On 6 January 2017, I embarked on a quest to get my handicap from 17 to 12 in a year. Today, two years, four months and sixteen days later, I achieved it. What is the secret to my not-so-lightning fast success? Play more golf! What’s next? Play more golf!
Previously on Project 17 to 12 handicap...
I’ve been running after a handicap cut all year. My handicap record shows that I got down to 16 on 17 October 2015. Since then, I’ve been stuck at 16, apart from a short interlude at 17 at the beginning of the year. It’s been driving me crazy. Golf is nuts. If I look at the kind of player I am now, compared to what I could do two years ago, I’m far better. And I have been far better for some months now. Two years ago, I was incapable of performing the ever-so-useful bump and run shot. My putting was awful. Chipping was just a matter of stabbing at the ball and hoping.
Since I started my challenge at the beginning of the year, I’ve improved in every department. My bump and run shots almost always work, my putting is mediocre as opposed to awful and my chips have purpose, if not efficacy. And I think my swing is better and more consistent. Although that depends. In light of all this, why couldn’t I manage a handicap cut? And why did I hit the ball so well yesterday, after two weeks of consistent slicing? Is it that Anthony’s advice and lessons finally got engrained in my brain after weeks of trying?
The answer is: I don’t know. That is golf. Golf is the most frustrating thing in the world. Remember Rob, whose video on inconsistent golf I shared last month and who was working on going from 10 to scratch and got to 5? He’s quit golf. He’s had enough. He stopped enjoying playing and decided it was time for a break. And remember, this is a great golfer who plays off 5.
That’s what golf does to you. It just won’t be tamed. There is no logic to it. It does what it wants. Better accept it. Ironically, I got my handicap cut (16.2 to 15.3) after quite a scrappy round. I was hitting the ball well, but I made a lot of mistakes, including a lost ball on the 11th, which could have completely thrown me. What saved me yesterday, ironically again, were months of bad golf, which got me used to getting out of difficult situations. I was also helped by Jan, my playing partner, who doesn’t take any nonsense and slapped down any negative or self-defeating reaction when I threatened to unravel.
Looking at my card, three things come out:
- I’m good at bouncing back after a bad patch. I managed a 7 despite being 3 off the tee on the 11th and a 5 on the difficult 9th par 4 (SI 1) after my intensely frustrating 5 on the 8th par 3.
- I did really badly on two of my favourite holes (2 and 11) (why?).
- I only got one par out of 6 par 3s (quite good for me).
So basically, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Anthony thinks I can still get my handicap further down in the four weeks I have left. The problem is, there are no qualifying competitions in October. My only chance to post in a good score is the South Downs Trophy at East Brighton Golf Club in a week. But I don’t know the course very well and it’s far from easy.
So anyway, I’m happy with my 15 handicap for now, but I do think I can go lower with the way I’m playing at the moment. I may not reach my goal of 12 by the end of my Captaincy on 1st November, but at least I’ll have reached my lowest ever handicap!
Previously on Project 17 to 12 handicap...
I’m consistently inconsistent
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love football. When I go and play football on Wednesdays, I know exactly what to expect of my game. I might be a bit slower or a bit less accurate some weeks, but my general standard stays roughly the same. Golf? Not so much.
I’ve had it with this stupid sport (is it even a sport?). You make a public commitment about lowering your handicap, you take a few lessons, you practice a bit in the winter because you can’t play anyway, then when the weather turns and WAYHAY! you stop all practice and just play until your hands bleed and you’ve lost all your balls and STILL your handicap doesn’t budge.
The 5 stages of golf greatness grief
So I think I’ve accepted that this is the end of my big project to lower my handicap to 12 by the time my Captaincy is over. I’ve gone through all the stages of grief: I couldn’t believe it at first. Despite being so utterly inconsistent, I’ve had some good rounds! Then I blamed golfer’s elbow, which kept me away from the course for three whole days. Then I got angry because the Lady Captain thing means that I’m just too busy to practice! Even though I’ve had all the help in the world from my committee. Then I promised that I would practice more. I didn’t, because playing is so much more fun. Then I got really stroppy about the whole thing. And now I’ve come out of it and I’ve decided I don’t care.
My handicap is refusing to move, but I’ve had a great summer of golf
I don’t care that I’m so incredibly inconsistent that I can go from 23 points on the front 9 to 14 points on the same front 9 just two days later. I don’t care about becoming a better golfer. There’s nothing wrong with being stuck at 16 for two years, and isn’t the main thing to have fun on the course? And I’m having loads of fun when I don’t want to smash my clubs against a tree (it really was an accident). It’s true, though. I’ve had a fantastic summer of golf, as illustrated by my page of golf courses I’ve played. The only thing that’s missing is my long-awaited handicap cut.
