August 5, 2020

Avoidance Is Not a Good Strategy

As you know, golf is incredibly challenging because there are so many different facets of the game. While most golfers don’t have the time or resources to become an expert, that doesn’t mean you can’t be proficient enough to see progress.

A common trap that golfers fall into (myself included) is avoidance. Sometimes, one part of the game is so daunting that you choose to try and avoid it at all costs. Recently, I played with a golfer that reminded me just how damaging this strategy could be, and I’m here to offer you all some advice on how to get through these hurdles.

Exhibit A

Several weeks ago I was playing with a golfer who was quite skilled. He was a 4-handicap, and I was particularly impressed by his driving ability. Although he was two decades removed from playing Division 1 tennis, it was evident that his athletic skill allowed him to drive it relatively straight at 275+ yards.

But I noticed on shorter par 4s he kept hitting irons. Since my thinking on that strategy has changed, I asked him why he was keeping the driver in the bag when it was obviously his best club (which he also believed). He told me that he was terrified of 30-70 yard wedge shots, and tries to avoid them at all costs. I also asked if he spent any time practicing from those distances, and he told me that it rarely happens.

That fear came on full display when he putted from roughly 60 yards on the next par 5, which I hadn’t seen done on a course other than Phil’s “stunt” at the final round of The Memorial.

In my head, I knew this golfer was completely capable of hitting those wedge shots with his physical talents. And to be honest, I knew how he felt.

My Avoidance

I’ve been playing golf for more than 25 years now. I’ve dealt with pretty much every single fear and problem that all of you have. The only part of my game that I’ve ever felt consistently confident in is my iron play. I have no idea why that is, but that just seems to be my golf DNA.

Over the years, I’ve played the avoidance game quite a bit myself. I, too, was terrified of those awkward wedge distances. Also, I spent many seasons trying to evade my driver as much as possible and hit other clubs off the tee, thinking they would give me a sense of security. Lastly, I spent most of my time as a golfer, never working on my putting all that much.

The result was frustration, mismanaged expectations, and a level of play I was generally not happy with.

But, I’ve learned a few things on how to conquer these avoidance issues in my own game, and by also closely watching other golfers.

A Three-Pronged Approach

Golf will expose all parts of your game eventually. If you want to become a better player, sweeping problems under the rug just won’t work. That’s not to say that you need to spend countless hours honing every single part of your game.

So if you find yourself in this situation where one (or several) parts of your game are becoming a major mental hurdle, I have three recommendations.

Embrace the Challenge and Change Your Identity

A lot of golfers reserve themselves to an inevitable fate. For a long time, I told myself, and anyone who would listen that I wasn’t a great putter, or I couldn’t drive the ball well. Every time I stepped on the course, I had this identity hanging over my head. When faced with a 60-yard wedge shot or a difficult driving hole, I felt the anxiousness building as I approached my ball.

I believe the best way to handle this problem is to try and flip the script. If you do want to become better, you need to embrace these deficiencies in your game and have a positive attitude that you are going to try and work on them. Negativity becomes a nasty self-fulfilling prophecy on the golf course.

While it will take some work (I’ll get into that), your goal is to change your identity. You want to go from the player who thinks they are a horrible wedge player, to the golfer that can address those shots with a healthy attitude. Of course, you’re never going to be perfect, but you can get incrementally better at these parts of the game where they aren’t the big gaping hole.

As always, I want to remind you that this process is relative to each golfer, their experience in the game, and skill level. For some of you, addressing some of these problems could help you break 100, and for others, it might be the last piece of the puzzle in becoming a scratch golfer.

Find the Core Issue

This is perhaps the most challenging part because you are going to deal with a mixture of mental and physical issues.

My advice to the golfer who inspired this article was to seek professional help. I knew he was perfectly capable of hitting those wedge shots but needed some direction from a swing coach on what his core technical problems were.

I do believe golf lessons can help with this process and make your path to getting more confident on the course more efficiently.

However, I know a lot of you might not have the budget for lessons, or if you’re like me, sometimes prefer to do some experimentation on your own.

For example, reading Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible over a decade ago helped solve my wedge play problems. I took his framework and applied it to my practice sessions until I felt comfortable. Also, I created this wedge practice routine. Granted, I’m not a tour-level wedge player, but the fear is gone now. Which leads me to my next point…

Work

If you want to improve any deficiency in your golf game, changing your attitude is not enough. At some point, you’re going to have to take a different approach and put some work in during your practice sessions. Getting lessons is perhaps my number one recommendation to make sure you are doing the right kind of work.

It’s impossible to predict how long it might take you to move from a state of complete avoidance to mild, or even supreme confidence. But if you never address the problem at all, it will continue to plague you on the course.

Currently, bunker play is an issue for me. Tendencies in my swing that work for me in my iron play seem to work against me when I’m in the sand. As such, throughout the season, I need to spend about 30-60 minutes in a bunker to re-establish the technique necessary to get the ball on the putting surface and avoid heavy, or bladed bunker shots that seem to arise when I play in tournaments under more pressure. The longer I go between bunker practice sessions, the further and further my confidence seems to wane.

Wrapping It Up

I know all of you have a part of your golf game that gives you above-average anxiety. There are days we play when we feel like our whole game is the problem, but I want you to think about one issue in particular that maybe you have completely avoided. Unfortunately, they don’t tend to go away on their own.

To summarize my recommendation:

  • Embrace: You need to make a fundamental decision that you will no longer avoid the problem. Instead of letting it define your game, take a completely different approach, and try to change your identity. When you step on the course, you want to think to yourself, “I can play ____ shots without complete fear anymore.”
  • Find: Whether it’s with the help of a trained professional (not that random guy at the range), or through your self-experimentation, you need to figure out what the core issue is that’s preventing you from having any kind of success. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself on what “success” even means. For example, being able to land your ball on the green more than 50% of the time from 50 yards could be a huge victory.
  • Work: Be prepared to practice and work on your problem. That doesn’t mean you need to spend 10 hours a week until your hands start bleeding. It could be as small as a 15-minute practice session. Most importantly, make sure you are doing the right kind of work.

Hopefully, I have given you some new direction on how to solve the part of your golf game that you want to lock away in a mental closet. If you have any stories of your own on how you conquered an issue like this, please feel free to share them in the comments section!

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