You Can Still Play Great Golf While Nervous, Here's How

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Last weekend, Viktor Hovland won the Mayakoba Classic – birdie at # 18 no less – for his 2nd win on the PGA Tour. But it wasn't so much his victory as how he described his mental game that caught my attention.

In Sunday's post-round recap, Viktor did not recite the usual mantras spoken by nearly every Tour winner. His comments even suggested that he was able to succeed without falling into a zen-like trance that anchored him peacefully and powerfully in one shot at a time mode. Viktor said before, "I don't feel like I'm very good at those pressure situations … I was shaking there at the end … I'm not at all comfortable in those moments."

Listen to Viktor's actual words here:

Personally, I found Viktor refreshingly honest. And more. His words shed light on what appears to be a fundamental principle of golf psychology: To play your best golf, you must develop a calm and confident mental state and stay there for 18 holes.

It's not necessarily so

As a mental coach and an avid tournament golfer, I am not buying it. In fact, I see it as a myth. And as proof I point to Viktor Hovland. If a mental state of peak performance was essential to success on the Tour, there was no way he would have won in Mayakoba. In his own words, he was not in the zone behind nine. He actually sounded like a man who was closer to Jean Val De Velde than closing the door with a birdie at 18… especially with Aaron Wise on fire and literally breathing on his neck until the last putt was pierced. But despite his nervousness, Viktor got it done. He drained the last well and walked away with the equivalent of more than NOK 10 million.

Perhaps there is more to an effective state of mind than meets the eye …

With that said, let me invite you to consider a conflicting possibility.

Different battle for different people

For some golfers, trying to develop the standard set of mental skills – more positive, more decisive, better able to hit your target and trust your swing under pressure – has gone down the wrong path. Just because an approach is right for many players – and endorsed by PGA Tour stars – doesn't mean it's just right for everyone. I would go as far as to say that if you try to incorporate the wrong toolkit into your mental game, you will hurt your overall golf experience and suck the fun out of tournament play.

Here I am not suggesting that I have a solution for everyone. But if what I'm about to say turns out to be the bullseye for you, what follows can give you groundbreaking insights.

You know … if you tend to respond to pressure like Viktor Hovland did this weekend, the key to unlocking your A game, when it matters most, is to use your wits like him did. To put it bluntly, you should stop trying to control or refine your mental state and learn how to make golf shots despite what you may be feeling.

Let me explain by inviting you to think about an obvious truth that we all encounter every day of our lives – people are different. Some people are mechanically inclined and naturally seem capable of breaking something. Some people cannot hit a nail. Some people are musically gifted and some are tone deaf. Some people (introverts) get energy from being in solitude and lose energy because they feel stressed when they are part of a large group meeting. Some people (extroverts) get antsy when they are alone and feel energized and alive in a group environment.

When we bring the concept of personal difference to the arena of sport, we can identify an important aspect of the mental game: each athlete has unique subconscious characteristics that determine his / her athletic personality.

We all have different motivations

For example, some athletes are driven to win. Some are driven not to lose. Some athletes are externally motivated and need feedback from a coach to progress. Some athletes are internally motivated and their personal conclusions will always matter more than a coach can ever say. In my work as a coach I have noticed a third category of the subconscious mind that directly affects your physical ability in situations of pressure … some athletes tend to be artists and some tend to be players .

A artist likes pressure. He or she naturally becomes calmer, more engaged, and more focused when it is hot. In fact, an athlete who tends to be on the performer side of the equation will often need the big stage to arouse total interest and give his best. See Reggie Jackson and Tom Brady. For golf, look no further than Jack, Tiger and right up to his recent battle with injuries, Brooks Koepka.

A player dislikes pressure. He or she can often find "the zone," but it usually happens in practice or in less meaningful matches. On the big stage, such a player easily gets overwhelmed and often shrinks back from the moment. After one or two choking jobs, they will seek help overcoming what is perceived as an inner flaw. For golf, see Greg Norman in Augusta, and most recently, I suspect, Rickie Fowler.

Be True to Yourself

Here's what you need to understand: You can't change the way you're wired.

