Golfing Psychology – How to Think Like a Professional Golfer

May 31, 2021

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been fascinated with the stock market and how somebody with a high-speed internet connection could sit at home and make money just like the big boys on Wall Street do. I dabbled with a penny stock or two as completely speculative and uninformed gambles that didn’t ever pan out in my early adulthood. Since then, the only investing I’ve done is contribute to my retirement fund through work and mostly ignore it.

Last year, I decided I finally wanted to do some retail investing of my own but wanted to take at least some sort of systematic approach to it instead of just throwing away money on penny stocks as I had a couple of decades prior. One of the more useful troves of information I stumbled on was an early 2000s DVD seminar called Trading Psychology – How to Think Like a Professional Trader by Mark Douglas.1 In it, Douglas doesn’t tell you how to trade stocks. He doesn’t give you a “foolproof” trading methodology. He doesn’t even mention any hot tickers to trade — which at this point would be well over a decade too late anyway. Instead, he goes over the psychology of successful professional traders and why that mindset is the difference between their success and the average retail trader’s failure.

But I digress. How in the world does this have anything to do with golf?

About halfway through the seminar, I realized that you could take the majority of the advice and change “stock market” to “golf,” and it would be the perfect seminar titled Golfing Psychology – How to Think Like a Professional Golfer. So my dear readers, today I will condense a five-hour seminar into a 1,000-word blog post, summarizing his theory and applying it to our beloved game. Like Douglas’s seminar, this is not how to play golf. This isn’t a breakdown of the mechanics of a proper swing. This is, however, all about the mental side of golf, which is a huge part of the game.

What characteristics distinguish a pro from your average golfer?

Professional golfers plan out their game. They apply their swing techniques and course management plans without error. They approach a hole and execute their plan with ease and effortlessness that boggles the mind of the average golfer.2

My guess is those three statements are exactly what Douglas would say if he adapted his theory to professional golfers. His entire theory rests on the fact that professionals are confident in what they are doing and are no longer afraid, allowing them to execute the technical aspects plan flawlessly. By removing the fear and trusting in their years of training and their abilities, they can put together a series-of-shots that will let them achieve an overall good score for the round, even if there were a few errant shots that resulted in a bogey here or there.

The inverse of that is that casual and amateur golfer plays with fear. They focus on a shot-by-shot perspective, letting a shanked shot into the woods cause them to second guess their approach shot, landing them in the bunker, after which they three-putt, and so on. This hyper-focus on their bad shots doesn’t allow them to shake it off, causing each shot to be filled with the fear of failure.

Let’s take this year’s Masters tournament, for example. It was Will Zalatoris’ first Masters and only his third major championship in his entire career, yet he seemed to be playing with the ease and comfort of a veteran of Augusta National. After Friday’s round, sitting second going into the weekend, a reporter asked him if anything about the event was intimidating. He replied:

Yeah, it can be, but like I said I’ve wanted to be here my entire life, and some people shy away from that but I’m excited to be here, I’ve wanted to be here forever so there’s no reason to feel intimidated now. I’ve made it to here.

…Standing on the first tee and hearing your name called, that’s something that every kid dreams of. This first tee shot was, of course, I was pretty nervous, but it’s still like I said, there’s the fact that I’ve wanted to be here my entire life actually almost frees me up.

How was he achieving the cool, calm, collectedness of somebody who has done this for 20 years when he himself is only 24 years old? Simply speaking, the achievement in his mind was that he was there, thus freeing up the mental stress of performing well, and he played without fear.

Pitfalls of a Shot-by-Shot Perspective

To learn how we can play without fear, let’s first look at the pitfalls of a shot-by-shot perspective. By focusing on each shot, you’re more likely to get caught up in the success or failure of the previous shot. With euphoric success, you can become overconfident and make a mistake by thinking that each shot you make will be perfect. Your failed shots can instill fear into your next shot. Here’s a direct quote from Douglas Losing streaks can easily cause one’s attitude to deteriorate into a negative spiral.” We all have experienced the chunked approach shot that lands short in a greenside bunker. Then you don’t make it out on your first shot. Your second shot out goes completely across the green into another bunker. You duff your first shot there. Finally, not caring anymore, you hit a shot that lands a foot away from the hole. Those bad shots compounded your negative attitude, with each additional failure making you more and more frustrated and fearful. Finally, with that last shot, the apathy had erased the fear, and your muscle memory and experience let you hit a beautiful bunker shot right next to the hole.

What if you had just been able to do that the first time?

The Benefits of a Series-of-Shots Perspective

By taking a series-of-shots approach, you are not focusing on each shot and its success or failure. By trusting in your abilities and the hours of practice you’ve put in, you might have a double or triple bogey here or there, but not letting it get under your skin allows you to play your best during the rest of the round.

Take Tiger Woods 2020 Masters experience. During the final round, he shot a 10 on the 12th hole – seven shots over par. It was the worst hole in his professional career, dare I say even significantly worse than your average Sunday golfer would do on that same hole. He then went on to birdie 13, par 14, and birdie the last four holes. When is the last time you had back-to-back birdies, much less four of them? Woods’ ability to shake off the worst hole of his career and finish like that was truly a series-of-shots perspective and playing without fear.

You know your golfing abilities better than anybody else. Setting realistic goals on the course, not letting errant shots build up negative emotions, and instead focusing on the round as a whole, you can start playing without fear.

Practice Exercise and Final Thoughts

Douglas had an exercise to teach you how to trade without fear. His idea was if you could execute 20 trades in a row, sticking to your methodology and not letting your emotions decide your strategy, you could learn to trade without fear. If at some point during those 20 trades you made a move out of fear, then you started your 20 trades over.

I propose that the same can be said with your golf game. If you can take 20 shots without fear, you are on your way to learning how to play without fear. I’ll take it further and say start with 20 shots, and once you can honestly say to yourself those were all taken without fear or second-guessing, then move on to 9-holes. If you can play half of a round without fear, then try for the entire round. Each time you see yourself starting to play with fear again, step back and start again.

Jack Nicklaus said, “Don’t ever try to tell me golf is not 99.9 percent a mental game,” and while we could argue about the exact percentage, I think we can all agree that the majority of golf is mental.

Of course, correctly taught technique, practice, and good equipment will all help your game, but why put all the time, energy, and money into your game only to ignore the critical last piece of the puzzle? Teach yourself to play without fear, and then see where you can really take your game.