Lesson 4 – The Power of Positive Thinking

The Power of Positive Thinking
If proof of the power of positive thinking and of imaging (i.e. picturing the shot you want to make) was ever needed, it came at the 1986 Masters, where Jack Nicklaus scored a stunning victory at age 46.  But, not without some help from the runners-up, who, at times, played like refugees from the weekenders’ ranks.  Seve Ballesteros, leading the tournament, duck-hooked a shot into the water on the 15th hole.  Tom Kite came up an inch short on a 10-foot putt on the 72nd hole that would have tied him with Nicklaus.  The putt hit a fraction too slowly, veered off line at the last instant and Kite dropped to his knees in agony.  Finally, Greg Norman, the Great White Shark from Australia, who at that time had never won a major tournament on the U.S. tour, lost this one (a loss he repeated in 1996).
Coming to the final hole, Norman, who had played both brilliantly and horribly, needed a par to tie Nicklaus and force a playoff, and a birdie to win the tournament outright.  The way he played the hole showed an enormous amount of indecision and almost total lack of self-confidence.  Just about everyone (in this country, at least) was rooting for the Golden Bear and against Norman.  Yet, who could help but sympathize with Norman’s final-hole performance?
First, he used a 3-wood off the tee to avoid a fairway trap on the left side.  He was playing it safe it seemed.  He landed in the fairway away from the trap, but his relatively short drive left him more than 200 yards from the hole.  He took out a 4-iron, intending, he said later, to give it all he had to try to land close enough for a birdie attempt to win the tournament.  He was gambling it seemed.  First playing it safe, then gambling, he hardly seemed to know what he wanted.
Earlier in the round, Norman’s 4-iron had betrayed him, costing him a double-bogey.  No doubt that was on his mind.  He also may have recalled a similar final hole in the 1984 U.S. Open when he needed a birdie to win, par to tie, and clunked an iron shot 50 yards right and into the crowd.  With images of failure firmly in mind, Norman drew the club back and swung.  The ball sailed far right and into the gallery.  In the 1984 Open, Norman saved par with a miracle 40-foot putt, only to lose to Fuzzy Zoeller in a playoff.  This time, there were no miracles.  Norman got a bogey and Nicklaus got his sixth green jacket.
While Jack Nicklaus’ slow play when putting may have affected a whole generation of golfers, no one can doubt his power of concentration. Nicklaus’ earlier eagle putt probably won the tournament for him and it was just one of many thousands of putts over many years that Jack had “thought” into the hole.  Nicklaus has described many times how he visualizes virtually every shot that he takes and particularly how he can “see” each putt rolling into the cup.
All golfers, pros and duffers alike, feel pressure caused by a lack of self-confidence in a given situation.  In his excellent book, The Inner Game of Golf (Random House but apparently out of print), W. Timothy Gallwey says the biggest single roadblock for any golfer, or any athlete, for that matter, is self-doubt.  The issue for those of us trying to break 100 or 90 or even 80 is not that we frequently or occasionally lack confidence; the issue is how we handle self-doubt when it rears its ugly head.
Years ago, when I was making the transition from duffer to golfer, I read Psycho-Cybernetics, by Maxwell Maltz, (the Pocketbook paperback version is still in print at $6.99 but you can frequently find it in used book stores for less than a dollar) a classic in the study of mind over matter.  For insight into how our brains direct and deceive our bodies, pick up a copy.  The entire book is worth reading but for our immediate purposes I recommend that you read the first 50 pages.  There you will find a number of examples from the world of sports, several of them from golf, that will stimulate your thinking on the mind games we play.
One example describes the effect of mental practice in basketball.  Three groups of student players were tested shooting foul shots.  Then one group practiced shooting foul shots every day for 20 minutes.  The second group practiced 20 minutes a day by simply imagining shooting foul shots.  The third group did not practice at all.  After 20 days, the three groups were retested.  The group that shot foul shots every day improved by 24%.  The group that only imagined shooting foul shots did almost as well, improving by 23%.  The third group tested about the same as 20 days earlier.  The same technique easily can be applied to golf.
