Article #6 - Physically and Mentally Golf is a Game of Inches, A Game of Degrees


Golf, as the saying goes, is indeed a game of inches.  Two separate approach shots can land near the pin, with one of them spinning back and dropping into the cup, while the other one stops just short of the hole.  A tee shot on a hole with O.B. on the right takes a hard hop and lands two inches off the course.  A similar shot might not get the same bounce and remains in play. In the 1999 Ryder Cup final matches, if Justin Leonard had read an extra inch of break in his forty foot putt on hole number 17, the European team might well have won the Cup that year.   What a difference an inch or two can make.

At Q-School one year, the tee shot of a competitor landed on an unreplaced divot; not in an unrepaired divot, not in a sand filled divot.  His ball actually came to rest on the loose piece of turf that an earlier player had not replaced in its’ proper spot.  What do you think this golfer might have offered to have gotten another couple of inches of roll on that particular shot?  And do you remember the year Fred Couple’s ball hung up on the bank of the creek fronting the green at Augusta’s 12th hole?  Just another inch or so of roll toward the water, along with the added momentum of that roll, and the outcome of the Masters Tournament might have been very different that year. 

Golf is also a game of degrees.  Every good instructor talks about the importance of proper alignment and squaring the clubface at impact.  If your alignment is a few degrees off to the left, you’re likely to pull the ball left of your target.  The greater the number of degrees which your alignment is off the target, the worse the pull will be.  If you manage to square the clubface to the target line when alignment (stance) is a bit left, the ball will curve to the right of the target.  And again, the degree of misalignment will determine how far right the ball travels.  Just a few degrees will cause a fade.  A couple of additional degrees of misalignment, however, will result in the dreaded slice way off to the right.

The opposite is true of course for the golfer who is lined up a few degrees right of the target line.  If the clubface is square to the alignment of the body, the shot will be a push out to the right.  The less accurate the alignment, the worse the push will be.  With this same alignment, if the club is square to the target at impact, a draw will be the result, sending the ball left of the target.  With a square to the target clubface, but an alignment which is only a few more degrees off to the right, be prepared to see that all too familiar hook!

Even with alignment which is perfectly perpendicular to the target line, if the clubface is open or shut just a degree or two, the direction of the shot will be affected.  The more open the clubface (the greater the number of degrees it points to the right) the likelihood of the slice increases.  Conversely, the more closed the clubface (the number of degrees it points to the left) the greater the likelihood that a hook will rear its’ all too ugly head.

Obviously, alignment and clubface impact position which is perfectly perpendicular to the target line is generally ideal.   All good golf instructors will stress these points time and time again.  And, these points are crucial to success in golf.  Golf truly is a game of degrees.  (I know, I know.  There will be situations when you are intentionally working the ball from right to left or vice versa, and you’ll purposely alter the alignment or impact angle of the face of the club.  Of course you are right.  But bear with me here, if only for the sake of argument.)

It clearly is true that golf is a game of inches, a game of degrees.  And that is why most good golfers work diligently at perfecting their setup, their swing, and their putting stroke.  They know they are giving themselves an advantage by making sure they have the proper alignment on all of their shots and are stroking their putts with the proper speed.  But there is one aspect of golf, an extremely important component of the game, in which even some of the most physically precise competitors fail to recognize how detrimental “not quite being on target” or “being a few degrees off” can be.  And learning about this aspect, the mental component of golf, is what separates the good golfers from the exceptional ones.

It’s important that you understand when I talk about a golfer who is, mentally, “off a few degrees”, I am NOT referring to people you might think of as “a real head-case” or a “real nut-job”.  If a golfer is truly “only off a few degrees” with their mental game, they may well be quite talented and generally perform fairly well, but until they learn a more proper way of thinking on the course, they are hindering themselves from reaching their fullest potential.

Let me give you some examples of thinking that illustrate mental skills that are “off by quite a few inches or degrees”, those that are “just a few degrees, a few inches off”, and mental skills that are “right on target”.  Here is the situation: A professional golfer stands on the 18th tee on the final round of competition with a one shot lead.  There is a hazard in play on the left.  He has never won a professional event before.  The last time he was in position to win, he hooked his tee shot on the final hole and took a triple bogey to tie for sixth place.

The thinking process of the golfer whose mental skills are “several inches, several degrees off” is something along the lines of this:  “I can’t blow it like I did the last time.  What a humiliating way to finish.  I don’t want to get a reputation as a choker.  No matter what, I’ve got to avoid that hazard on the left.  I don’t care where this ball goes, it just damn well better stay out of the hazard.  Let’s not disappoint my sponsors like I did last time.  It’s make-it or break-it time.  I can’t afford to choke again.”

Multiple mental errors are present for the golfer with the above mindset.   He is allowing himself to be haunted by what has occurred in the past.  His thinking is scattered far from where it should be.  He’s worried about being labeled a “choker” and worried about what his sponsors will think.  He tries to motivate himself not to fail again, as opposed to motivating himself to succeed.  He has concerns about how the tournament will end, as opposed to being focused on this particular shot.  In short, this competitor’s manner of thinking is setting him up for the mental equivalent of a huge slice.

Given the same scenario, the golfer with better mental skills, and one whose thinking is only “off by an inch, a fraction of a degree” might be telling himself something like this:  “I need to avoid the hazard on the left.  I’ll just aim somewhere up the right side of the fairway.  I’m going to come through today and win this tournament.”

Although these thoughts might sound just fine to most golfers, there are still what I consider to be significant mental errors.  Part of his focus when getting ready to swing is devoted to what he is trying to avoid.  As I noted in an earlier article, (Motivation in Golf), trying to avoid something on a golf shot actually increases the likelihood of a bad outcome.  And this golfer’s thought of aiming “somewhere up the right side of the fairway” involves much too broad of a target.  The larger the target, the larger the miss is likely to be.  And although he has a positive expectation for the outcome of the tournament, thoughts about something that is still several shots away have no place in the preparation for the shot at hand.  While this manner of thinking might not lead to a disastrous shot, the outcome of such thoughts may well produce the mental equivalent of a weak fade.

The golfer with what I consider to be “dead, solid, perfect” thinking, the one who is not “off” even one degree or one inch, is the one whose thought processes are along these lines:  “This hole has trouble on the left side; I want to go up the right.  My target is the right edge of that dark patch of grass out there about 300 yards.  I’m playing well and swinging well.  I’ve made this shot thousands of times.  I’m going to get set up and allow myself to hit the shot the way I know I can.  I’m going to trust my line, trust my ability to hit the shot, and let the outcome take care of itself.”

Although this golfer takes into account the hazard to the left, his final thoughts involve the small, precise target at which he is going to aim.  He’s therefore not trying to avoid something, and is instead working toward having his shot approach a specific target.  He reminds himself about similar shots he has executed successfully, and does not allow thoughts of past failure to enter his mind.  He further reminds himself that his focus needs to be on the process of allowing him to execute this shot, as opposed to having concerns about the outcome of the shot.  This manner of thinking is most likely to result in the mental equivalent of a tee shot that is pure and solidly struck on the sweet spot.

The distinctions between the thought processes of the three golfers above might seem small, but believe me, they have a powerful impact on how well each golfer will likely perform.  And in the end, when the trophy is awarded, it always goes to the golfer who has performed the best.

Golf is a game of inches, a matter of degrees, both physically and mentally. Continue to work on developing and implementing proper mental skills to give yourself the best chance of performing at your absolute highest level.  And isn’t your absolute best performance what you are striving to accomplish?      


Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP

Las Vegas Sport Psychology
5037 Portraits Place
Las Vegas, NV 89149