Ladies European Tour star Meghan MacLaren explains why the pursuit of golfing perfection is a waste of time.
Golf is complicated, isn’t it? One day you go out and play and you’re hitting your irons the best you ever have. You think you’ve stumbled upon some great secret to success and you can’t believe it could be so simple – for an entire round, a blissful peace envelops you, fuelling optimism and clarity. You’ve solved something that will last for the rest of your playing days (as long as you remember whatever the key is). And yet.
The next time you go out – be it a Saturday roll-up with your mates or the second round of a Major championship – the key just stops working. It’s defunct. In fact, it might even make things worse than they’ve ever been. The even more ironic part is that it often comes back full circle – sometime in the future, that key will start working again. But only briefly.
One thing you learn as a professional golfer is that while everyone on a top professional tour has an extraordinary skillset, they all suffer in similar ways to the above. No one has their A-game all the time. In fact, most players rarely have their A-game for more than a round at a time, if that. Golf is too intricate. Tiny movements of minute degrees can result in wildly different ball flights and shot tendencies.
Having measures of control over those variances – making them smaller than other people’s – is one thing that separates the very best golfers, or the winners on any given week. As is an element of luck. A bounce out of the trees Friday morning that you’ve completely forgotten about by Sunday afternoon. A 6ft par putt that you thought you’d pulled but didn’t break the way you thought and went in anyway. As golfers, we’re always quick to lament our bad breaks, less so notice our good ones.
But the other factor – the main one, in my view – that separates the best players from the very good ones is mental strength. It definitely separates the winners. That may sound obvious since getting to the top of any discipline requires an ability to handle pressure that few of us can comprehend.
As golf fans, our understanding of mental strength is borne into our collective psyches because of Tiger. I think those two things are so tightly woven around each other that we don’t always recognise just how far ahead of every other athlete Tiger was in that department. Even current superstars like Rory, Brooks Koepka and DJ will never come close to the Major tallies or win record set by Tiger and Jack Nicklaus.
I actually think mental strength is slightly misunderstood. I think it’s loosely interpreted as being a synonym for handling pressure. Every professional golfer we see on TV on a Sunday can handle pressure to some degree – some occasions may present greater obstacles than others – but none of the top players are scared of seizing the moment.
And yet handling pressure is only one piece in the jigsaw of mental strength. Mental strength, to me, represents an ability to understand yourself. Just as your swing changes on a day-to-day basis, so too does your mind. Your thoughts affect your decisions and
your beliefs, which both in turn affect your performance. There’s a minefield of dark holes golfers, athletes and everyone else can fall down when it comes to mental health.
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Not everyone gets hit by them. But golf is a game where the best in the world still lose more than they win. A very successful career may only contain a handful of victories out of hundreds and hundreds of events. This means golf lends itself to doubts; golfers are perhaps more susceptible than any other sportspeople to feelings of inadequacy and mistrust of their own abilities.
Which brings us back to understanding yourself. If you spend weeks and months and even years having scattered thoughts of being not good enough, at any one or more of the myriad aspects of golf performance, just building technical skill will not be enough to hold up under pressure. The technical skill can take you a long way, but the way your mind operates will determine a lot more.
When you get into a situation where you really want something, be it a maiden win in a tournament or your first round under your handicap this year, the thing that matters most is trust. When your heart starts beating faster and your mind is spinning, you need to know what’s in there so it can back up your ability rather than blindside you.
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