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The 8 Traits Of Champion Golfers

How To Develop The Mental Game Of A Pro

About The Book

Do you swing too fast, try too hard, lose concentration, lack confidence, get angry, putt poorly under pressure, finish exhausted,
or suffer for hours after a hard game?

The most valuable tool a golfer can bring to the course is a strong mental game. Yet many golfers and instructors take this for granted, focusing almost entirely on grip, stance, or swing technique. The 8 Traits of Champion Golfers is a unique and persuasive approach to becoming a better golfer. Leading sports psychologist Dr. Deborah Graham and Jon Stabler identify the eight crucial personality traits that separate true champions from the rest and give you easy-to-follow steps for improving your game and making it more enjoyable.
Using their unique GolfPsych® program, Graham and Stabler challenge you to explore the crucial elements of your personality and measure them against the traits of such successful golfers as Lee Janzen, Dave Stockton, Michelle McGann, and Gary McCord, all of whom have worked with Dr. Graham. With player examples and a careful explanation of why each trait is important to the game of golf, Graham discusses:

  • Focus and Concentration
  • Abstract Thinking
  • Emotional Stability
  • Dominance and Competitiveness
  • Tough-Mindedness
  • Self-Assurance
  • Self-Sufficiency
  • Optimum Arousal and Managing Tension

Complete with charts, self-tests, and playing tips, The 8 Traits of Champion Golfers is the only research-based, tour-proven guide to the mental game of golf, making it possible for every golfer to find their "zone" and play like a champ.


Chapter One: Focus

"To play any golf shot correctly requires an unwavering concentration. The most perfect swing in the world needs direction, and plenty of it, and when its possessor begins to do a little mental daisy picking, something always goes wrong."

Bobby Jones, Bobby Jones on Golf

You might be surprised to discover that the most common mental problem we encounter when profiling professional and amateur golfers is "focus" -- or rather, an inability to focus. Yet being able to focus is the foundation of your mental game.

All golfers appreciate the enormous mental discipline required to play the game well, yet so many obstacles and challenges interfere. The irony is that, while these challenges render the game frustrating and difficult, they also provide the stimulation and allure that attract so many people to the game in the first place -- not to mention keeping those already playing in constant search of excellence and improvement. Conquering golf is to the golfer what the unclimbed mountain is to the mountaineer.


Golf is particularly hard on the mind for several reasons.

1. Golf Is Inert

The ball just sits there, waiting for you to make the first move. In momentum sports, such as tennis, you react quickly to the action of a competitor or a ball, and often both. In tennis, your reactive response is to move to the ball and hit it to where your opponent is not. It's much easier to focus when you have to react than when you have time to deliberate.

Golf provides no such momentum to help you narrow your focus. You are left entirely to your own devices to cope with internal and external distractions. If you start thinking about swing mechanics, your score, how other players are playing, how they're scoring, who might be watching you and what they think of your game, you won't give yourself a chance of focusing.

Unfortunately, you are left to your own devices to develop the mental skills necessary to "react" to a stationary ball.

2. Golf Has Too Much "Down Time"

Even when played fast, in four hours or less, golf allows much time between shots for contemplating the game. For many, this is more than enough time to mentally sabotage themselves. Consider the tennis player again, who has little time to do more than react to the next rapidly approaching ball. When you think about it, the only time a tennis player gets to contemplate the stroke is when he or she is about to make the serve.

The golfer, however, has minutes between every shot, and during a round those add up to hours of worrying about the next shot or the holes ahead. A golfer can unwittingly muddy his focus by giving himself swing lessons between shots. He may berate himself for mistakes or concern himself with what others are doing. He might ruminate on the problems in his life off the golf course or worry about hitting his next shot out of bounds. He can easily lose his focus thanks to a variety of random, distracting thoughts.

3. There Seems to Be No Limit on What You Must Do to Hit a Perfect Shot

The more the golfer knows about the game, the worse off he can be. There's that old saying that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Well, that saying especially applies to golf.