A good place to begin is putting.  I used to consider myself a poor to very poor putter.  I’m still not a great putter but I have improved (more about this later).  I still have my off days, but most of the time I have almost as much confidence in my putting as in the rest of my game.  Why?  I applied some of the principles of psycho-cybernetics on the putting green.  In theory, the act of putting is not difficult compared to hitting a drive or a sand shot.  On any miniature golf course, you will see people of all ages and physiques putting away.  Difficulty sets in when the mind starts sending signals to the muscles of all the things that can go wrong.
To gain the upper hand in this battle of I vs. Me, I concentrate on stronger, more positive signals.  For short putts, I still line up the putt in the usual way, paying attention to the break, if any; but I primarily concentrate on picturing the ball rolling in the cup.  From 10 feet or closer, I can actually picture a groove in the green that leads to the cup.  Then I simply concentrate on getting the ball started in the groove by taking the putter back slowly close to the ground and stroking the ball smoothly.
On longer putts, I pick a spot I think the ball should roll over about 10 feet from the hole.  Then I picture how the ball would roll into the hole if I were playing a 10-footer.  Finally, I picture the ball rolling to the cup over the spot.  I probably take less time than I used to because I don’t waste time worrying about how hard to hit the ball.  After I have a mental picture of what I want to happen, I just have my brain tell my muscles to hit it to the hole.  Once I started concentrating in this way, I began to have more one-putt and far fewer three-putt greens.
Positive Putting
I have to confess that for a while over the last year or two my putting confidence took a step backwards.  I am not totally sure of the reason but I have a pretty good idea.  For the last three years I have been playing a regular weekly (and some times several rounds a week) match with a friend who I had played golf with occasionally for many years.  When we first started playing a regular match I gave him six strokes a side and usually had no trouble beating him handily.  This friend is very competitive in the best sense of the term (I met him in a poker game and he is one of the smartest poker players I have ever known).  Until we started playing a match he had never shown much interest in the Colonel Bogey approach to golf.  But once we started having a regular match, which he was losing consistently, he started paying attention to the Colonel’s way and began playing smarter and smarter.  Gradually the six strokes a side dropped.  Now we are playing even and I am having a hard time holding my own.  The stakes are small but the thought of taking strokes from him is probably more than my ego can handle.
Unfortunately for me the strongest part of his game is on the putting green.  He appears to believe that he can sink any putt on the green and usually sinks one or two long ones a round and those that do not go in are usually close enough for tap-ins.  From within eight feet he has so much confidence that he assumes that he will make the putt and makes an incredibly high percentage.  When he was scoring mostly double bogeys and worse his putting skills didn’t bother me.  However, now most of the time he is putting for bogey or better.  I can’t help but believe that he has had a negative affect on my putting, particularly the short putts that I know I should make and that frequently I now have to make to win or tie a hole.  In short, I started to put more pressure on myself.
For a while I tried the cross-handed method and at first it seemed to work.  But it didn’t last.   So recently I made another adjustment.  I realized that very often when I was conceded a putt that might have been a generous gimme, I would stroke the ball into the cup easily with one hand.  I had seen several people putting one handed so I decided to try it.  It didn’t work for me but something halfway did.  Basically, I now grip my putter with my right hand and just put my left hand on the club very, very lightly.  I find that I am making many more of the 3-6 foot putts that become so hard because you expect to make them and you think that everyone else expects you to make them.  If you have a lot of confidence in your present putting stroke, don’t mess with it, but if you don’t, you might want to try the cross-handed approach or something close to one-handed putting such as I described.
This is a good place to ponder the subject of three-putting.  It can be very discouraging to follow your game plan from tee to green, then three-putt.  Well, no matter how good a putter you are, it is going to happen occasionally.  Ask Nicklaus, Duval, Norman, Ballesteros or any other professional.  Especially, ask Phil Mickelson, who in the first three months of 2002 has had a 4-putt and a 5-putt.  The 5-putt was from under 15 feet and the 4-putt resulted in a bogey on a hole where he had driven the green.  Phil is still out there with a ranking of second in the world.  Remember that the next time you are ready to quit the game after a 3-putt hole.
Especially frustrating for the weekend golfer is the three-putt bogey.  Occasionally, a 100-plus golfer hits back-to-back beauties and reaches a tough par-4 hole in two, only to three-putt for a bogey.  No matter that the ball just barely made it on the green 50 feet from the cup, all the duffer (by the way, the ability to break 100 regularly is generally accepted as the dividing line between “golfers” and “duffers”) can think of is, “I was putting for a birdie and got a (expletive deleted) bogey!”  But if you want to shed the Duffer label forever, please be satisfied, even proud, of every bogey you get, whether on a 30-yard shot out of the sand or three putts from 20 feet.
