I, like a number of my fellow professionals, have a somewhat strange memory when it comes to golf. I can often recall shots from rounds played many years ago and much to the disbelief of my caddy Steve, even the clubs hit and the result of each and every shot. I watched an interview with Jack Nicklaus prior to this years Masters tournament. During which he talked the no doubt enchanted crowd of reporters through the finishing holes of his last victory at the Augusta National Golf Club some 25 years earlier! It was with a wry smile that I watched the Golden Bear recall yardages and clubs hit over the finishing holes and even exact descriptions of how putts had broke and rolled into the hole.
On that matter, to this day I can remember the exact moment and shot that I discovered the ability to focus properly on a target whilst on the golf course. As a gangly teenager I had managed to chip and putt my way down to a low single figure handicap. After acquiring the position of Assistant Professional at Heswall Golf Club I was incredibly fortunate to be introduced to Paul Affleck, a local golfer competing successfully on the European Tour. Paul had graduated from the same Pro shop under Alan Thompson’s watchful eye just a few years earlier and quickly became a fantastic source of information and advice over the years I spent at Heswall.
It was during a few holes out on the course with ‘Daffy’ that the conversation turned to targets and the attention that they should be given. This was still in the relatively early days of golf psychology and I was young and naive enough to have not even heard of a certain Dr. Bob Rotella whose quotes I was now hearing. Paul and I stood over an approach shot into the 5th green, a long par 5 with the Welsh hills and River Dee to it’s left. I was asked by Paul where I was aiming, to which I replied “the tree behind the green.” Feeling quite smug with myself that I was being ‘super professional’ aiming towards the middle of the green rather than at the tight left pin I was then surprised to be asked “which branch?” I remember looking at Paul and initially thinking he was winding me up. What followed was what I have since heard described as a light bulb moment.
I was stood aiming at a 40 foot high tree which was almost as wide as the green that I was hitting towards. I would have to hit a pretty bad shot for it to not end up flying towards some part or other of the tree. What Paul was of course saying was that if I were to pick a smaller, more accurate target, the chances of me actually hitting to the part of the green I was intending would increase. I remember the simplicity of this idea immediately hitting home with me. To this day I strive to keep my target picking this simple and focused.
Often when I’m playing a round of golf with an amateur golfer I will ask what they are aiming at when stood on the tee box. Far too often the reply will be something like “Down the middle” or “The left hand side of the fairway”. This sounds far too vague to me. It’s the equivalent of an archer aiming at the whole target rather than the bullseye, or a basketball free thrower chucking the ball somewhere near the basket. Of course when it’s compared like that it sounds ridiculous. We’re all intending to hit the ball in the fairway from the tee but my point is that not aiming precisely where you’d like the ball to start (I say start as there are other outside agencies like wind or slope to take into account too of course!) is not the best way to think.
Instead of aiming ‘down the middle’ try picking a precise target either in the middle of the fairway or directly behind it. So, the rake handle sticking out from the fairway bunker or the church tower directly above the centre of the fairway. Sometimes you may struggle at first to find something to pick out, but there will be something that sticks out if you look closely enough. Make sure you pick out a fixed target, picking a cloud, bird, buggy etc that may move at any minute isn’t a great idea as you may end up rushing to hit your shot before the target moves!
Most golfers, when confronted with this simple way of thinking agree that it is a better way, however actually doing it whilst out on the golf course for all 18 holes is another matter. Just like trying to train a new swing movement or feeling, changing the way you think whilst stood behind your ball takes plenty of practice. Next time you’re out on the golf course ask yourself what are you aiming at? Is it a small enough target and as importantly, are you able to block everything else out and just focus on that? I’ll talk about the distractions we all face on the course in another post. Good luck.