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Instruction

Mental Game

What a bad break can reveal about a winning mindset

Most golfers lament their bad luck when a ball ends up in trouble. The most successful players see opportunity

DigiClicks

Our instinct as golfers is to look to the peak of the sport for guidance on how to play and compete. Which is why I’m surprised the most impactful lesson of my summer came from a mid-handicapper in his seventies.

The backdrop was a friend’s member-guest, where we faced off against a cagey former college hockey player and his son. The father, who goes by Chip, had given us fits all day. He hit his driver square on the face, gave himself good looks at par even when he missed greens, and employed a version of arm-lock putting that made every six-footer essentially a gimme.

But we were playing well, too, and after a clutch birdie by my partner, we managed to take a one-up lead into the final hole. In some ways what happened next was just a typical plot twist in a weekend club tournament. Yet its deeper significance will stay with me.

After my partner and I each found the fairway with our drives, Chip left his drive out to the right, close to out-of-bounds. A search ensued, until I located just a speck of a ball in the rough. More than just buried, the ball appeared to be submerged below the turf. There seemed to be no way Chip could advance the ball more than a few yards, and much as I wanted him to have to play it, I knew he didn’t have to.

“Chip, that ball is embedded,” I said. “You can take relief.

Chip looked at the lie for just a few seconds, shrugged, then pulled a club.

“Eh, I’ve been getting good breaks all day,” he said with a wave. “No need.”

From there, Chip took a low, wide stance, choked down on the club, and hacked the ball out of the rough, and onto the green. Of course he went on to make par, while my partner and I—both perhaps a bit stunned—each made bogey. The match was halved.

In 45 holes of golf that weekend, Chip’s approach on 18 was the best shot I saw. But a lot of guys hit clutch golf shots. What resonated most was Chip’s reaction to adversity, and how, I’m embarrassed to say, it differs from my own. Putting aside the perfectly legal drop he declined, Chip also chose not to dwell on a bad bounce at the most inopportune time. In fact, he chose to recognize how he was fortunate to be in that position to begin with.

It’s a mindset most of us lack. A common post-round narrative for golfers is to discuss what would have happened if not for this one thing. The other day after an encouraging stretch of holes, my foot slipped on a tee shot, and I pulled my drive out of bounds—which may have also resulted in the driver “slipping” out of my hands and helicoptering into an adjacent hole. For the next few holes, I brooded over my rotten luck, which is a foolproof recipe for playing even worse.

Looking back, though, even within that round there was ample opportunity to contemplate what went right. A kick off a slope back into the fairway; a fluffy lie in the rough. Every golf round presents a menu of competing narratives, yet most golfers I know opt for somewhere between dark comedy and tragedy.

This is not the part where I tell you you can’t be in a bad mood playing golf. When someone trots out the old line about a bad day on the golf course being better than a good day at the office, I think about how at least I’m being paid to be at work. To truly love golf is to spend time and money you don’t have on an experience you know might leave you miserable when it’s over. If the unwritten golf contract says those days are inevitable, our mindsets can still play a role in keeping them at bay.

In recent years, the concept of practicing gratitude has been identified as a pathway to happiness. Scientifically, we’re told that by taking time to note what we’re grateful for, we activate the neural circuits that produce positive brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Basically, if you take the time to think about the things you should be happy for, you will actually be happier.

In a golf context, it suggests that if we take an extra moment to savor a well-struck drive, or the company of our playing partners, we’re opening ourselves up to a more enjoyable round. Which is great. But remember, Chip’s example was not only in his agreeable demeanor, but that he—pardon the hyperbole here—also stuck a dagger in our hearts along the way. Which leads to perhaps the more important question: does being a more grateful golfer make you a better player as well?

It should, according to Dr. Bhrett McCabe, a sports psychologist who works with a number of tour players, because being grateful means you’re more likely to see opportunity in an event as opposed to “burden, bad breaks, and bad luck.” Only one of those viewpoints sets you up for success.

“I’d say it’s very hard to have a positive outcome if you have a negative mindset over the ball,” McCabe said.

When I told McCabe the story about Chip, he recognized the telltale ingredients of a winning mindset. To McCabe, for Chip to turn his attention to his next shot so quickly meant he was focusing on an “internal locus of control” versus an external locus. Translated, it meant Chip chose to focus on the things within his grasp versus the stuff out of his reach. Even Chip’s decision to pass on a free drop was telling. While not the prudent play, it suggested Chip saw a shot worth trying, consequences be damned.

As the late caddie Bruce Edwards put it, Greg Norman would hit into a divot in the fairway and seek relief. Tom Watson would hit into one and say, “Watch this."

David Madison

The sequence is reminiscent of an observation by the late Bruce Edwards, who caddied for Tom Watson, a winner of eight majors, and Greg Norman, who arguably underachieved by winning just two. As Edwards put it, Norman would hit into a divot in the fairway and seek relief. Watson would hit into one and say, “Watch this."

“There’s an optimism of hope in people like that,” McCabe said, before returning to a familiar word. “They see the opportunity versus the punishment.”

The final word on this should go to my former opponent, who I reached out to weeks after our match. At 74, more than a half-century removed from his days playing hockey at Harvard, Chip Otness was quick to acknowledge he didn’t always boast such a model attitude as a young athlete. “I wrapped plenty of golf clubs around trees as a kid,” he said. “I guess you could say it’s evolved.”

Call it gratitude or a sense of opportunity, Chip said he just knows he’s more likely to hit a good shot like the one he hit on 18 if he’s relaxed over the ball. But even then, he’s played enough golf to know there are no guarantees.

“Frankly I was impressed I hit such a good shot out of that lie,” he said. “I guess I just got a good break.”