BY GIO VALIANTE
Fundamentals. The word alone as it relates to golf evokes images of dusty furniture in your grandparents’ dimly lit living room. Fundamentals are not exciting, sexy or colorful. They are the old fogeys of golf.
And yet, the longer and more closely you study the game, the
more you come to appreciate how vital they are.
Having watched professional golfers I work with navigate
golf’s perils for the past 20 years, it’s remarkable how many
times the turning points directing them back to the path of
excellence have come not from finding a new idea, but rather
by rediscovering an old idea. One they had already learned,
typically long ago, often when they were young.
While even high-handicappers can readily list the fundamentals of the full swing—posture, ball position, grip, alignment—most people are surprised to hear there exists a
corresponding list of psychological fundamentals.
For example, when I first met with Justin Rose four years
ago before he had ever won on the PGA Tour, I told him his
path to winning golf would rely on a small number of mental
keys that he should default to every time, without fail. While
the results have been electric—five wins, Ryder Cup heroics
and now a U.S. Open triumph—the process itself has been
rather mundane. Fundamentals usually are.
Overlooking the psychological fundamentals is understandable: It is only in the past decade that sport psychology has
become acceptable to the mainstream golfer. During that time
more than 100 universities worldwide have begun offering
degrees in sport and exercise psychology, and the amount of
research submitted to academic journals has correspondingly
GOOD GOLFERS STILL RELY ON TRIED-AND-TRUE MENTAL KEYS TO SUCCEED
increased. Better research has
produced better strategies to help
athletes think in the most effective
ways. As with most areas of study,
the volumes of information tend to
come full circle on a few central ideas
that carry the bulk of the field.
In sport psychology, there is
general agreement that the fundamentals of the mental game are:
; Process over short-term outcome.
Despite Tiger Woods’s frequent
goal to “win” every week, most
golfers benefit from immersing
themselves into their processes.
The reason focusing on process is
usually beneficial is because of the
frequent distance between “good
golf” and “good score.” I’ve heard
golfers remark that they play better
than they score, and vice versa,
countless times. In a game where
results can be so fickle, attaching
personal well-being (happiness, personal identity, confidence,
motivation) to short-term outcomes generally undermines
; Think, but don’t overthink. In the 1950s when Bell Laboratories decided each phone number should have seven digits, there
was good science behind the decision: The human brain can
comfortably process seven bits of information but strains
beyond that. In the past 15 years I’ve never had a golfer reach
out to me because they were keeping the game too simple.
Instead, golfers tend to have too many swing thoughts and
generally complicate a game that is best played while focusing
on a few simple keys that focus the mind and free up the swing.
; Play one shot at a time. Yep, yep, oldest cliché in the book.
By focusing on playing each individual shot, though, golfers
are better able to forget the consequences of previous shots
and treat each as an independent event, thus improving the
likelihood of playing well.
; Practice for competition. Golf’s aphorisms (“Practice doesn’t
make perfect, it makes permanent”) speak to the power of
habit. Ben Hogan used to practice the “habit of concentra-
tion” and Nicklaus used to “practice as I intend to play.”
In the post-tournament interview at Merion, when Justin
explained his winning strategy as “What’s the appropriate
shot? Execute it, accept it, move on …” he was explaining how
he applied golf’s mental fundamentals to become the U.S.
Open champion. New fads will always surface, but every
generation of golfer could stand to learn and relearn the
same great principles that ultimately hold up to the test of
time and make for part of the game’s enduring allure. N
After his U.S. Open win,
Rose noted one of golf’s