During a round, the golfer constantly faces different lies, grasses, grains, inclines, obstacles, winds, and other weather conditions. There are seemingly endless physical variables, including grip, stance, posture, ball position, swing planes, and so on, that must all be in perfect synch for the shot to be executed properly. The golfer must sort through these many details and quickly clear his mind of all but the simplest "swing thought" for the shot at hand. Lack of commitment, and the poor focus that results, can be caused by either underthinking or overthinking these variables. The golfer, in essence, walks a fine line.

4. The Time It Takes to Play a Round of Golf Can Be Mentally and Physically Draining

A round of golf requires four hours or more. So it is vital that the player learns to manage and conserve his mental and physical energies before and, especially, during the round. It is a common problem for a player at any level of the game -- from professionals who play many consecutive three- and four-day events to weekend amateurs who spend most of their time working or taking care of the kids -- to lose focus because of mental and physical fatigue.

These four factors common to all golfers, along with our own individual mental frailties, make golf one of our most mentally challenging sports.


Our study found that players who test above average in terms of being cool and detached, as opposed to warm and outgoing, are best at narrowing their focus over the ball. Curious how you might rate?

What Are Your Tendencies?

Compare your tendencies to those listed in the simple chart on page 39. Keep in mind that 1 represents someone who is extremely cool; 10 represents someone who is extremely warm; and 5 to 6 represents someone who is a combination of the two traits or who is "average" in both. Estimate at which point of the scale you might score on this trait based on your personal and golfing tendencies, then circle that number.

The champions either are or have learned to be more on the cool, or focused, side as they prepare to hit their shots and putts.

Players Who Have Cool Personalities

Bruce Crampton, Phil Blackmar, Tom Byrum, and Dave Stockton are all examples of players who tend to be more cool in their personalities. Cool personalities tend to naturally have a more narrow focus and thus a greater power of concentration. Their distractions are typically more internal.

Players Who Have Warm Personalities

Michelle McGann, Paul Azinger, Brad Bryant, and Taylor Smith are examples of players that are especially warm in their personalities. Without extra steps to help narrow their focus over the ball, they can be more easily distracted by activities going on around them. When they are conscious of narrowing their focus over the ball, they can remain fully aware of who is watching, what others are doing, and even carry on conversations, then detach from it all as they "time out" to hit their shots or putts. Paul Azinger is exceptionally good at this when he is playing his best.


Being able to concentrate well is no guarantee you will be able to use such a talent under pressure, particularly if you have one or more of the other personality traits that can interfere with concentration skills -- low confidence, high emotions, high tension, indecisiveness, and a tendency to overthink. But whether you have these other inhibiting traits or not, you will improve your ability to focus by learning a strong mental routine. Let's discuss some of these individual challenges to good focus before I share with you the same three-step routine I taught Dave Stockton.

Are you too intelligent to focus? Consider the player examples listed: Tom Byrum, Bruce Crampton, Phil Blackmar, and Dave Stockton all have above average abstract-thinking skills. Each found that the steps recommended in this chapter for strengthening their mental skills came quite naturally to them, yet each found it difficult to use them at times because of high abstract abilities that led to a very "busy" mind. Within seconds of hitting a shot, their minds would be racing away to their position in a tournament or to all the possible mechanical variables that went into a shot that may have been hit off-line. They each showed strong abilities to concentrate, but if they did not manage their tendency to overthink on the golf course, they could not maximize their powers of concentration.

Are you too friendly to focus? The extroverted players mentioned, Michelle McGann, Taylor Smith, Brad Bryant, and Paul Azinger, are apt to notice much more of what is going on around them and therefore have to work more at eliminating external distractions to narrow their focus over the ball and concentrate on the task at hand.

Are you too tense to focus? Some players, no matter how narrow or wide their focus may be, are more tense than average. Their minds race, and they're far too busy to concentrate properly. Their focus jumps randomly and quickly to numerous things that do not involve just hitting their shots. Many pros we profiled, such as Woody Austin, Mark McCumber, and John Schroeder, are, for various reasons inherent and learned, more tense.