Inconsistent golfers of the world unite! Meet Rob
I so don’t care that I went on the Internet, obviously, in search of more information about not caring. I found a really nice YouTube channel by Mr. ScratchGolf. His name is Rob McGarr and his goal is to go from 10 to scratch. He’s also a little bit frustrated at the moment and his latest video about inconsistency in golf is funny, interesting and relevant to me.
You don’t like watching videos? Me neither, but I liked his self-deprecating manner, so I did watch this one. He points out that even the greatest golfers are inconsistent (surprisingly so!), so amateurs shouldn’t be surprised that they are too. If people who spend all day, every day practicing golf with the best equipment and the best everything still don’t always play brilliantly, what chance have we got? He explains why this is:
Why is it that we can go from Lord of the Links one day to Sir Shanksalot the following day, without having any idea what’s changed and what’s happened? I’ll tell you why. It’s because golf is bloody hard.
What next? Play more golf
He’s right! And it’s really good to hear another, much better golfer whinge about the same issue. The tip he gives at the end is to do something very little, but important: work out a pre shot routine and stick to it. This introduces at least a modicum of consistency, which can’t be a bad thing. You know what? I don’t think I have any hope of ever being one of those steady, reliable players. So I’m going to accept that fact (phase 5), enjoy the good rounds and shrug off the bad ones. And maybe I’ll finally have one of my good rounds in a qualifying competition and my handicap will drop. Que será, será. Sorry Anthony, I don’t think I’ll make you rich and famous just yet.
Previously on Project 17 to 12 handicap...
Previously on Céline Stupidly Decides to Tell Everyone She Wants to Lower her Handicap:
After an intensive period of lessons and practice that brought many benefits and definite improvement, a couple of weeks ago, progress screeched to a halt. All I could produce were shanks of various shades of ugliness. Mucho frustration ensued and after a chat with Anthony, I decided that my problem wasn’t to do with technique, but mindset. I stopped trying to control my swing and just started clearing my mind, engaging my golf brain and hitting the ball. And it’s worked! The shanks are gone! My inconsistent, average golf is back!
However, I mustn’t make the mistake of taking this reversal of fortune for granted and fall back into bad habits, like analysing every inch of my swing. Last week, I subscribed to golfgooroo‘s golf lessons and coincidentally, the one I received this weekend describes exactly where I am at the moment and what pitfalls I must avoid. This will probably be familiar to most golfers:
Evan: So what are the biggest problems with traditional golf coaching?
Cameron: How long have you got? Here’s one of the most serious issues I see. Almost all modern golf coaching activates the left brain. This is our analytic
al brain – it does all the thinking and analysis. When you’re told to rotate your wrists and swing on plane, that certainly activates that part of your brain. And the issue is that we need to use a different part of our brain to actually swing the club. The part that performs a motor skill has no function to understand language. So you can pump as much information in, but there’s no capacity for it to understand.
Let me put it this way.
If I tell you to cock your wrists and swing on plane, your adult mind understands this perfectly. You know what you have to do. But the part of the brain responsible for the swing doesn’t work the same way. It can’t take that information and use it effectively. What you get is an ugly sort of over-controlled action that is stiff and unnatural.
Evan: Sort of sums up a lot of golfers’ swings…
Cameron: It does. And it’s ugly because your system is manually trying to perform the golf swing but it can’t. But then it gets worse.
Evan: What! It can get worse than this?
Cameron: We haven’t even started yet. It can get way worse than this. So you’re struggling. You’re fighting your system and you’re getting all sorts of inconsistent outcomes. What happens next?
Evan: You try and fix it?
Cameron: Yes. You try and fix your golf swing with more information. You feed more words into your left brain, words that your golf brain can’t really use. The worse you play, the more information that gets dumped in. And the more information that comes in, the worse you’ll ultimately play. It’s an awful merry-go-round that is the cause of poor scores all over. It’s the main reason why golfers are frustrated, confused, angry and just plain fed up. But it can get even worse!
Evan: How can it get any worse than this?
Cameron: Try this on for size. When you’ve been battling for a while; and it could be 5 minutes, 5 months or 5 years something strange can happen.
Evan: What is it?
Cameron: You get tired and you stop feeding all that info into your brain. You give things a rest because it’s just so exhausting. Then guess what happens?
