Always make a bad start to your round of golf? Our psychology coach shares his expertise to help you avoid making a bogey or worse on the 1st hole this weekend.
I was recently sent a scorecard by an eight-handicap club golfer. He’d shot 83, but the total was not the point. From the 7th hole onwards he was two over. Holes one to six are best not talked about. “This happens to me all the time,” he groaned to me. “Why do I only start playing properly after the round has gone?” He is not alone. This is a story
I hear so often in clubland that we could almost label this Poor Start Syndrome.
There are many reasons – both physical and mental – that make your round of golf more of a struggle over the first few holes. Let’s examine four of the most common, and address each to help you hit the ground running on the golf course every time.
Lower expectations for your round of golf
As golfers, we all have certain expectations of ourselves; we all know how we should play, or how we want to play. This expectation is usually based around our handicap. A 12-handicapper expects to shoot somewhere in the region of 12-over par, perhaps a couple better than that; a Category One player expects to break 80, and maybe 75.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we typically carry these expectations to the first tee; we start from an assumption that we will deliver on them. As one student of mine put it, we tee off expecting 100 out of 100. Inadvertently, we are putting pressure on ourselves. Start with a perfect score and we can only lose points. Framed like this, it is easy to see how so many rounds unravel early on.
Now let’s move forward a few holes to where you have already pretty much blown all the shots your handicap gives you. Typically, having made a terrible start, we say something to ourselves along the lines of “Well, that’s the round gone, let’s see if we can just hit a couple of good shots and salvage something from the day.” Think of the difference in expectation levels; they’ve gone from 100 to zero in six holes! And yet, with those low expectations and with the pressure off, we start to play golf again.
To help ward off a bad start, we need to get closer to that 7th-tee mentality on the opening hole. Forget what number your handicap suggests you should score. Avoid expectation. Start the round from zero. Tell yourself you have genuinely no idea what’s going to happen; and when something good happens, add it to the score. When you see the first few holes as opportunities to add to your number, you stand a much better chance of making a strong start.
Hit the shots you had on the driving range
“Here’s the biggest difference between an amateur and a pro,” said Jesper Parnevik. “On the range before the round, an amateur can slice 10 drives in a row, yet on the first tee he’ll aim straight down the middle; if a pro slices three shots on the range, he will aim down the left on the first.”
It’s a familiar theme of my pieces, but for some reason club golfers often seem compelled to fight the game they have bought with them to the course. Often, by the time they decide to go with what they’ve got, it’s too late. The quicker you can identify today’s shape – and make a commitment to play with it – the better the start you will make.
Make sure your body is ready to play golf
On a purely physical level, you must give your body a chance. It needs it. We may think of our bodies as steady and unchanging, but the ebb and flow of exercise, diet, sleep and state of mind ensure we arrive at the golf course in a different physical state every time. And the fact is that just 15 minutes will do it.
After we’ve played nine holes we feel ready to play the back nine… but nine holes is only around 20 full swings. Just 20 balls in a net or on a range will make a big difference to how ready your body feels on the first tee. And if you can’t do that, at least make time for some golf-specific stretching. Just give your body a chance.
Get your mind focused for the golf course
As we know, golf demands that we remain present to the task. However, most of us arrive at the course in a mental state that is anything but. Sorting out the day’s problems, finishing off a piece of work, dealing with the family, shovelling down some food, finding the keys, loading the car, dashing off to make your tee time… our feet have hardly touched the ground. No wonder so many of us float on to the first tee with our mind pinging off in 15 different directions.
To get on top of this, do your level best to find time to take a 10-minute walk before you head off to the course. This doesn’t just help get your body moving; it also allows you to tune into your golfing rhythm, and find a calmer and more effective mental state. As you walk, try focusing on your breathing, or perhaps on picking a commitment for the round ahead. A short walk will help you reach the first tee with a feeling of being more grounded, and with a much clearer head. And that can only ever help.