There is a side of golf, that is all too frequently overlooked in our sometimes frantic efforts to master the swing.
This is the mental or thinking side of the game.
Happily, this is not nearly so difficult to master as the rest.
Basically, the thinking side of the game is the exercise of common sense, by which we give ourselves the best possible chance on every shot we undertake, adapting ourselves to the elements of wind, weather, and terrain, using our clubs to their fullest capabilities.
We plan how we are going to play each shot, how we are going to position ourselves and our ball to play each hole.
Before we go into the specifics of thinking, there are two things we can all do. We can learn both the rules and the etiquette of golf. The rules are many and they are sometimes peculiar, but the etiquette is simple. It is merely the application of the golden rule to golf: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The playing of a round of golf is a long succession of decisions on what to do, followed by the physical action of carrying them out. The physical action may be good but may fall short of success if the decision is wrong.
For instance, having hit a fine drive, you decide the 8 iron will carry the trap and put your ball on the green. You hit the iron perfectly and drop the ball into the trap. The execution was faultless but the decision was wrong. You should have used your 7.
The selection of clubs, though, is only one area of the thinking department.
A larger area is the planning of a shot to avoid trouble. This is, in a sense, a negative or defensive type of thinking, but it is extremely important. There are players who glory in playing everything boldly, in taking all manner of chances, and in scorning caution in themselves or anyone else. But when you stop to think of it, what chance does the poor player or the average player or even the pretty good player have of beating the golf course? He is one poorly to moderately well equipped individual, pitted against more than six thousand yards of rolling country, studded with both natural and man-made hazards. For him to think he can beat this enemy is asinine. The course has all the advantages.
The only sane attitude for any ordinary player to adopt is the defensive one, charting his way around or over the lurking dangers (thumbing his nose at them as he goes, perhaps), but at all costs avoiding them.
The besetting sin, the fatal flaw, if you will, in the poor or average golfer, is attempting too much. He gambles, on a decision born of sheer hope, that he will make a great shot from a poor position when the odds are heavy that he would not make nearly as good a shot from a perfect position. He takes a 5 iron when he knows he should take a 4, because the others in the foursome are using 5’s. He attempts to carry a trap from the tee when he knows in his heart that only a perfect shot, which he rarely hits, will get him over it. He tries to get distance from the rough when all he should try to do is just get out. In short, hope and pride—and apparently a belief in miracles—cause the average player to attempt too much. By trying to beat the course to its knees when he should only be out boxing it, the typical player loses strokes.
For the expert the situation is different. For him the bold attack is fine, tempered with reasonable good sense. He has the game that can beat the course, and he will beat it only if he attacks it.
A perfect example of a top pro attacking a course was Arnold Palmer on the first hole of the last round at Cherry Hills in 1960. Palmer started that last round seven shots behind the leader. He knew that only the boldest of play could close the gap. The first hole was a par 4, slightly down hill, measured 346 yards, and the green was closely guarded by traps, although there was a narrow opening. Palmer let out the shaft, as the pros say, and drove the green. He got down in two putts for a birdie 3, was off to a fast start, and as it turned out, a victorious round. Palmer has the powerful game to beat any course. He kept attacking Cherry Hills, subdued it with a 65, and won the Open.
The more talented or expert a player is, the more likely he is to carry out his plans. He has the ability to make the ball do, most of the time, what he wants it to do, within varying limits. The poorer player does not have this fine control of the ball, and he does not hit it so far, but he should plan every shot and every hole. He will not be able to carry out his plans as often as the good player, but when he does, they will save him strokes, and obviously the poorer player should overlook no opportunity whatever to reduce his shots.