Adapted from Mastering Golf's Mental Game: Your Ultimate Guide to Better On-Course Performance and Lower Scores, copyright © 2014 by Dr. Michael T. Lardon. To be published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Random House LLC, on Sept. 16, $25.
Over the past 10 years, I've been helping golfers like Phil Mickelson find high-value motivation to continue to improve year after year, and showing them how to use the strong results orientation they all have in a productive way. One of the basic tools for this work is what I call the Mental Scorecard.
Golf is a game of score and measurement. You write down your score for each hole, and you plug your final score into the computer. You're judged by your handicap, just like PGA Tour players are judged by their finishes and rank on the money list.
We all know intuitively that it's best to be focused on the process, or the task at hand. But we can't help but try to peek forward at what our results might be: If I can par out, I can break 80 for the first time, or All I have to do is two-putt here. Or we chew over past results: I never hit a good tee shot here, or I always choke under pressure. When you dilute your attention that way, it's hard to perform at your best.
I designed the system to satisfy every golfer's need for immediate feedback. But instead of measuring the number of strokes taken on a given hole, the scorecard measures performance against a series of benchmarks. Did you carefully calculate wind, elevation and other factors to come up with your yardage and shot? Did you go through your visualization process to see or feel the shot? Did you hit your shot with a clear, neutral mind? In simple terms, you track the number of shots you take on a given hole, and the number of shots out of that total that you executed all the mental benchmarks successfully—regardless of how the shot turned out.
At the end of the round, you'll have your standard score, plus a percentage of those total shots that you executed after successfully integrating your mental steps. At the tour level, the difference between winning a major championship and keeping your card is about 7 or 8 percentage points—five to six shots per round with less than full concentration. The best tour players score 98 or 99 percent. Top-125 players are usually above 90 percent. Good college players are in the low 80s, and single-digit handicappers are in the 60s. Regardless of your level, if you can consistently increase your percentage, the numbers on your standard scorecard will improve. I'll give you two examples.
In early 2011, I was watching Phil go through one of his normal off-week practice sessions. When he stopped to take a break, I asked him to show me what his process was for a real shot in a tournament—from getting yardage from his caddie to pulling the club and going through his pre-shot routine. He went through his process and hit a shot at one of the target flags on the range. After he hit the shot, I gave him a quick description of the pre-shot mental benchmarks and how the scorekeeping worked. One of the reasons Phil has been so successful for so long is his complete lack of ego when it comes to incorporating new ideas into his game. He's a naturally open, curious person, and he's extremely intelligent. If he finds something he thinks can help him, he won't hesitate to use it.
After listening to my description, he said he'd give it a try. He paused for a few seconds to go through the steps, then hit the next shot. I was watching him, not the ball, and I asked, "How was that?" Before he could answer, I heard the ball hit the flag. Phil picked another flag 158 yards away, tucked onto a little ridge, and hit 20 shots alternating between high-drawing 9-irons and soft-cutting 8-irons. At the end, a dozen balls were within four feet of the flag. He told me he liked the system, especially the "mental scorecard part." A name was coined, and coincidence or not, he went out the next week and won the Shell Houston Open.
The next year, just before the Masters, a small group was watching Phil hit practice putts on the green at his house. He was experimenting with a variety of putters and styles, alternating between using a belly putter and trying some different grips.
Afterward, he asked me what I thought. I told him I would leave the technical discussions to Dave Stockton and Butch Harmon, but from a mental perspective, the particular style he used wasn't as important as picking the one style that was most comfortable.
Competition burns energy. That's just as true at the Masters as it is in your game with friends. You need all of your energy and focus to deal with the stress of competing. You don't want to burn it thinking about mechanics, even if you're able to "forget" the mechanical part when you're over the ball.
In the next few months, Phil and I worked on this concept. At one event, he told me that he had too many swing thoughts going through his head. I asked him to think about the single image that came to mind as his hands were coming through the ball when he was swinging well. After he locked on it, I asked him if that image was consistent with what he was working on with Butch. It was. Then I asked him to go out to the range and hit balls thinking only about that image. He did it, and went out and shot 64 that day.
Phil internalized the concept of playing "naturally." During practice, we simplified the questions to "Does it feel comfortable?" and "Does it match what the instructor wants me to do?" He was able to simplify his thought process leading up to each shot, and play without getting clogged. It made his swing instructor's job much easier, too, because it became much simpler to identify the physical things that needed work.
Golf is a demanding game, and you can't play your best every day. The mind and body don't always cooperate. But by improving your mental process, you can get the most of what's available that day. The typical golfer plays bad and comes home and says, "I played bad," not "My physical game was bad, but mentally I was pretty good." With the Mental Scorecard, you have a much more sensitive measuring tool for your game. Not only do you have a better idea of what to work on, but you also acquire a tool you can bring with you to the course no matter what shape your physical game is in. That's a lot more valuable than any adjustable driver or temporary swing band-aid.
Dr. Michael Lardon is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and consulting psychiatrist for the United States Olympic teams.