The mental game of golf does not always mean sitting in a chair visualizing making the winning putt at the Masters.
Sure, focused breathing and visualization are powerful and overlooked skills, but the crucial part of the mental game is what and how you prepare and practice. Too often, players love the amount of time or number of balls that they hit during their practice. However, time is just a baseline toward preparation, and the frustrating part is that it does not always equate to more consistent scores.
What's more important than the time spent is how it was invested. All it takes an extreme amount of discipline and focus to prepare the right way and you'll become the BEST at getting BETTER!
Here are 10 ways to work on the mental game of golf
10. No 3-ball putting
I reminded Mark Wilson this past season how years ago when we met, his one-ball putting practice made such an impact. He only putts with one ball, because that's all we get on the actual course! Crazy, right?!
Ugh, it draws my ire when people practice their putting by dropping 3 balls (or more) and go at it. It serves absolutely NO purpose, other than showing that you can adjust from one putt to another.
Use 1 ball to putt.
9. Use only one ball to practice chipping
This is more difficult and not as realistic than only putting with one ball, but the premise is the same. If you're going to win a tournament, then you'll have to get it up-and-down under pressure.
We only have one ball on the actual course! We need to execute our full routine and our focus while chipping.
Rather than always chipping with a large number of balls and blocked practice, develop the habit of chipping with only one ball. Implement this strategy the closer you get to tournaments and get up-and-down with only one ball.
8. 86 the music
I LOVE music. Music is a motivator and makes practice and work more enjoyable. But, is the goal to get better or make sure you enjoy it more?
Music does not enhance your performance and sadly, too often players always practice with headphones on. Maybe it's because they don't want to be bothered. I don't know.
But, listening to music while you practice does not work on your focus or your mental game of golf. Keep the music on in your car or limit it to the gym.
7. Avoid hitting the same shot in a row
"Practice puts brains into your muscles." - Sam Snead
Golfers often talk about playing better on the range than on the course. There's no stress or consequences on the range, but there is no variability either. We groove the swing on the range, but we will never we hit 10 drivers in a row when we play.
This premise is all about motor learning and how we learn best. Think about strength training and imagine doing the same exact workout every single time!
We don't get better having the range rake-over mentality and hitting ball after ball only working on the swing. We need to avoid getting in the groove on the range and instead randomize our shots and practice. We adapt and improve by constantly forcing ourselves to go through our full routine and hit different shots.
The simple rule is don't hit the same shot at the same target twice in a row.
6. Play with different shots
Seve Ballesteros worked on his bunker game with a 3-iron. It took a ridiculous angle to make this work and he did it for his entire career. If he could do it with a 3-iron, he could certainly do it with a sand wedge!
Ben Hogan developed the stinger, but Tiger Woods made it popular with his 3-wood and 2-iron. He made the stinger an unbelievably reliable golf shot. He could hit the fairway every time with this shot.
Play around with different shots and work on your creativity.
This is a game and it's supposed to be fun, so work on your game by trying out different types of shots: huge cuts, bump-and-runs, high draws, punch-outs and knock down shots.
5. Set a goal for every practice
It's amazing, but not many golfers actually set a goal for every practice session. If you follow me then you know I hate SMART goals, but I do believe in short-term objectives for practice.
It's simple: What do you want to achieve for this practice?
It's important to not HOPE you got better but KNOW you improved after practice. If you set a difficult to reach goal, then you're training your mental toughness. Also, once you hit your goal, be sure to move on to something different.
Are you going to keep hitting 6-irons until you start to hit it offline?
4. Make it a competition
Competition builds mental toughness!
We need to be put in stressful, pressure situations where there is something "on the line." Where your mind goes during these competitions is the same type of thoughts and feelings that you will have during actual rounds trying to post a low score.
When we understand the emotions that we will feel, then we can prepare our mind better and be ready for the same type of pressure. Remember, "pressure is something you feel when you don't know what the hell you're doing."
3. Short game, short game, short game
Your shots around the green and ability to save par are directly connected to your mental game. The short game is what you need to get to the next level.
Chase Wright talks about in this podcast episode how he won in 2018 after hitting two of the worst shots he hit all week.
He simply got it up-and-down and moved on.
At the pro level, it might not be the No. 1 predictor for success, but it is the engine of momentum. Saving par can provide momentum, or that ill-timed three-putt can crush it. The short game may not win a tournament for you, but not having it will lose it for you.
Practicing the short game is not sexy, I get it, but have you ever heard a player say "I work too much on my short game!"
2. Don't allow the second guy on the course
I'm not talking about practice rounds where we are trying to learn about the course and how to prepare.
I'm referring to the second guy that almost always shows up during a round after you hit a poor shot. You drop another ball, and the second guy then hits a great shot! Again, this serves little purpose.
We work on our mental game of golf by moving on from bad shots and re-focusing.
After you hit a poor shot is the opportunity to address this mental skill.
You will hit bad shots during a round, so don't allow your confidence to be affected by a bad shot. Instead, work on your mental game!
Hitting additional shots can easily become the norm, and it's a horrible habit. It becomes too easy after a poor drive to just tee up another. The range after playing is the time to practice, but the course is designed to play.
1. Make 100 3-footers in a row
Golfers that come visit me for mental toughness training are treated to this first challenge: Make 100 3-footers in a row. Yep.
And I'm talking about in different spots, not one spot -- grooving the stroke and wearing out the green.
It replicates pressure, getting to 90, 91, 92 makes in a row increases stress. But, it becomes less and less about the actual stroke than it does expose our demons. Do we get down on ourselves, or make excuses, or do we quit? Do we become tight?
When we are able to overcome this drill, then our mental game gets better! If we do it enough, when we see every 3- to 5-footer, our thoughts go straight back to confidence and think, "I've made this 100 times already."
Feel free to check out my article 3 ways to build mental toughness for golfers.
Scott Stallings once talked about the idea of not letting fear guide your practice. If preparation is fear-based, then it's feeling like you HAVE TO practice OR ELSE. (i.e., "If I don't work on my putting, then I won't putt well.") He switched to being driven by confidence and belief instead. The attitude being, "I work on these things because I know I'm a good player, and this helps me." They're two totally different drivers toward preparation.
The same mindset applies to these drills and strategies. These are all small adjustments, but they must be approached with confidence and not based out of fear.