Mind Games: Start as you mean to go on

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Start as you mean to go on: Why you need to start a round of golf before the first tee if you want to play well for the entire round

We all begin a new golf season with similar objectives – to play a little better than last year, to get that handicap down by two or three shots. However, many club golfers see the route to this improvement solely as improving their swing. While working on your technique with a qualified professional can of course deliver some great results, it's important to realise there are other factors that can also influence your score.

Every golfer develops habits of preparation and play that can work for or against them, irrespective of swing quality. To illustrate the point, let's look at five practices, all of which happen before you've even shaken hands on the first tee, that can put you in better shape for the round to come.

1. What fuel are you burning?

Ideally you will reach the first tee feeling awake, energised, ready. Much of this feeling is down to what you've been eating and drinking prior to teeing off. I'm not about to tell you that you can't eat a bacon sandwich before a round of golf, but with even a little thought you can do yourself some favours here. We know dehydration makes it harder to control emotions and make good decisions, yet Justin Buckthorp, nutritionist and performance consultant to Tour pros including Justin Rose, reports the common sight of club players waiting until they are on the 6th hole and thirsty before taking a drink. Similarly, the effects of a stimulant like caffeine on an edgy golfer are obvious. Drink more water before you go out and your state of mind will be calmer and clearer.

2. What are you listening to?

Most golfers have to drive 10-20 minutes to the course – and most golfers do so listening to some form of music. Do not underestimate the power of music to set a mood; this is why gyms across the country use fast, upbeat playlists to stimulate and energise while airlines, seeking to relax passengers, use quiet, slow soundtracks. So why not use this time to set a mood and rhythm that is useful for you, find some mid-tempo songs that promote the rhythm at which you want to swing? This is a tactic I have often used with Graeme McDowell, with great success.

3. Focus on a gold strike

We don't always have time for a range session before a round, but we can usually find time to smack a few quick balls into a net. In these circumstances, a great exercise is to focus on strike quality. Whether you can hit five or 10 balls, place your attention on where on the face you are making contract. Even play about with it, deliberately trying to hit one out of the toe and one out of the heel. Then dial it in from here. Launch monitors show us just how influential a centred strike is to shot power and direction; even just a few shots spent tuning up your striking can make a massive difference to your round and score.

4. One putt, one chance

The last thing most of us do before reaching the first tee is hit some putts on the practice green. The most common sight here is the golfer dropping down three balls and striking all three at the cup. The first of those, however, gives you "post-putt information" – a luxury we don't get on the course – and effectively makes the second two putts worthless. Putting is a skill of one prediction and one opportunity, so make sure the final thing you do is play nine holes with one ball. This sharpens your instincts for the challenge to come.

5. Make a commitment

Finally, before you leave the putting green, find your yardage book or an old scorecard and physically write down your commitment for the day. It's important to do this now, before you get into the chat of the first tee or the swings of fortune on the course itself. This could be a commitment to 'accept all outcomes', 'stick to routines' or to stick with a range move you've been working on. Making a commitment may seem peripheral to your score and performance; but like all five of these actions, it offers another way to develop a habit that is useful to you, and not one that could be costing you shots.