Are you too relaxed to focus? This is more common in social golf than in competitive golf, but it also leads to reduced concentration. Golfers who are too relaxed find their minds wandering, doing some of the "mental daisy picking" to which Bobby Jones refers.

The ability to effectively regulate your focus is the foundation of a strong mental game. Because it is an important and necessary starting point for players of all levels, we always teach very simple and reliable skills for managing concentration and focus. From this foundation, other mental skills can be more easily assessed, taught, and reliably monitored so you can play at your peak more often.


Your Mental Routine

The first step we take, both in private sessions and in workshops, is to assess each player's ability to use a strong mental routine. We then determine how best to enhance it -- and we do so by using the single most important performance enhancement technique you will learn.

Using three simple steps, we teach you to willingly regulate your focus.

First, however, we must determine if you already have a mental routine. It's always one of the first questions we ask our new clients. Most respond as Dave Stockton did, saying something like, "Yes, I always set up two inches from the ball and take three good waggles before I look down the fairway, set my feet, and hit my shot."

But that isn't a mental routine. That's a physical routine. We then ask about the "mental steps" taken while preparing to execute a shot. Soon the player recognizes that he probably doesn't even have a mental routine. His reasoning? "After it becomes a habit," he'll say, "I can be thinking of just about anything as I prepare to hit my shots." But the golfer shouldn't be thinking just about anything; he should be thinking only about hitting the shot.

Our first goal is to initiate a pattern of reliable thoughts that will help you treat every shot the same. The thoughts will clear your mind, relax your body, and help you react to the ball.

The following questionnaire will help you assess the quality of your own mental routine, acquaint you with the basics of a good mental routine, and determine your ability to focus. Using your last round of golf as a measure, answer all of the questions as honestly as possible, applying the following point values. When you've finished, total your scores, and do the math to find out your "mental rating."

1: Always 2: Often 3: Sometimes 4: Seldom 5: Never

___ A. I stepped up to the ball feeling a little unsure about the club and/or the target and/or the type of shot I wanted to hit.

___ B. I stepped up to my putts before feeling completely committed to my line or to my speed.

___ C. I forgot, or it was difficult for me, to stand behind my ball to get a clear picture of the shot or putt I wanted to hit.

___ D. I forgot, or it was difficult for me, to feel the tempo of my swing or stroke as I executed my shots and putts.

___ E. My mind would wander or I was thinking a lot about my swing or the round when I was hitting my shots and putts.

________ Total x 2 ÷ 5 = ___________ Mental Rating

If your mental rating is 8 or higher, your routine and ability to focus during your last round were great. Use this chapter as a resource for understanding your current habits and learning techniques for strengthening them, especially under pressure. If your mental rating is less than 8, then you are just like the majority of our competitive golfing clients were when starting out. Like them, your first mental goal is to develop a strong, three-step mental preshot routine.


The Three-Step Mental Preshot Routine

Like many players, you may recognize that you already use the following three steps to some degree. But your focus will improve dramatically when you effectively use all three steps as part of your whole preshot routine for every shot and putt.

Before reading through the steps, reflect on a shot that you find to be particularly intimidating or that you frequently miss. Ideally, this shot will be on a hole with which you are very familiar, one that you can easily visualize. Use this shot to mentally practice each step of the routine as you read through it. You may even find it helpful to write down the name of the course, the hole number, the shot, and the particulars of the shot, assuming the conditions and pin placement are where you last saw them.

After each step, take a few moments to relax and practice the imagery that is requested. You'll be amazed at how much more effectively you execute your difficult shot the next time you play the hole.

Step 1: Calculations and Commitment

Completing all of your analysis of the shot is the first step. This involves gathering all the information -- wind, slope, lie, grain, yardage, target, and so on -- necessary to make definite decisions about how to hit the shot.

Your focus will begin to narrow as you make a firm commitment to your club, your target, and the type of shot you prefer.