One reason why positive thinking is so important is that you should never underestimate the power of negative thinking, which is possibly the single most prevalent cause of dubbed shots by professionals and duffers alike.  Too often we think of what we don’t want to do.  Standing on the tee, we think, “Don’t hit into the woods on the right.  Don’t hook out of bounds on the left.  Don’t bend the left arm.  Don’t move the head.  Don’t swing too fast.” Don’t, don’t, don’t.  The road to dufferdom is paved with don’ts.
Our muscles receive messages from our brain constantly.  Muscles do not differentiate between positive messages and negative messages.  They just do as they are told.  Thus we invite disaster when we think of the shot we don’t want to hit – “Watch out for the sand trap!”  “I’ll never be able to hit out of this rough!”  “Don’t go in the water.” Unfortunately, the message the muscles get is “sand,” “dub,” “water.”  We significantly multiply the odds of success when we draw mind pictures of the shot we want to hit.  We may not succeed as often as Jack Nicklaus, but we will succeed a high percentage of the time.
If your ball is 40 yards from the green, but you have to clear a sand trap to get there, picture a nice, easy pitch shot, floating like a butterfly and lighting softly on the green.  Picture the shot in your mind.  See it happening.  Picture the swing it will take to accomplish the shot.  Step up to the ball with nothing on your mind except an image of success.  Then swing (with a slow backswing, a reminder I cannot repeat too often).  Do the same when hitting over water.  This is where patience comes in again.  If you have not been imaging your shots, you can’t expect to have instant success.  Especially on trouble shots over water or over a sand trap or out of a trap.  So while you are trying to learn how to imagine and then execute a shot, be patient with yourself but be persistent.  Once you start having a few successes your confidence will grow quickly.
If your picture of success is in focus, more often than not you will hit the shot you saw with your mind’s eye.  Don’t ask me to explain how or why it works.  It simply does.  To help you become convinced that visualization works it may help to think of other areas in which the mind/muscle connection does miraculous things.  Think of the piano player or singer who looks at a piece of music for the first time and plays or sings the notes exactly as written on the sheet music.  You take this for granted.  But think about what is happening.  In a matter of microseconds the eye is seeing the notes, the mind is telling the muscles of the fingers or vocal cords (sometimes both at once) the proper note to strike or sing, and they do what they are told.  When you think about what is happening, you have to admit it is really miraculous.  The power is there, so start using it.
From now on, picture the shots you want to make.  Be sure the shots are within your capability.  Then step up to the ball and swing with confidence.  As I have stated before, unless asked, I try hard not to offer advice to fellow golfers on the course no matter how badly (sometimes stupidly) they are playing.  But sometimes the temptation is overwhelming even when I am not asked.  Let me give you an example.  One par 5 hole on our course starts out over about 80 yards of water.  Recently, I was playing with a stranger who said that he had yet to clear the water on his first try.  You can imagine what images went through his head every time he stepped up to a drive on that hole.  I asked if he would mind my making a suggestion.  He said, “By all means.”  So, I pointed to the red tee located on the other side of the water (the hole is a par 4 from the red tee) and suggested that he aim at the red tee and picture his ball landing on the tee.  He did and it did.
Our 15th hole is a fairly short dog-leg left, slightly up hill then slightly down hill, par four with a fairly large green and at the left front of the green one of the smallest sand traps you will ever see.  I was playing with a stranger who could not see the green from his drive so I walked up and called back to tell him where the pin was set.  He said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter where the pin is, I always put my 2nd shot in the left sand trap, and he did.  This trap is about 1/10 the size of the green.  No one could hit it that consistently unless they were a great imager, in this case, a great negative imager.  Remember what Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can do a thing, or not, you are right.”