Evan: [not sure] You play better?
Cameron: YES! When you finally give things a rest your subconscious takes over and does what it does best. It performs the motion and you’ll start getting good results. You could even have that unexpected great round that comes from nowhere.
Evan: But I don’t see where you’re going with this. Why is this bad? In my world, good golf is awesome!
Cameron: The good golf isn’t the problem. The good golf highlights your potential and gives you an injection of confidence and a surge of enthusiasm. It may just reignite your passion for the game and help you renew your membership for the following year. No, the good stuff isn’t the issue. The issue is what happens after you play some good golf with this more relaxed mindset. What invariably happens is your left brain goes into overdrive;
- “Why am I hitting the ball so well?”
- “What am I doing right?”
- “I think I’m swinging slowly, this is why I’m hitting the ball so good”
- “I hope I can take this swing into next week. I’d be a certainly to beat Freddy!”
- “I’ve worked it out. I’ve finally got this golf thing worked out”.
Evan: Arrgh. You’re right. This is exactly what happens. I’m guilty of this – my mind starts spinning and I try and consciously figure things out.
Cameron: And then what happens?
Evan: Bad golf.
Cameron: Yes. You return to the crappy golf because you are using the wrong part of your brain to perform.
Does this mean that I should stop having lessons and practicing? No! Just that I need to trust that the learning that happens off the course will translate into better golf on the course without having to think about it. Practice with your left brain, play with your golf brain. Take the good and the bad with a gallic shrug and stop overanalysing everything. That’s what I’m planning on doing.
Previously on 17 to 12 handicap...
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 Golfgooroo.com. 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…
Previously on Project 17 to 12 handicap...
After a long period of steady, happy progress, things have taken a nasty turn, and this has led me to ponder the question of golf and mindset. Three weeks ago, my main concern was that my handicap might come down too quickly. Then my golf progressively deteriorated until it reached rock bottom on Saturday. In fact, without wanting to be too melodramatic, I found myself staring into the abyss of golf misery.
As my golf started going wrong, I tried to play and practice my way out of it, to no avail. In fact, things got worse, to the point that on Saturday, I didn’t hit one decent shot in my match. After consulting the Oracle (golf forums) and every golfer who would listen, I decided to take a break from golf. The consensus seems to be that I’ve been playing and practicing too much and that my brain is all scrambled. I’ve been absorbing so much information that I’m confused and am suffering from some kind of weird golf paralysis. Also, I’ve been arrogant. I did think I had it all worked out and the golf goddesses don’t like that. Basically, my mindset is all wrong.
So today I found myself in a very strange and unusual situation. My team had a match and I was up at the club, but I wasn’t playing. Instead, I went for a run. One of the things that golf has brought me is a real connection with the South Downs. They have always been on my doorstep, but I only started appreciating them when I started spending all my free time there. It was a gorgeous run and it really took my mind off my golfing woes:
After I came back, happy and relaxed, I started reading The ten commandments of mindpower golf, that my vice-Captain Kim lent me. The introduction is immediately relevant to my situation:
You intuitively know that “practice makes perfect” and you are motivated to want to do well, so you try hard to perfect your golf swing and work on your mental game. You spend hour after hour on the practice range hitting balls and working on your shot-making technique. You devote many of your nights to reading the latest golf strategy tips that your favourite guru has written. Now, armed with all this information, you feel that you’re ready to go to the course and break all of your personal scoring records. Before you know it, you find yourself out on the course tied up in knots trying to hit the ball “just right” and looking for “the zone”. Alas, try as you might, you become paralysed by too much thinking and victimised by poor results.
I’m clearly not an isolated case and it should be an interesting read. Then I had a really nice chat with Anthony about my current trauma and, surprisingly, he went all Buddhist on me and also pointed out that my problem was all in my head. He asked me about my mindset when I’m on the course and on the practice range. He thought that my main problem is that I’m taking my practice range mindset on the course. I should practice consciously on the range and play unconsciously on the course. Feel rather than thought. I need to let my swing flow instead of trying to control every angle and minute detail. He recommended I have a look at a Facebook group called Conscious Golf to learn more about the relationship between golf and mindset.
As for the next few steps to try and get over my predicament, he agreed that I needed a little break. However, he suggested that I should go out and play nine holes on Wednesday and just hit the ball with one thought in mind: I want it to go there. Also, he said I should try hitting outrageous shots, mess around and have fun. So that’s what I’ll do. I’m hoping all this will help me press the reset button because I have important competitions coming up and, more importantly, I miss enjoying playing golf.