Which club? Pick the club to which you feel you can make a full commitment -- one which you have at least a 50 percent probability of successfully hitting, based on the conditions, the type of shot you have chosen, your current physical skills, your level of tension, and the confidence in your physical game at that moment.

What is the target? Choose as definite a target as possible, starting with an area in which you want your ball to come to rest. Then match it with something in the distance -- such as a tree or building -- that will help you take aim. Intermediate spots or features that are in line with your distant target can be helpful for some players. You must also adjust your target for crossing winds and the shape of the shot you choose.

Which type of shot to hit? Select the type of shot that is appropriate to the situation and within your abilities to successfully execute 50 percent of the time. There may be many options, especially if you are skilled enough to work the ball confidently. You could choose a draw, a fade, a high shot, a low shot, a knockdown, and so on.

For putts, the first step of the mental routine is to calculate and commit to two choices.

What is the line?It's the one you choose after you have considered the length of the putt, the grain of the grass, the slope of the green, the speed of the green, the wind, and so on.

What is the speed of the putt? Choose the speed you will roll the ball so that it follows the line you have chosen. You must consider all the things you assessed when picking the line. Resist thinking about whether this is a birdie putt or bogey putt because, except in certain situations, such as match play or a scramble format, it does not matter.

Refuse to make decisions -- on any shot -- based on what others are doing or on how the course is "meant" to be played. Instead, choose only clubs, targets, types of shots, lines, and speeds that allow you to maximize your skills by fully committing and giving yourself at least a 50 percent chance of executing the shot or putt successfully.

Once you are fully committed to all of your choices, you can move to the second step of the three-step process. If you find this commitment difficult, remember that you will get more from your game when committed to the wrong decision than you will when not committed to the right decision. In fact, we have had many amateur and professional clients lower their stroke averages doing nothing more than fully committing to their decisions -- whatever they may be.

Step 2: Visualization

To further narrow your focus and to encourage reactive rather than analytical play, take a brief moment behind the ball -- making sure that you are very relaxed -- to clearly visualize the shot or putt to which you have committed. Visualization ranges from a general impression of the desired ball flight to a very clear mental picture of the flight and landing.

If you are putting, try to see your line from the ball to the hole. This is far easier for "feel" players than it is for "mechanical" players, but the effort enhances the performance of both. Mechanical players will want to find a spot on this imaginary line over which to roll the ball. Imaginative players will prefer to see the entire line. Either works, so long as you have a clear picture of what you want the ball to do.

If you find visualization difficult or if negative thoughts interfere, you probably need to take another deep breath and fully relax your body, then try again. This step of your routine will later serve as a great signal for letting you know when you are overly tense or fatigued.

Step 3: Feel

In order to further narrow your focus and promote reactive play, it is important to clearly feel the swing or stroke to which you have committed.

Either when behind the ball or beside the ball, try to feel your swing with a good waggle, a partial swing, or, preferably, a smooth full swing. Your goal is to incorporate one simple swing thought that allows you to feel the swing to which you have committed. The best swing thoughts tend to be the simplest and are most likely to center on the feel and tempo of your swing. "Smooth back, smooth through," "inside back, smooth through," "tempo," and so on are some swing thoughts that you might use. As you execute your shot, repeat this feel using your swing thought.

When putting, take a practice stroke to feel the rhythm of your stroke. As with a full shot, this may be done either behind or beside the ball. If you have trouble feeling your stroke, relax, take a few deep breaths, and practice your stroke either with your eyes closed or while looking at the hole. You can also try giving your stroke a simple rhythmical count, such as "one back, two through."

As you execute the putt, your emphasis should be on the rhythm of your stroke or the smooth roll of the ball down your intended line and not on the importance of making the putt.


Experiment with your mental routine during your next practice session and adapt it so that it complements your physical routine. For example, if you typically take your practice swing behind the ball, you can interchange steps 2 and 3. Do whatever order works for you, but we recommend you remain consistent with whatever order you choose. Players who tend to get mechanical over the ball usually find it more effective to make visualization the last step.

