"Your Handicap can be an instant marker - Almost a predictor - of how well you can play"
This tip comes from TG Top 50 coach Karl Morris, who has worked with three major champions. Check out his Mind Factor Podcasts for free on iTunes
In Timothy Gallwey's seminal book The Inner Game of Golf there is a terrific illustration of how your scores are influenced by your expectations.
A chap in New York takes up golf. He works shifts and can only play very early, alone. He doesn't play with anyone else for a year. Then his shifts change; he plays with another golfer for the first time. After nine holes his partner remarks: "Wow, level par... you're really good!" The golfer is taken aback. "I thought par was what you're supposed to do," he answers.
Our frames of reference on performance certainly can affect what results we get... and in golf, your major frame of reference is your handicap. Yes of course, we are lucky to have a system that allows players of different abilities to compete against each other. But your handicap can become an instant marker – almost a predictor – of how well you can play. It becomes what you expect.
Consider this common situation. You reach the turn, playing beautifully, five under your handicap. The very fact of that makes you feel a little uneasy; this is a really good round for you! Can you really sustain this level? Out of your comfort zone, you start to protect your score and tighten up; your performance drops and sure enough, you come in around your handicap level.
It can even work the other way, where you follow a poor front nine ("I'm playing below my level") with a better finish. In both instances, it's your identification with your handicap that plays the defining role in the score you post.
Yes, there is more than a whiff of self-fulfilling prophecy about handicaps – and of all the attempts to explain why the average handicap has not come down despite far superior equipment and course conditioning, this could be the best.
The situation is not helped by the sense of permanency that surrounds handicaps.
"What do you play off?"
"I play off 18."
It's a short conversation, but one that smacks of stasis, where you are reinforcing your identity as an 18-handicapper. Furthermore, the system is designed to avoid rapid changes, making it so easy to stall at a level.
Of course, many golfers manage to work their way down through the handicap system, and that's great. But if you feel stuck on your number, it could well be time to make some changes.
So to change your game, change your frame. And that starts with the word itself. 'Handicap' is a strange choice of word. Its definition is 'A circumstance that makes progress or success difficult'. It is inadvertently accurate perhaps, but hardly tallying with a system that is supposed to improve your chances. In truth it is your opponent who is handicapped by your allowance.
Your handicap gives you assistance. If you were to consider the shots you get as assistance, it might change your attitude to it and your readiness to acceptance the number of strokes you're getting.
Here are three other ways you can change your frame of reference for your performance, and stop handicap directing your scores.
1. Change your par
Go through your home course and reassign each hole with a par score personal to you. Don't be afraid to get creative; if there's a hole you really struggle on, your 'par', could be a double bogey. It doesn't matter whether your 18-hole 'par' adds up to more or less than your handicap; the idea is simply to take attention off your handicap. This approach works; just ask Tiger Woods. His first coach, Rudy Duran, developed a 'Tiger Par' that set his young charge a more engaging and less limiting challenge. Because of this, Tiger never associated himself with a set level of competence.
2. Focus on greens in regulation
Stat-gathering has consistently thrown up a correlation between lower scores and hitting more greens in regulation. So for the next two months start tracking how many per round you hit and assess your performance principally through this parameter. In practice, work on areas like ball-striking and accuracy that can improve GIR
3. Divide the round into six groups of three holes
Then, simply try to score as low as possible on each set. This is an easy way of distracting you from an awareness of your score relative to your handicap, and stops you falling into the trap of protecting a good score.