Confidence is at the heart of the Colonel Bogey way to play this game we love (Confidence goes hand in hand with patience and the more confident you become the easier you will find it to be patient.)  Yet, for many golfers, even those who never have broken 100, I find there is a tendency to equate “thinking bogey” with a negative attitude.  It is not.  For most weekend golfers “thinking bogey” can be the height of positive thinking.  Why?  Because if I can believe the statistics I’ve seen, a majority of weekend golfers do not break 100 regularly.  And to think bogey for 18 holes on a par-72 course is to think a round of 90.  Of course, it takes more than just thinking 90 to score 90, and then to break 90 regularly.  But you have to start someplace, and thinking bogey is a good place to start because it works.
Thinking Bogey
If you are not yet convinced that thinking bogey is positive thinking, maybe one more example will help.  What is your image of nine-handicap golfer?  Pretty solid golfer, right?  Definitely out of your class, right?  Well, nine-handicap golfers in their 10 best rounds of golf in their last 20 rounds averaged between 9 and 10 bogeys.
If you want to break 90 regularly, you need to build up confidence in yourself that you can easily bogey or, at worst, double-bogey every hole on your course.  Then, no matter how badly you hit or miss a particular shot, it will not affect your overall game.  One way to start is by keeping your score mentally in terms of bogey.  The habit is so ingrained in me that I sometimes find myself saying half out loud, “That puts me three, under,” then having to explain to raised eyebrows, “Oh, I mean three under bogey.”  Your goal is to get 10 to 15 bogeys a round.  That should put you in the 85-to-95 scoring range, even with some double-bogeys and an occasional triple-bogey, not to mention a par here or there.  Remember it is not the double bogeys that are keeping some of you from breaking 100 regularly.  It is the triple bogeys or worse.
As you stand on the tee of each hole, paint a mental picture of how you need to play the hole to get a bogey, allowing two shots to reach par-3 greens, three shots to reach the par-4’s and four shots to reach the par-5’s for a routine, two-putt bogey.  As you think your way around the course, no need to give yourself any pressure shots.
Plan each shot so you will be relaxed and confident as you stand over the ball.  If this means you are not sure you can get to a particular hole with ease in your new “regulation” figure, add a stroke.  For example, on a long, narrow par-4 that would require three of your best shots to get to the green, add another stroke and be satisfied to be on in four shots, putting for a bogey.  Chances are your fourth shot will be fairly short, so you should be able to get close enough to the pin to guarantee an easy two-putt double-bogey.  And there is always a chance you will one putt for a bogey.
One of the things that persistently playing safe shots will do for you is help build your confidence in whatever club you choose for those shots.  For example, suppose you decide to lay up to a safe area in front of a hazard and chose a seven iron because you want to go about 120 yards and believe that is the right club for you for that distance.  If you hit a good seven iron and end up about where you want to be, you will have a lot more confidence the next time you need to hit your seven iron over a trap to the green.  For many average weekend golfers this kind of confidence builds faster based on actual shots made on a golf course than it would from hitting a couple of buckets of balls on the practice tee with the seven iron.
Remember you can shoot 95 on a par-72 course with 13 bogeys, five double-bogeys and no pars.  So, relax in the knowledge that you can plan some double-bogeys as you think your way around the course and still break 100 with strokes to spare.  Knowing this will make it a lot easier to talk yourself into taking a drop when that is the smart thing to do or hitting the safe shot out of the woods back to the fairway even when that means hitting back towards the tee.
Realistic Expectations
WARNING:  If you keep your mental score in terms of plus-or-minus bogey, expect to be over bogey a good bit of the time, especially in the beginning.  That’s OK as long as you are not tempted to try to get those strokes back.  Suppose you start out bogey, double-bogey, bogey, double-bogey.  In your head, you are +2.  Fine.  Keep playing each hole for a sure bogey.  If you get a par, you will be +1, but pressing for pars to make up lost ground will surely consign you to the doldrums of dufferdom.  I know.  I speak from experience – my own and that of many others.
I will long remember a round I played years ago at a time when I rarely broke 90 and frequently did not even break 100.  I bogeyed the first 11 holes.  Those were probably the steadiest 11 holes of golf I had ever played.  But was I satisfied?  Not on your life.  Hole after hole, I wondered, “When am I going to get a par?”  I had good chances at pars and simply wasn’t satisfied with bogeys.