Now don't get me wrong. You can use your strengths and change your habits. Every day people make significant changes in the way they live their lives. But our subconscious tendencies are related to our height, base body type and the color of our eyes. They arrive at birth and stay with us until the end.

If you are wired to be a player and you function in the form of Viktor Hovland, you will be a player forever. Don't fight it. Work with it. Just because you don't enjoy pressure like Michael Jordan in his prime, doesn't mean you can't succeed. It just means that you need to develop mental skills that are right for you. Instead of trying to become someone you are not, you become the best you can be.

These four principles will help your goal:

1) Dismiss the Myth

Your mindset is a factor in your game, but how you think / feel is not a direct cause of your score. I'm sure you've had the experience to finish a hole where you've striped it in the middle, hit your approach tight and drained the birdie … and on the next tee was confident … only to hack your next drive in the mess.

Conversely, I am sure you are so frustrated with a series of bogeys that you gave up the ghost with disgust, only to find yourself taking a beautiful shot or making a brilliant 40ft putt.

Good golf – and good golf now and then – does not require a perfect frame of mind. You don't need flawless mental play, any more than flawless swing. As Viktor showed, you can be nervous and doubt your ability to get it done… and… you can still take golf shots along the course.

2) Distinguish between thoughts and emotions

If your subconscious tendency is to be a player your challenge on the golf course is not to deal with your dominant thoughts. It has to do with your dominant feelings.

In other words, they are emotions that threaten to overwhelm you, and it is your method of dealing with emotions that stand between you and your best wave. The thoughts you think are along for the ride.

Of course thoughts and emotions are intertwined. But make no mistake, they are two different internal processes.

3) Learn to observe your emotions

Once you can successfully focus your awareness on what you are feeling instead of what you think, the next step is to observe the truth of what happens when you start to feel nervous, anxious, tense or scared . or whatever word you use to describe your emotional experience.

Suppose you have an upcoming tournament; Very well. Use it to be a better inner observer.

If you don't have an upcoming tournament to practice this level of consciousness, go back to your memory and think about the last time you experienced your emotions as a problem during a competitive round.

Relive the memory as best you can and notice how you feel your emotions in your body. Do you get sweaty hands? Do you feel "shaky," as Hovland described above? Does your stomach get sick? Your throat is getting dry? Whatever it is, you just become aware of it.

The idea here is observation … without judgment … and without the intention to change or alter what you feel. The term in psychology is dissociation, and it means that you can step back and mentally witness your inner experience.

4) Changing the pattern

After you have become adept at observing how you feel without trying to change or eliminate your emotional state, it is time to put trust at the forefront of your game.

The next time you enter a tournament and find yourself nervous, it's important to observe the feeling and talk to yourself in the third person.

Here is the internal dialogue I recommend. Say, “I'm feeling nervous right now, and I can focus on my target and take this shot. Or,“ I find myself walking faster now, and I can focus on my target and take this shot. ”Or : "I'm starting to feel the way I feel when I choke, and I can focus on my target and get this shot."

Notice this – your focus starts with the truth of your emotions and then moves on to what you see in the external world.

It is essential to focus your consciousness on your feelings first, because as a player that is your natural tendency under pressure.

Observe the feeling, or if you prefer to use other words, give the feeling some attention. Then use the energy you save by not trying to control your emotions to shift your focus to something outside of your skin – your target preferably.

And don't just look forward in the general direction of where you want to go. Look at your target the way a hawk looks at its prey.

Just remember – pay attention to your feelings first or they will pay attention to you!


So there you have it … a process that is honest about the reality and power of personal emotions and ends with a focus on the shot at hand.

If you are a player I hope you give the four steps above a fair consideration. And I also hope that you can look back on a tournament that is meaningful to you and in words similar to Viktor Hovland's in Mayakoba: "You know … I didn't feel quite there at the end at ease … and yet, I did it. "

About the author

Kent Osborne has lifelong professional experience as a mental coach for professional athletes and business leaders. His current passion is golf. You can read more about his coaching at, or on Twitter @scratchattitude

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