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golf mental game

Is it possible to look forward to a round of golf?

In his usual upbeat manner Mark Townsend hits the highs on the course before wondering when it's all going to start going wrong again
 

On Shane Lowry’s glorious Open Sunday I woke early with the usual sense of unease. It had nothing to do with what was going on down the road at Royal Portrush or even anything slightly concerning.

In an hour’s time, less than a mile away, I would be playing golf.

The same thing happened recently when on holiday in Dorset, a sleep comparable only to when getting up for a dawn flight before a portion of dread would fill both my mind and ever-increasing tummy.

This wasn’t even the cut and thrust of a midweek Stableford – instead two amazing courses with friends and family, no bad or testing weather to worry about, I had enough balls and the right clubs and enough clothes and there was nothing to worry about other than the results of some completely meaningless matches which would be forgotten about by the time I had driven out of the car park.

Golf is my favourite hobby, in truth it’s my only hobby, and a collection of silly concerns were now filling my head.

Not much of this makes sense. Other than flying, and motorway driving, and heights, and eating peanuts by mistake, I’m not really a worrier. I don’t really care what I score, I’ve long since made peace with the fact that I can’t chip and have installed a number of coping mechanisms for this flaw in both my technique and mind and, for once, I actually quite like all my clubs.

When I was growing up at Wimbledon Park, other than the club pro, I had one real hero who was maybe the most negative golfer I’ve ever come across which suggests this isn’t a new thing in my life. He was always out on his own late at night hitting a few, his handicap would jump between 7 and 8 and his favourite saying was a brief description of where his head was always at when playing the 280-yard 1st hole.

On the tee he would repeatedly tell himself “I have it”. By the time he passed the end of the hedge, which was 50 yards short of the green, the same voice would start piping up: “I had it.”

Then, by the time he was standing over his first putt, a third voice would announce “it’s gone”.

“I have it, I had it, it’s gone.”

Given this was 1985 he was quite ahead of his time. And, given I was a starry-eyed teenager who would strangely hang on his every word, he made quite an impression on me. I still say it to myself walking down most 1st holes that I play as some sort of mantra to talk myself out of it before I’ve even got going.

Part of all this is the usual mental scarring that comes with golf – the 91 in the Golf Foundation national finals in 1988 which included half a dozen shanked pitching wedges or another pipe into the face of a bunker, this time from my first shot of the day the same year in a 36-hole scratch foursomes event, The Antlers, at Royal Mid-Surrey or, five years later, with my new anti-shank move, laying sod over ball – but these experiences only tell part of the story. Not that I think about them too often.

Another reason is the terrible company I keep on the golf course where I’m drawn like a moth to a flame by the weakest of minds. My amateur golfing hero plays off +2, carries a pencil bag, no more than three balls and hasn’t changed his clubs in a decade. On the face of it he is a picture of inner calm but his hero status is rubber-stamped by his outstanding views on course management.

“I’m not sure I am capable of going more than a couple of holes without hearing the voices piping up. On some days I have no issue quietening them, on others it can be quite an exhausting experience. I’ve heard the voices for a number of years now.”

Despite the usual mind tremors the first of these rounds at Castlerock went particularly well with 44 points and a first round of level par since 1991. I say this both to show off and to try and explain how desperate my thinking is going forward from these heroics.

Coming off the course I was three shots worse off in my guesstimate of what pyrotechnics had just taken place, such was the bubble that I had immersed myself in. Rather than knowing where I stood after every shot I was blissfully unaware of much of what was going on.

Zen doesn’t even come close.

Two weeks later, having not hit a ball in the interim, I was once again a fidgety mess. Rather than champing at the bit over my new-found swing move, courtesy of my golf-whisperer friend a few weeks back, a tip that had only brought happiness and a load of pars, the new fear was whether it would still be there? Always a negative, why does there always have to be a negative?

Why is my favourite quote of the year our most recent major winner, Hinako Shibuno’s, as she stood over her final approach to the 72nd green?

“If I shank this it will be really embarrassing.”

Seve always used to say that he would play with whatever game he had on the range. If he didn’t know from one day to the next what was going to happen then what chance do I have? And how do I stop myself being so impressionable?

The Bridport outing didn’t throw up too many red flags and I was round in my handicap in fairly gusting winds. Get me, again. But over every shot there was more than a slight concern that something terrible was about to take place which would then have a long-standing and negative effect on my happiness on the course.

My next venture out onto the links is in 10 days’ time and my negative mental attitude has already set the cogs in motion.

I have it, I had it, it’s gone.

Mark Townsend

Been watching and playing golf since the early 80s and generally still stuck in this period. Huge fan of all things Robert Rock, less so white belts. Handicap of 8, fragile mind and short game

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