The swing thought you choose should be whatever feels good to you on any given day, though we strongly suggest it be as feel-oriented as possible. Rather than thinking of body or club positions, try to feel something in a particular part of your body. For example: After preparing for the 1996 U.S. Open with his swing coach, Lee Janzen found himself thinking far too much about mechanics when he was addressing the ball. So he condensed his lessons into a simple feel -- that of keeping his left arm closer to his body. His swing thought for the week became "left close, smooth through." Regardless of the pressure he felt on any given shot, coming back to his swing thought helped keep his mind clear and his play more reactive.

You should settle on one swing thought while you warm up and stay committed to it for at least an entire round. You can even write down those you like and refer to them on days when you find yourself searching.

Your ultimate goal is to treat every shot the same by using the same mental routine for every shot and putt. You should challenge yourself -- because it may not come easy -- to use the same routine for two-foot putts or twenty-footers, on easy par fives and tough par fours, on sand shots or simple chips, on the first and the last shot of the day (and all those in between), and against easy and tough competitors. Not a single situation should move you away from your mental routine.

Make note when your routine was weak or nonexistent, which you will typically recognize on shots or putts you executed poorly. Once identified, challenge yourself to hit these shots making your routine more important than the actual results of the shot.

In other words, let the results happen.r

It is very important to practice your mental routine just as you would any other part of your game. On the practice tee, choose a target that closely resembles one you would use for a particularly difficult shot on the course you will be playing. Go through all the steps of your routine, just as you would during a round. This practice is especially important for players with a naturally wider, external focus or for any player who has a pattern of playing several holes before settling into a round.

You should warm up your mental routine as much as you do your swing. This can be accomplished in several ways:

  • Use your full routine on every fifth ball you hit on the practice tee.

  • Take at least ten minutes of your warm-up to "create" various shots on the practice tee or around and on the greens.

  • Use mental rehearsal to play every shot for the first several holes on the range, choosing targets, committing to clubs, visualizing shots, feeling swing thoughts.

Your routine also becomes a much more effective tool if, after each round, you assess how well you used it. A few accompanying notes about circumstances such as your mood, the conditions, playing partners, the significance of the round, will give you great insight to your tendencies and when you must make a concerted effort to use your routine.

A good mental routine accomplishes several important goals. It allows you to play more intuitively, as opposed to manufacturing a swing. It also helps to displace irrelevant thoughts, allowing you to think only about the task at hand. This serves to quiet the mind and relax the body, which, of course, enhances your play. The mental routine helps you make good decisions and helps you commit fully to the club in your hand, your target, and the shot you want to hit, thereby maximizing your physical skills. It also gives you the power of "self-fulfilling prophesy," which, simply put, is the ability to increase the odds of hitting the shot you want by first imagining you will.


"I play the tough holes better than the easy ones."

Don't you hear that sort of comment from an awful lot of golfers? Many players notice that they hit better shots on tight fairways and through small openings or that they make more of the difficult putts than the easy ones. What's actually happening is that, without the golfers knowing it, the tougher circumstances are either lowering expectations and narrowing focus to targets, clubs, and types of shots or they are encouraging the golfers to get good pictures of the shots or putts they're about to hit. No wonder they're doing better. Without realizing it, they're doing things right!

Most golfers have inconsistent focus. They are not controlling their focus and are throwing strokes away because they are not treating all shots on every hole the same. No matter what the circumstance, always give each shot the same mental routine and focus.

"I always seem to 'choke' when I'm playing well or when it really means something."

Many players have what some call a "comfort zone." When they find themselves in position to shoot an all-time low score, in contention, or in a position to win a bet, their play quickly goes from great to terrible. Increased tension and emotions can wreck the focus and the fun. But strong and practiced routines serve as "anchors," giving them reliable thought processes that will relax them and allow them to treat every shot the same regardless of its perceived importance.

