts please. He's already got too many of those going on in his game.

photo by Pommie

[ comments ]
bkuehn1952 says:
Well written Doug. It really hits home to this mentally challenged golfer. Let's hope telling the story finally exorcizes the demons dwelling on the 4th hole.
legitimatebeef says:
Bravo Dougie. One of the best golf shame stories I've ever heard. Just painful but at the same time gripping. "Just go away"--ouch. Ultimately though this tale is a testament to the game, why we love it so much--the demand on the psyche, how it forces you to wrestle your own negative compulsions.
falcon50driver says:
Well written my friend.
Banker85 says:
I feel like i have been in the same position as you describe but not really. There are some holes that no matter what i cannot get the negative thoughts out of my head.
BAKE_DAWG40 says:
Awesome story! I have one hole on my home course that usually eats my lunch. Dogleg right, uphill, and a large tree guards the green on the right. I push my tee shot to the adjacent fairway of the previous hole. My 125 yd approach just turned into 165. I took an extra club and swung easy thinking short is better than long any day on this hole. I thought it landed short. I get to the green and my ball mark is 4" short of the hole and my ball backed up to 2 1/2'. Nobody around to see it. RATS! I'll remember that shot everytime I play that hole.
Trip says:
As an attempt to battle the "mind game", I read "Zen Golf", by Joe Parent. There are some mind exercises that I actually found helpful. Instead of trying to fight those bad thoughts entering your mind (which is impossible), you train your mind to let the thoughts come in, pass through, then leave, without giving them too much attention. Along with some breathing exercises, it seems to help.
Not sure it would help in this situation, that's a crazy, funny story!
jpjeffery says:
I rarely laugh at funny stories, but this one was an exception.

Funny, yet horrifically sad, all at the same time. :(
mattshaver says:
i did something similar to charlie a few weeks ago. on the 13th, short par 5 at a local muni. you have to lay up with a long iron or hybrid off the tee and for the second shot you have about 100 yds of water in front of you. after i hit my second cleanly over the water (this time), i told my playing partner that this is probably the most intimidating shot on the course. as soon as i said it i realized i shouldn't have as he dunked his 2nd into the water. oops! :-)
CeeBee says:
Doug, great read. Wouldn't it be something to birdie that hole and hear the tinkling of those chimes as you walk off? Golf gods are out there.
dtak84 says:
This story was hilarious. Well written!

I'm sure I've been through just as many situations in my short golfing career, I just can't remember. I think that's a good thing.
DougE says:
I'm thankful to you all for taking the time to read through the whole thing. I know it was a bit long. I tried to keep it an easy read. Even so, I'm sure you invested more time in reading it than you may have planned. Glad so many of you seemed to enjoy it. Hopefully the underlying message came through, that playing the game of golf well isn't necessarily only about fundamentals and swing mechanics.
jfurr says:
Very well written, sir. And a familiar feeling I'm afraid...
Duke of Hazards says:
Great story. Love the inner dialogue.
Mandelbaum! says:
I'm with Trip on this one – do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Zen Golf. I used to crumble at the thought of a good round, always getting in my own way mentally. Just days after reading about 1/2 the book, I shot an 81 when average round for me was more like 88-92. After that, 2011 proved to be a breakthrough year for me, having shot in the low 80s a bunch, even breaking 80 twice. (Finally!)

In full disclosure, I had some lessons as well, but Zen Golf definitely helps keep my head in check during the more exciting rounds. Give the book a read – it's WELL worth it!
dartboss04 says:
great story doug...i've definitely had complete meltdowns and have gone on a topping shanking fest...

what i don't understand is why she would hang up her precious irreplaceable glass wind chimes outside of a house that gets bombed by golf balls...what a shocking turn of events when it is struck by a golf ball and broken...give me a break...
DougE says:
I agree. It's part of the price you pay to live on a golf course. However, in this instance, where the chimes were located was pretty much protected from errant drives off the tee. You had to pretty much bring it in from almost a perpendicular approach, of which is pretty much what happened when I barely clipped it on that severe sidehill lie. Another 1/4 inch inside the ball and I would have whiffed. Not sure which would have been worse for my ego, but whiffing certainly would have been the better outcome overall.
patrickemerson says:
Great story. I wonder how Charlie dealt with it when he got home that night. Every Shot Must Have A Purpose has some good tips for the mental game.
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