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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Bobby Jones on Playing "Opponents Who Cannot Be Seen"

Bobby Jones is credited with a quote that says "Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course... the space between your ears." Given the records he set, you would expect Jones to have thoughts on the mental game.

In the book Bobby Jones Golf Tips: Secrets of the Master there's a section called Thoughts on the Mental Side. It focuses on statements by a player named Olin Dutra and his struggles with his mental game. I won't quote the entire thing, but Jones made a few interesting statements:
It is difficult for a person who has not been mixed up in these things to understand what it means to play a competitive round against opponents who cannot be seen. In an open championship one's imagination runs wild. A burst of applause or a cheer from a distant part of the course is always interpreted as a blow from some close pursuer, when it may mean no more than that some obscure competitor has holed a chip shot while another player's waiting gallery happened to be watching. It may not mean a thing, and even if it does, it can't be helped. But it is difficult to view it that way. One always feels that he is running from something without knowing what nor where it is.
That's certainly a problem that pros may face, though rarely would a weekend player deal with it. But then he says this:
I used to feel just at Dutra did -- that while I might make mistakes, that others would not. I remember looking at the scoreboard before the last round in the 1920 Open and deciding that I must do a 69 at the most to have a chance. Actually a 73 would have tied. I had some such lesson every year until I finally decided that the best of them made mistakes just as I did.
Reread that first sentence -- Jones used to feel "that while I might make mistakes, that others would not." That is a telling comment, and one that I think more players should consider.

You may not have thought about it, but the belief that what you do isn't good enough often has nothing to do with your ability, but with your over-estimation of another's ability. You struggle not because you're a bad player but because you (unrealistically) think everyone else is better than you. And modern golf teaching has a tendency to reinforce that mindset, telling you that unless you work your butt off, everyone else will pass you by.

I got news for you. It's simply not true. And if you try to live by it... well, Tiger Woods did that and the damage to his body has thus far cost him a few years and numerous surgeries.

I'm not saying you shouldn't try to improve. But trying to beat a nonexistent competitor, especially an unrealistically perfect opponent, is a sure way to sabotage your own game. Here's what Jones concluded:
The advice which Harry Vardon is supposed to have given to keep on hitting the ball, no matter what happens, is the best in the long run. It is useless to attempt to guess what someone else will do, and worse than useless to set a score for yourself to shoot at. A brilliant round or a string of birdies will not always win a championship. The man who can put together four good rounds is the man to watch.

No man can expect to win at every start. Golf is not a game where such a thing is possible. So the plan should be to play one's own game as well as possible and let the rumors and cheers fly as thick as they will. [p128]
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that setting goals is bad, nor that it's wrong to set a scoring goal for a round. Having such a goal may help you focus better, as long as you give yourself the freedom to fail. But Jones here is talking about pushing yourself to shoot an unrealistic score because 'the other guys are going to take it low.' You don't know that! And I think about what Butch Harmon said on Morning Drive last week, that Rickie Fowler's problem is trying too hard on the weekends rather than just going out and doing what he knows how to do.

So if you want to improve your game, stop measuring yourself against those unrealistically perfect opponents who can't be seen. You might be surprised at just how good you become once you stop playing with them.

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