The club golfer is a notoriously poor starter. Analyse your last 10 rounds and chances are you’ll find you drop a disproportionate number of shots on holes 1-3. With competition season upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at why this happens, and what you can do about it.
For most golfers, the start of the round is a pressure point; we all want to get off to a good start, and fear the consequences of a bad one. And the way to deal with pressure is through routine.
Routine creates familiarity, and familiarity allows your brain to settle. Surgeons, pilots, the military – in fact, anyone who lives with high consequences to their actions – tell us how, under pressure, they fall back on the routines they’ve practised. For golfers, just as a pressure shot needs a pre-shot routine, your chances of starting a competitive round well increase with a pre-round routine. If you start badly it’s not just those three holes – it’s what you did beforehand.
Time is increasingly tight these days, but if you can get into the habit of thinking your round starts an hour before you get to the first tee, you’ll give yourself the best possible chance of a fast start. What you do in the hour before you play makes a real difference to how well you play those first three holes. Here is a five-step process that will help you make best use of that time.
1. Keep calm
What are you typically doing before leaving for the course? If you’re rushing around, making phone calls and putting yourself under pressure to get things done, you’ll release cortisol – the stress hormone – into your bloodstream; and it will still be there as you tee off. If you can instead keep your pre-round activity steady, calm and under control, you’ll feel much more relaxed when you get to the course.
2. Face the music
There is a reason gyms don’t play classical music. It’s because music is a mood-setter, even a rhythm setter. What you listen to in the car on your way to the course can put you in your most effective state for play, or can take you out of it. Ask yourself what mood gives you your best golf; are you better when fast and purposeful, or slow and methodical? Pick the music that fits that mood and rhythm. It’s no surprise Jack Nicklaus, a very methodical player, admitted he once shot a 66 while humming the sedate Moon River.
3. Make a commitment
Once you arrive at the club – but before you get out of the car – take a moment to ask yourself one simple question: “What am I committed to today?” Doing this helps you establish a focus for the day, and lets you know you’re ready to play. Keeping to your pre-shot routines, ignoring outside influences, keeping your temper or playing with freedom can all be effective commitments.
4. Find your best warm-up routine
Many club golfers fall into the trap of hitting more balls before a major competition. The unfamiliarity of the process can derail you. Instead, play around with a longer and shorter warm-up to see what works best for you, and once you’ve established the right length, stick to it. Having said this, the pro game suggests anything over 45 minutes is too long – hardly any pros spend more time than this warming up.
5. Last practice, best practice
Many club golfers spend their last minutes before tee-off hitting short putts. It’s what I call lose-lose practice; every putt you hole is only what you should do, and every one you miss sows doubt. Instead, putt a single ball to a tee from short range for five minutes. If you miss it, you’ll feel the ball would have gone in a hole; if you hit it, it boosts your confidence. Either way, it makes the hole look like a bucket on the first green.