Everyone plays terrible at times. It's just the nature of the variance in golf. You have some great days, you have a lot of average days, and you have some really bad days. So every time you play your score will fall onto this spectrum. Yet we still HATE it when we play bad. Almost like we thought we were incapable of making mistakes.
That false notion of control aside, how should you react after playing a bad round? Well in my view this is a fork in the road. You can react in two different ways:
On the left, you can choose to be sad, mad, sulk in your misery, pout, get emotional, blame, make excuses, compare yourself to others, drastically change things, doubt anything you've been working on, be fake happy and positive, try to convince yourself that round never happened, and curse the imaginary golf gods.
On the right, you can choose to be logical, evaluate what went well, so-so, and bad, not let your emotions get tied up in the result, realize that a round of golf is simply a test of your game not an indictment on your character, analyze your stats, and develop a plan of action based on that analysis and get to work on your plan.
This fork in the road is everything. If you go down the left, we'll call it the emotional path, then you will have a really hard time improving and having a hope of playing better next time, or ever. But if you go down the logical path, the path to the right, you actually leave behind all of the uncontrollable things of golf and put control back into your hands. You give yourself the opportunity to improve.
But why do we get so emotional about the result of a round? Why do we take it so personally?
A major reason I hear often from players is how they thought they were working way harder than others yet others still beat them. This comparison mentality is dangerous because golf is primarily about playing against the golf course, not against other players. Yes, everything we watch and hear about golf and sports conditions us to believe that golf is played against other people. After all, it's a competitive sport. What fun would it be to watch just one player play a golf course by themselves, and then watch a second player play a golf course by themselves, and so on, and then see who played the course the best? That would not make for compelling TV. So there has to be drama inserted to make it compelling. 'This person has to make 2 birdies coming in to beat this other person!' While that might be true, that is artificial drama of player versus player that is designed to keep a viewer interested. A good mental game will not adhere to these made-up rules.
So then you have to go against this nature and everything you ever hear and realize that golf is in fact you playing a golf course, and trying to do it to the best of your ability every time. If other people played the course better than you did, then good for them. You are interested in how YOU play the golf course. How did you drive the ball on this golf course? Not 'how did you drive compared to others?' How did you putt on this golf course? Not 'how did everyone else putt and how do you tack up against them'? This is the dangerous side of strokes gained stats, because it's based on how others did in certain aspects of the game. So when you have 'negative strokes gained' you could've driven the ball pretty well for you, but compared to others you did poorly. I'm not saying abandon strokes gained stats, in fact I like reducing the emotion of how other players did down to just numbers. But be wary of too much comparison and the emotions that can creep in.
Or how did you handle adversity? How did you react when you had a bad hole? How present did you stay when thoughts of past or future crept in? Not 'how did others do these things?'
Your job is how YOU play the golf course compared to how YOU'VE played the course previously. How YOU are practicing. How YOU measure up against YOURSELF. You can't control how others play the golf course, or how hard others practice, or the timeline of improvement others are on. You simply can't, and any part of you that wished you could needs to be removed. You can only control how YOU go about things.
So now that you've removed the uncontrollables of how others played, the variance in golf, and how long it takes to actually improve at this game, you can get to the work of actually improving your own ability to play the course better next time. And this is where the possibilities explode of how you can go about working your plan.
Here's the secret formula for how to improve that most people don't know and do the opposite: You raise the importance of practice, make it as intense and focused and high quality as possible, and you lower the importance of a round of golf to simply be a test of what you're good at, so-so at, and what needs improvement.
Most people take practice casually by listening to music or podcasts, hanging out with friends, going through the motions, spending lots of time but not quality time, and then when it's tournament round (or any round) time NOW it's time to focus and get serious. And this leads to really high expectations with no preparation to back up those expectations. Which then leads to increased pressure without the foundation to withstand that pressure.
So if you make practice intense, focused, pressure-packed, and super high quality, and the round of golf just a test of your preparation, then it lowers the pressure on the round of golf. Because if you realize you can't actually ever be perfect, and your test will never have a perfect score, then you can easily go down the logical road at the fork, while everyone else is wrapped up dealing with pressure and being emotional about their round.
Do this next time you play. After your round, write down two of each of these things:
- two things you did really well
- two things that were average
- two things that need improvement
And then write down specifically how you could go about improving those two things that need improvement.
This is the logical road at the fork. Putting things back into your control so you can work on being a better version of yourself.