It says something for the addictive nature of golf, or the eternal optimism of the player that whenever I finish a round, I am already looking forward to the next round. If I have just had a good round, then I want to play soon so that I can continue my good form. If I have played below expectations, then I want to get out there and make amends.
Between Christmas and New Year, I figured it was time to re-read my very favourite golf book. I cannot remember when I first got this book or even how I cam to know about it but it has had a profound effect on my thining about the game of golf but sadly, it hasn’t really helped to show in an improved golf game. That is not the fault of the book itself, but on my own lack of application of the book’s principles.
It is not an instruction book but a book on the psychology of golf – one of the first that I had ever encountered. It is a book that is as much about learning as it is about golf, and how the human mind can get in the way of itself when trying to achieve goals. I know I used a quote from this book way back in 1997 when I was presenting to my panel when I was going through the process to become an Advanced Skills Teacher 1. When re-reading this book, I tried to find the quote I used again, and I pushed some key quotes out to Twitter but could not find the one I was looking for. I found it in the very last chapter.
“To perpetrate doubt in the educational system or in parent-child or manager-employee relationships is one of the most debilitating though – unconscious crimes against human potential.”
The basic premise of the book is that doubt is the undoer of our potential when playing golf. If we can learn to keep doubt at bay, then we free our unconscious minds to play shots that open up our potential. Gallwey talks about two parts of consciousness, Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the little voice inside your brain that has a running commentary about your game and I could recognise that concept straight away. It is the idea that pops into your head about avoiding the water on the right but then swinging in such a way that creates a big slice that dumps your ball in the wetlands. It is the angry name calling under your breath (or out loud) when you duff a shot or misjudge a break or hit a shot straight towards trouble. And then keeps you brewing over it long enough to ruin the next shot, or the next hole, or even the entire rest of the round. It is that voice that tells me I am in a slump, or that I can’t possibly keep a run of good holes going. None of this is helpful to an improving golf game.
Gallwey’s other Self 2 is the state of mind when you just swing and the shot happens well or as required without any mental forcing. Some athletes call it the zone, and everyone who has played golf has experienced, even fleetingly. The Inner Game is about trying to find that sweet spot more often.
It really is a complex read and I have not put everything he suggests to the test, or as a routine. But it is about increasing awareness of your surroundings, of your body, of your tempo and letting that be your reality rather than letting your inner Self 1 start over analysing or talking down your possibilities. I have a recent example from two rounds ago where I found the zone in a round of golf, and then got in my own way.
I was playing the East course at Grange for the first time in nearly two months after experiencing a steady run of results on the West.I wasn’t sure how that would translate to the East, and it was only the second time that my new Callaway driver would see action on this course. So mentally, all sorts of things were racing through my mind. Would the Callaway give me extra distance and get me using shorter irons into the greens? Would my steady form follow me from the West? I was about to lose a “flagged” round from my rolling handicap and I wanted a decent round to maintain my current handicap. But I had been reading this book, and I was conscious in trying to keep these Self 1 thoughts at bay, focussing on the swing, accepting results as they came and letting things flow. I was also playing with a friend who is still a novice golfer (his own description) who was feeling a bit edgy about the East course being a tough course for his own perceived standard, so I wanted him to enjoy the day.
I succeeded on the first drive, sending a nice long shot down the centre much further than normal. I only had a wedge for my second when normally I am hitting 7 iron, but I hit it thin and sent it through to the back of the green through the light rough and onto the soil surrounds. I was pleased that the shot didn’t bother me so decided that a putter would work best as the next shot was downhill and through a large swale. I focussed on awareness of my putter and picked a place to put to that I thought would release to the hole and it worked out pretty well, settling down four feet from the hole. I sank that – par – not a bad start.
The second hole was another nice drive that worked from left to right up closer that normal to the green. My next shot was a 7 iron that felt a bit pushed but climbed over the right hand bunkers and lobbed softly on the green. Easy two putt territory and there was my second par.The third is a par 3, and again I reached for a club shorter than normal as I was focussing on a routine that had been working over the last month with my address. It was keeping the Self 1 stuff out of my mind and this one also found the green, although it hit a down slope and ran away from the hole settling eight or so metres away. My putting seemed to be well paced and I lagged it up for another par. Things were going well – I noticed the trend but didn’t get too excited which was a good sign.