"Before the round is over, I'm exhausted. I feel like I'm working too hard out there."

As we stated earlier, many players -- especially the very intelligent ones -- tend to overthink and overwork on the golf course. It's not unusual for them to unknowingly play an entire round of golf very mechanically and analytically. They never stop analyzing their mechanics, what they need to shoot, how they'll play holes ahead, or why they missed previous shots or putts. They never release their trained and natural skills by visualizing, feeling, and reacting to their shots. When encouraged to trust their skills by visualizing and feeling, their first response is, "I feel like I'm not trying hard enough!" But if they remain committed to the full routine long enough, golf begins to feel more like a game than a job. Play improves and they finish their rounds with much more energy and enthusiasm.

While using a good mental routine may sound easy, it takes discipline, practice, and patience to use one consistently and effectively. A strong mental routine represents one of the most distinctive differences between champion golfers and average golfers, on both the amateur and professional levels. In fact, the strength and consistency of your mental routine will determine your success as a competitive golfer.


Michelle McGann

We are most successful in our work when we can help golfers identify precisely what in their own personalities or habits is inhibiting their ability to effectively use their mental routine. We then recommend specific, personalized steps for strengthening the other parts of their personalities that are sabotaging their ability to focus. The results? Much better play and much more fun.

Let's take Michelle McGann, one of the best players on the LPGA Tour, as a case study of this. Michelle, who is the oldest child and only daughter of Bucky and Bernadette McGann, began playing golf at the age of seven. She turned professional at eighteen, just after graduating from the Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida. In spite of having been diagnosed with diabetes at the age of thirteen, Michelle excelled in golf and was a Florida State Junior Champion three times. Many predicted great things from this long-hitting young lady.

Michelle's parents were just as committed to supporting her as an LPGA professional as they'd been during her amateur career. To help ease the enormous transition and to ensure that someone helpful was around should she experience insulin shock, Bucky became Michelle's frequent caddie and travel companion. Mom and younger brother J.C. joined them both on Tour whenever possible.

With Bucky caddying part-time, Michelle finished 130th and ninety-eighth on the LPGA money list in 1989 and 1990, her first two years on Tour. In 1991, Bucky gave up his landscape and gardening business to join Michelle full-time, largely out of concern for her health. He remained with her from 1991 through 1994, during which time she finished fortieth, eighteenth, twelfth, and sixteenth on the money list. Michelle had established herself as one of the leading players on the LPGA Tour at a very young age. She'd played in more than 150 events, with earnings near one million dollars.

But there was a problem. At five foot eleven inches, and with great "presence," Michelle was easily recognized by her good looks, long drives, stylish clothes, and cheery disposition. She came to be identified by the media as a charismatic player. Still, at the time, she was one of only two players who had won nearly a million dollars in prize money but had yet to win a tournament.

Many around her felt she was more than capable of winning, including Dave Stockton, an early mentor of Michelle's and someone she credits, along with her parents, as having strongly influenced her career. In the spring of 1994, Dave and Michelle had occasion to talk about her game. She told Dave of her frustration with a pattern of bad starts: She would play poorly the first day or two of an event before really settling in to play up to what she, and others, considered her potential. It was almost as if she first had to have a bad round before she could have a good one.

Dave asked Michelle if she was doing anything to strengthen her mental game. She wasn't. He encouraged Michelle to call me.

We spoke via telephone that same week. Michelle described feeling confused about when and how to focus. "It's hard to keep my concentration for all eighteen holes," she said. "I don't want to be serious all the time -- and being serious helps, but at the same time doesn't help. Besides, being serious is just not much fun. I like to talk to the gallery and sometimes to other players."

She also acknowledged that at times she did not give her shots enough thought before hitting. "I need to learn not to hit so quickly, to think more about what I am doing," she said.

I asked Michelle to begin by taking the personality questionnaire so we could compare her scores to our champion profile. She explained she was at an LPGA event in Georgia at the time but would be home in Florida the following week. I mailed the test packet to her in Georgia, in time for her to fax her responses to me so I could get the results back to her for review during her off week.

