The end of the purple patch

All golfers know that the worst thing you can ever do is to think, let alone say, that you’ve cracked it, that you get it, that you’ve got golf sorted out. This happens when you’ve had a period of uninterrupted good golf. Suddenly, the game seems so easy. Of course there are mistakes, but the majority of shots are well hit and go in the general intended direction. You wonder why you ever found the game difficult. It’s all so obvious and you’re looking forward to continuous progress and the lower handicap you’ve claimed you were going to reach. You always knew you could get there and you even started a blog about it.

Then it all comes to a halting start. Your swing feels clunky. You start spraying the ball all over the course. Even your favourite club refuses to play nicely. This is where I am. What is it all about? The general consensus is that I am overthinking my game. Yesterday I went out and Anthony’s orders were that I was to step up to the ball and hit it with no thoughts of technique (or as he said, “play unconsciously”). The problem is, when you’ve spent the last five months trying to perfect your grip, the plane of your backswing, the turn of your shoulders and everything else, it’s a difficult thing to achieve. I went out on my own and he must have seen that I had lost two balls after two shots, because as I made my miserable way up the fairway, he screeched to a halt next to me in a buggy. He threw a ball on the ground and said: “Close your eyes and hit the ball.” So I did, opened my eyes and asked: “Where did it go?” He pointed at the green. It was two feet from the hole.

Stop thinking and trust your instinct

I’d like to say that this was the end of my trouble and that I played a perfect round, but I definitely am not a princess and this is not a fairy tale. It was mostly awful, but there was some progress. I did have some good shots. I did, however, struggle to stop thinking about my technique, mostly because I didn’t quite trust that it was a good idea. What’s the point of working so hard to improve your swing, if not to use your newly acquired skills and knowledge on the course?

Then last night, I was playing football when it struck me. I never think while I play football. When the ball comes my way, I don’t think about the position of my body, whether my bodyweight is on my right or left foot or how high I need to place my knee to cushion the ball so it doesn’t bounce up in my face. Those skills I learnt during practice, through repetition, and anyway, there’s just no time to think on the football pitch. So maybe I need to adopt a football mindset on the golf course.

Automatic golf: learn to play without conscious thought

I was doing a bit of digging along those lines when I came across Cameron Strachan, the author, has come up with the concept of Automatic golf:

Golf is hard. The ball is sits on the ground, the clubface is small and the club long. Add to this a high clubhead speed and it’s actually amazing that we can hit the ball at all. And this is the reason that YOU must allow your subconscious to take over. It’s brilliant at performing fine motor skills. Your conscious mind is not.

This is close to what Anthony was trying to achieve with his “close your eyes and hit the ball” demonstration. When I shut out all outside interference, my subconscious had to take over. It knew what to do after all the practicing and the playing I’ve been doing and I hit a good shot. As far as I understand it, this is the idea behind automatic golf.

This passage also rings very true:

Once you’ve chosen a club (and are clear on your target and goal) you are now free to hit the ball. This part of the process is performed by your subconscious (read: without conscious thought).

This means that you’re not trying to hit the ball correctly or thinking about the lesson you had last week. You are swinging the club (or hitting the ball) in a natural and instinctive way. What works really well is tying up your conscious mind for the duration of the shot (so your subconscious is free to perform)

  • you can sing a song
  • you can count numbers
  • you can feel your swing
  • you can smell the grass
  • you can think about what you had for dinner last night

It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re not consciously trying to control your swing. Manual control gives you a contrived and unnatural swing. You get a mixed bag of results – like a perfect shot one minute and then an ugly duck hook the next (sound familiar?). But subconscious play almost always guarantees YOUR real swing will shine through. Your “real” swing is that amazing golf swing that hits all those incredible shots every now and then. Interference (what happens when you try and control the motion) makes golf way harder than it needs to be.

I like all this. Embracing automatic golf feels like a continuation of my learning process rather than a sudden shift. I’ve done the practice, it got on top of me, but now I need to change my mindset to make it work for me. I’ve downloaded Cameron’s “How to play better golf by the weekend” even though I need to play better golf by tomorrow, as I have a match. However, I’m a fast learner, so it might work! I’m hoping that with his help, I can get out of my rut and start playing well again.

To be continued…