On the 12th hole, a par-3, I finally got a par.  I walked to the next tee thinking, “Now, I’m on my way.  I’ll get a couple more pars and break 90 easily.”  Thoughts of safe, sure shots went out my mental window.  Not surprisingly, I played the last six holes in +7 (7 over bogey, that is) and finished with a disappointing 97.  Yet, for several years after that I would still be unsatisfied with a string of bogeys.
It was not until I started really thinking bogey and playing for bogey that I began to get bogeys consistently, and to break bogey more often than not.  Only by thinking bogey and playing shots I was confident I could make, was I able to start shooting in the 80’s consistently.  [Note:  If you have not yet convinced yourself that the Colonel Bogey system works, let me pass on a suggestion that came from one of you skeptics out there.  A golfer who was having trouble convincing himself to try the Colonel’s way, decided to play 9 holes his way and 9 holes the Colonel’s way.  He didn’t tell me how many strokes difference there was but he said that he no longer has any doubts about the Colonel’s approach.]
So, start thinking and playing for bogeys yourself.  At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it is a law of mathematics (or ought to be) that you can’t get a par on a par-4 hole if you have already hit the ball four times and you are not yet in the hole.  If you plan to play each hole for a routine two-putt bogey, then each time you follow your game plan you are putting with a chance for a par.  Do that 18 times and you are almost certain to get some pars.  You surely will get a number of routine bogeys and probably a few double-bogeys.  But whatever the mix, it is almost impossible not to have a respectable 18-hole score.
We started out this lesson talking about the power of positive thinking and imaging.  While we do not want to diminish the importance of both, we do want to discuss briefly a related problem for many weekend golfers.  It is this – no matter how good you become at positive thinking and at imaging, you will never become perfect.  There will still be days when you will miss a two-foot putt.  (As someone once told me when my frustration was showing, “If golf was an easy game it would have died out 200-300 years ago and we never would have heard of it.”)  The reason why I feel I must spend a little time on what you may think is the obvious is because many average weekend golfers are ready to commit hari kari, or to quit the game when they hit a bad shot or a series of bad shots.  Part of the reason for this is, I think, because when they watch golf on television they see shot after shot that seems to be perfect and they expect to do the same.
There are several things to be said about this phenomenon.  One is, as previously mentioned, you and I are not professionals.  We do not get to hit hundreds of practice shots weekly.  Some of us have never had the opportunity to really practice hitting out of a sand trap, so how will we ever get good at it when we can sometimes go several rounds without even visiting a trap.  One part of the answer to why you should not beat yourself up too much over a missed shot is that you are not now and never will be a professional.  But there is another even more important answer (or fact) and that is that we frequently exaggerate the skills of the pro golfers who we try to emulate.  We think they never hit a bad shot.  Well they do.
One reason why we have exaggerated images of the pro tour golfers is because we usually only get to see parts of the last two tournament rounds each week.  That means that we are seeing the golfers who are playing the best that week (the rest didn’t make the cut and have gone home).  And mostly, we get to see the leaders that is the 10 or so golfers who are really hot that week.  But even so, if you watch closely you will see that they hit many a shot that is not perfect.  I have given examples in previous lessons.  Let me give a few more.
At one tournament I watched on TV (my notes are incomplete) Payne Stewart at a Par 5 hole after a big drive had only an iron to the green.  He missed the green to the right.  He hit his 3rd shot fat, short of the green on the fringe.  He putted from the fringe to within 3 feet of the hole, missed the putt and then had to sink a 3-footer for a bogey.  On that same hole, Hal Sutton hit his second shot into ice plants near the green, hit his third shot about two feet, his fourth to the edge of the green and two putted for a bogey.
In the 1994, LPGA Championship on Saturday, while tied for the lead Meg Mallon hit what looked like a great chip from the rough near the green to slightly over 3 feet from the hole.  At the time she was tied for the lead.  Her putt rimmed out and she fell one stroke back.  Her playing companion also missed from about the same distance.  In the same round I watched Patti Sheehan hit a chip shot of less than 15 yards that left her at least a 15 foot putt (which she made), not a great chip for a professional.
The point is that even the hottest professionals of the week hit some shots that would make you or me feel bad.  So, the next time you hit two great shots on a long par 4 and then a poor chip or get within 90 yards of a par 5 in two and then miss the green don’t be so hard on yourself.  Be patient.  Put the shot behind you and move on to the next shot.


Colonel Bogey