When we next spoke on the telephone, Michelle's warmth and enthusiasm was obvious. She chatted easily and enthusiastically about family, friends, and golf, and I could understand why her personality had endeared her to fans and the media. Yet I knew it also could make focusing and decision-making difficult. As we began reviewing her scores, the profile confirmed Michelle's people-oriented, extroverted style -- indicating that she naturally has a moderately wide focus. This makes it easy for her to socialize with playing and pro-am partners, which is good, so long as Michelle can narrow her focus again before hitting the next shot.

I explained that it is important, especially for an extrovert, to allow her focus to open and relax between shots, much as she was doing, using small talk, casual involvement with others, and daydreams. As she approaches her ball, however, she should find a "cue" she could use to signify an exact time to begin narrowing her focus for the shot at hand. Many good players find it helpful to use a simple, physical movement such as opening and closing a glove. Or else they'll give themselves a starting signal -- tap a thumb to a forefinger, perhaps, or tap the club on the ground. Some lift and stretch their arms or touch the bill of their hat or simply take the club in one hand.

I suggested that if she watched other pros for their cues, she might see Fred Couples lightly tug on a shirtsleeve, Paul Azinger toss grass into the air (even when there is no wind), or Jack Nicklaus taking a deep breath. Many great players, such as Lee Janzen, begin narrowing their focus with a cue as simple as approaching their ball or opening a yardage book. The more difficulty a player has concentrating, the more unique and distinct they make their trigger. One of our most distracted players found success by starting his routine by snapping a rubber band he had placed on his wrist specifically for that purpose.

We continued our discussion, looking for patterns in Michelle's tournament play. In her early rounds, Michelle was playing only moderately focused. She sounded as though she often hit shots with little forethought, while her mind was still on subjects having little to do with executing the shot at hand. After a few bad holes, Michelle would feel frustrated with herself for not getting more out of her game. She would then try to force shots and opportunities, making it more difficult to perform. Finally, after one or two mediocre rounds, Michelle would feel the challenge of "catching up" with the leaders, still believing her game was good enough to compete with them. This subconsciously motivated her to improve her focus, which improved her play considerably. But even though she might finish well, the damage had already been done.

We reviewed other aspects of her personality that might either enhance or detract from her exceptional skills as a golfer. On the positive side, Michelle's scores indicated a strong ability to think her way around the golf course. She wasted little mental energy overthinking or overanalyzing her game or the surrounding circumstances. In fact, if anything, she actually needed to spend a little more time making decisions about clubs, targets, and types of shots.

She tested to be very competitive, fully capable of challenging a golf course. Being slightly on the dominant side, she was more likely than average to take the calculated risks necessary to maximize her length off the tee, more likely to play too aggressively than to play too tentatively, and at times more likely to impulsively try to force an opportunity, rather than assess the strategy for the best play.

Michelle also tested to have above average drive and motivation, which has a lot to do with her success at such an early age. Professional golf requires both for long-term success. But high drive can be correlated with high levels of tension, and players with too much tension can sabotage their mental play with busy minds that might inhibit good focus. And they can sabotage their physical play with tense bodies, which changes their tempos and fundamentals.

As we completed our discussion, Michelle and I agreed that her primary goal was to strengthen her focus with a strong mental routine. The simple three-step routine I asked Michelle to incorporate into her game is one that has proven effective with both amateur and professional golfers. It is the one you have read in this chapter. It accomplishes all three important goals and, when used consistently and effectively, always enhances performance.

To make sure she understood the mental routine, I asked Michelle to select one of her most difficult shots on a hole familiar to her. She was to use imagery to play this shot, visualizing each step of the routine as it was discussed. Michelle chose to use the routine in the described sequence. She made two agreements with herself: If she got over the ball and found that she was not fully committed, she would back off and start the routine again, and if she had trouble visualizing her shot, she would use this as a signal that she needed to take a deep breath and relax, then attempt her visualization again.

