Successfully managing your swing thoughts

Tiger Woods hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 2010 Players Championship.

Tiger Woods hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 2010 Players Championship.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – One of the recurring themes of the 2010 U.S. Open was the existence of swing thoughts and how to manage them.

Mike Weir set the tone early in the week, saying, “You have to find a way to get from the practice tee to the course without all those swing thoughts. Otherwise you can end up thinking too much and playing golf swing, not golf.”

All golfers have played golf swing – concentrating almost exclusively on swing thoughts and swing positions and largely disregarding the score.

More instruction

Charlie King, director of the Reynolds Plantation Golf Academy in Greensboro, Ga., is not your typical teaching pro. As James Achenbach writes, King likes to make people laugh before hitting them over the head with a serious message.

“The range is for practice, and the course is for playing the game, and you’re dead if you can’t separate the two,” said Mike Wilson, director of instruction at The Palms Golf Club in La Quinta, Calif., and Weir’s instructor. “It’s my job to help you figure out how to do that.”

So how does a successful golfer separate the two?

U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell: “You turn off your mind. You feel your golf swing without really thinking about it. It’s almost like you you don’t think at all. Maybe you have one little thought, and everything else becomes automatic.”

One little thought. This makes sense, providing that a golfer has practiced and played enough to be comfortable with the overall swing.

Repetition. “You can’t wish yourself into a good score,” said short game instructor Dave Pelz. “You have to do it over and over and over.”

Pelz likes to tell a story about a clinic before a PGA Tour event in 1986. Raymond Floyd, who had just won the U.S. Open, preceded Pelz. Floyd’s general message: “I forgot everything I ever learned and went out and played the game.”

Pelz was next. “If you can forget everything you’ve ever been taught, and you can go out and shoot 66 on a U.S. Open course, you definitely should do that,” he said. “But if you go out and shoot 95, then let’s talk.”

The point: A maestro can rely on his instincts far easier than can an average golfer.

“You have to work on the mechanics until you can forget them,” Pelz observed. “Unless you have good mechanics, unless you have the fundamentals, you will struggle in different ways.”

How does a golfer focus on fundamentals, correcting the swing and making changes that don’t go away under pressure?

Laird Small, director of the Pebble Beach Golf Academy, had a one-word answer for that one: clear.

“People look at confusion as a bad thing,” Small said. “Actually it’s a good thing. It’s the first step toward understanding. If it’s clear in your mind, you can do it. If you know you can do it, then you don’t need to think about it.

“My job is to end the confusion, to make things clear to golfers. If your head is full of swing thoughts, you need to clear it up. A good instructor can help you do that. Not only will you play better, but you’ll also feel a lot less stress when you’re out there.”

Christopher Smith, who teaches at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Ore., had another one-word answer: S-L-O-W.

“Slow the swing down when you train and practice,” Smith said. “Tiger (Woods) is a good example of that. He is slower than normal with his practice swing or rehearsal swing, and you can always tell what kind of shot he is trying to hit.

“On the range, slow the swing down. Concentrate on visualizing and picturing the shot and the result. Learn what it feels like to hit a particular shot – a draw, a fade, a high shot, a low shot, or anything else.

“If you are making a swing change, slow it down. Practice and practice until it becomes part of your unconscious approach to the swing. It is the unconscious piece of the mind that works (well) most of the time if we stay out of its way.

“The golf swing itself is much faster than the swing thought. Most people’s swings don’t change even if they have proper swing thoughts. A change has to become part of your unconscious golf swing.

“Go slowly. Feel the entire swing unfold as part of an unconscious process. In effect, you are quieting the conscious mind.

“As you repeat this, it (the swing) becomes less conscious. After a period of time, you add speed, and it becomes the new motor program.”

Or, as an exercise in self-punishment, you can continue to play golf swing.

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