Freedom vs. Confidence - Part 1

By: Peter Black

[Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series by Peter Black, an English student at Western Washington University. It explores golf's mental approaches and attitudes - specifically detachment and confidence - and how each mindset affects play.]

Golf is a hard game. Anyone who's ever swung a golf club at a golf ball can attest to that, whether they've three-putted from three feet on the last hole of a club championship; lost a $50 bet after blasting one in the water; shanked a 5-iron into a parking lot in front of their girlfriend; hit 100 perfect shots on the range only to go on to match their highest score on the course; paid for five different golf instructors in five months and gotten progressively worse; tried to hit a draw but always hits a fade; aimed left to compensate for a massive slice; aimed right to compensate for a massive hook; hooked it out-of-bounds or sliced it OB or thrown it OB; had their ball hit a house, a friend or a house and then a friend; blasted a drive down the middle during a tournament only to discover the ball has disappeared and need to run back to the tee and re-hit; thrown a club or a ball or a bag; broken a club or a ball or a bag; given away their clubs or balls or bag; who's quit or considered quitting. These poor souls can attest to how hard the game is.

When faced with adversity on the golf course one has three options. The first: get angry and show it. The second: get angry and don't show it. The third: don't get angry.

I generally gravitate towards option one, and I'm also quite familiar with No. 2. For me - and for 99 percent of golfers (including pros) - option three is not an option. Although the ideal of sports psychologists and Buddhists, I have yet to see a sober golfer play with complete detachment. My old swing coach, who I partially blame for halting my ascent to the pro tour, would ceaselessly shower me with an eloquent barrage of wisdom about detachment during our "swing" lessons. If I was lucky, I got to hit nine or 10 balls. "If you are not attached to your ball flight or your score, then you will play with freedom," he'd say.

In theory that makes sense. Who wouldn't swing effortlessly - flowing through the ball like a stream of hot honey - if they didn't care where it was going to end up? But is this truly applicable to the flawed and fragile human mind? And even if it is will it actually help your golf game?

In my opinion, complete detachment doesn't have a discernable effect on playing well or not. If you tell a 20 handicapper to go play like that it won't matter; I'm guessing he'll shoot around 20 over par. If you tell a scratch golfer with a swing flaw to go play like that, I'm guessing he'll shoot around 5-over. For golfer having an off-day "ceasing to care" rarely improves things. If a golfer is playing great, "ceasing to care" will probably make it worse. I believe that what really matters is confidence.

Confidence is important. Confidence is very, very important. Confidence is one of the most vital - if not the most vital - precursors to success in every aspect of life. Good grades require confidence. Public speaking requires confidence. Applying for jobs requires confidence. Running a business requires confidence. Math requires confidence. Writing requires confidence. Maintaining a relationship requires confidence. Getting promoted requires confidence. Picking up girls requires confidence. Streaking at an NFL game requires confidence. Sports require confidence. And yes, golf requires confidence.

Golf requires an unshakable, unbreakable and impenetrable wall of confidence. In most other sports you don't have time to think about how much you suck in-between each athletic action. In golf, you do. As such, maintaining confidence and concentration is an absolute necessity. Swing flaws and bad luck inevitably challenge every golfer, but a player should never have to fight against his own mind.

Obviously, we're all more confident when we're playing well. The key is to remain focused, aggressive and balanced even when we're not. You must be confident to play great golf and be confident to not play terrible golf. Amateurs vary widely in terms of raw talent, work ethic and mechanical skill. A great round for a 20 handicap won't resemble a great round for a scratch player, and a poor round for a 20 handicap won't resemble a poor round for a scratch. We all sometimes have poor mechanics, an aching back or simply bad luck.

However, one can take advantage of the game they bring that day - flawed or flawless - if they believe in themselves. Golfers who believe in themselves hit specific shots at specific targets. Golfers who believe in themselves make solid, aggressive passes at every ball and with every club. Golfers who believe in themselves don't start teeing up irons after slicing a few drivers. They don't lag 30-footers; they try to make 30-footers. They go for the green in two whether they're 4-under or 10-over. They never leave a putt short. Their confidence - unshakable, unbreakable and impenetrable - amplifies their good rounds and saves bad ones.

Confident golfers aren't arrogant or stupid, but they believe they can go low and believe they can recover. They never lose concentration. Every shot, pitch and putt is given absolute effort. The result: very low scores and no very high scores.

Part 2 continues to explore issues of confidence on the golf course, using the story of the author's final state high school championship as a backdrop.

Peter Black is an avid golfer from Seattle. Currently a senior at Western Washington University, he has been playing golf competitively and recreationally since he was 13. Peter is an English major at Western and enjoys combining his love of writing with his love of golf.