To feel her swing, she chose to use the waggle with a swing feel of "pushing back" along the ground in the first six inches of her backswing. (Her favorite swing thought, however, eventually became: "feel a smooth, full turn.")

We determined that it would further help Michelle's focus and her commitment to shots and putts if she would take more time for the first step of her routine -- calculating the shot and committing to it. This would be accomplished by taking more responsibility for making decisions on the golf course.

In a conversation I had with Bucky, he indicated he'd already been trying to encourage Michelle to make more of her own decisions and to take more time doing so. He'd simply noticed that her focus was better and she was more committed to her shots when she did this. We all agreed she should do more course management, get more yardages, choose more clubs, and read more putts on her own. All these efforts would get Michelle more mentally involved with her routine. This was to be one of the most important changes she made.

There was a bonus: Her routine served to calm her and slow her down in situations where she would usually rush a shot or putt, such as when she experienced the excitement of good play or the frustration of feeling she needed to make up a lost stroke.

We also found in a later conversation that because of her competitive drive, tension, and excitability, it was important that Michelle breathe deeply between shots as well as during her routine, especially in events where expectations were high or if she had a chance to win. I encouraged Michelle to further manage her tension by learning to regulate her thoughts between shots, and she found that it was easiest to avoid distracting and inhibiting thoughts if she encouraged herself to engage others in light conversation. As she began regulating her thoughts, she found it easier to manage her emotions between shots, which also helped to improve her concentration over the ball.

Michelle remained committed to working on her mental game, calling periodically throughout the year to discuss problems as they arose. Her focus continued to improve and her routine grew more consistent as she put more effort into decision-making and managing tension on the course. She finished the year with a career-low scoring average of 71.43, seven top-ten finishes, and a second-place finish at the du Maurier Ltd. Classic, one of the LPGA Tour's four major championships. Still, she hadn't won.

In April 1995, having not talked to Michelle for several months, I saw her at an LPGA event in Pinehurst, North Carolina. "I've been meaning to call you," she said. "Do you have some time?" We met after a practice round, and Michelle immediately expressed great frustration and disappointment with not being able to use the mental skills she had worked so hard to attain, especially during one of her most anticipated events, that year's Dinah Shore (another LPGA major). She described feeling easily agitated, impatient, and distracted for most of that week.

"I was hearing every noise around me," she told me. "I was more easily irritated than usual. And I found out at the end of the week that all my clubs were two degrees flat!"

I asked Michelle to help me identify everything else that could be contributing to her feeling so unsettled. "I've been tired and frustrated," she explained, "which has caused my diabetes to be somewhat out of control."

It became apparent that Michelle was feeling stress in numerous areas in both her personal and professional lives. Probably the greatest strain came from some personal conflicts, one of which was her feeling torn about wanting to hire a professional caddie. She wanted golf and family to be separate, she told me, so she could fully enjoy her dad as a loving and supportive father without the distraction of the dual role. But she also did not want him to feel left out.

Michelle needed to simplify her life and reduce her stress, starting with discussing her concerns with her dad. Much to her relief, he clearly understood her decision and supported it, suggesting that it would help her become self-sufficient.

She also recognized that too much of her time and energy was going toward her endorsement contracts and that she needed to manage her time more effectively. That would give her more time to clear her mind and relax both during and between tournaments.

Finally, she needed to rebuild the confidence in her swing that was lost due to the faulty lofts in her clubs. She agreed to get away from tinkering with swing mechanics during her tournament that week and instead put her energies into re-establishing her strong mental routine for every shot.

Success was immediate, as Michelle improved her patience and concentration daily. She went on to shoot 67 during her last round, almost putting her in a playoff. Three weeks later she claimed her first LPGA title with a one-stroke victory over Laura Davies at the Sara Lee Classic in Nashville, Tennessee.

Focus proved to be one of the missing key ingredients for Michelle's success.

Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Deborah Graham and Jon Stabler

About The Authors

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 5, 2000)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684869056

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