The fourth is a short but challenging hole that doglegs around to the right past a wetlands water hazard. I usually take a three wood here because a pulled driver will go deep into the trees on the left hand side and a slice will surely drown the golf ball. This three wood came out a little low but arrow straight and was longer than my partner’s drive. I was only 60 metres away and I could feel myself tensing over the shot – the mind tried to stay focussed but tightness produced the worst shot of all a topped slice (almost shank) straight across the corner of the green and into the reeds. That hole did not amount to a score (playing stableford and no stroke being an index 17 hole) and then I got my focus back. I hit the next par 3 in regulation and parred. The next par four also had water down the right but no way was I making the same mistake twice! Or so I thought. This time instead of tension and tightness, I over relaxed and topped the ball to the left barely a hundred metres. It was the swing away from focus to another opposing detrimental state of mind and body. My next hybrid iron advanced me down the fairway to the left not too badly and I thought I could still easily get bogey if I got back to the balanced state of mind. The approach wedge was a slightly longer replica of the push/topped slice from hole 4 and I drowned my second golf ball. Another scratch on the card.
Funnily enough, I managed to birdie the next hole after the longest drive of the day, a hybrid that ended up in the right hand bunker, a nicely played bunker shot down to about six feet and a putt that never looked like missing. The next hole was a Self 1 fiesta where I pulled my drive, chipped out from a bush, played up , chipped on and two putted. I thought I was self sabotaging in a major way especially when my drive on nine was a pull, extra low that ended up in the left hand hazard two or three metres from the embankment joining it to the fairway. I had to play the shot with a wedge to ensure that I cleared the lip of the embankment but didn’t want to hit it too high and catch the overhanging branches. A good situation to focus, and trust that my Self 2 would manufacture a shot that would work. It did, catching it just right – high enough to clear, low enough to dodge and with a lot of forward momentum that carried it up to around 150 metres from the pin of this par 5. Suddenly I had my trust back and hit a beautiful 5 iron onto the green for another par. I was pleased that I hadn’t let a few serious lapses stop me from bouncing back and recording a score below my handicap for the nine, but of course my Self 1 voice couldn’t help but mentally calculate the amazing score I would have if “I hadn’t stuffed those couple of shots”.
I won’t analyse the second nine because the focus wasn’t as sharp, and the day was really hot so I did feel a bit like I was forcing shots heading back to the clubhouse. But it was a timely reminder to feel the potential of Self 2 and to really aim to do the things that need to be done to allow that state of mind to happen more often. Thank you, Inner Game Of Golf.
Golf Australia keeps my official GA handicap which sits at 14.2 as of today. In 2010, the old handicapping system was replaced by the new which is basically the same as the USGA. The old system was complex where if I played under my handicap for the day then I would “lose strokes” according to which category of handicap I belonged to – if I had an 18 handicap and managed 40 stableford points, I would have 0.3 of a stroke subtracted from my handicap for each stroke I had shaved off my expected score. So, I needed 36 points to play to my handicap I would lose 1.2 strokes and the very next round would play off a 16.8 handicap rounded to 17. Every time I failed to break or equal my handicap, 0.1 would be added on, provided it wasn’t in a buffer zone of + or -1 strokes, meaning that it would then take me 12 bad rounds to get back to my handicap of 18. Makes sense, right? I did say it was complicated but this document from Golf Australia outlines how it all was meant to work. I did the job of handicapper way back in my dual role as Treasurer of the Wirrulla Golf Club back in my early years of teaching, so it was a matter of keeping all of the club members and their results in a graph book for the year.
My very first handicap was 36 back in 1987 when I joined the Port Broughton Golf Club. I managed to lower it to 33 before I moved over to the West Coast of South Australia where I got down to 31 in my year at Wirrulla Golf Club. The following year when teaching at Ceduna, I joined the Smoky Bay Golf Club and managed to lower myself to 24. In 1990, I gained a permanent job at Port Augusta and joined the club there which was one nine grass greens and one nine sand greens, but the whole course was fully greened within the first eighteen months of my membership. I went from 24 down to 19 in the four years before heading to Adelaide after getting married.
I joined Flagstaff Hill Golf Club in 1995 just around the corner from my place of work, Flagstaff Hill Primary School and I managed to get down to a new low of 13 for a few weeks in 1998. Most of the time I hovered around the 14 or 15 mark. In 2004, I joined Grange and the combination of two much more difficult courses and two young kids at home meant that my handicap drifted back out to 19. The good thing was with the new system, everything went online onto a system called GolfLink.
GolfLink keeps my golf records for the last 4 years. So it is not hard to retrieve some key stats and see if I am improving or not. Taking the handicap at the end of each 3 month period gives me a graph like this:
Not too bad considering I only play once a week and almost never practice. I have taken up the option of heading off after work on Fridays and hitting a bucket of ball on the range on my way home, and that seems to be helping. But as one of my recent golf partners said to me, “Graham, you need to go and work on your short game even if it is only for an hour a week. That is where you will see the most improvement.” Now that I can easily see a downward trend, it would be good to work towards that goal of getting into A grade. Really, I would love to sport a single figure handicap so maybe this blog might help to keep me honest in pursuit of that dream.