Here is what I've seen as the two different ways that players can go about practicing and preparing leading up to a tournament. Player One is focused on physical improvement as most important, and Player Two is dedicated to mental game improvement as their first priority.
You practice more than anybody you know. You get to the course early, hit buckets and buckets of range balls, spend hours at the short game area and putting green, and play rounds of golf every day. You play in as many tournaments as possible, so as to try to develop experience and get comfortable in pressure. You film your swing, take swing lessons twice a month, and pursue the “technically sound swing” exhaustively. Because you know that if you have a good swing, good golf will result. So you spent all winter practicing, and your first event of the year is coming up in the spring. You can’t wait for the tournament to get started so you can test your practice and see if your swing holds up.
The tournament is finally here, and you get off to a good start. But just like every round of golf that you have ever played, you make some mistakes. You know how much you’ve worked on your swing, so it’ll turn around, you’re sure of it. So you get to the very final hole, and you have a difficult shot to a tucked pin. You feel the pressure, you rehearse your swing that you’ve been working on, and you hit the shot. But you miss it, and now you’re short-sided and in a terrible spot. At that point you know the tournament is over. You are gutted that your swing let you down. After days and weeks and months of tireless effort your swing let you down when you needed it most.
So you take a day or two off, and then head straight back to the range to try to figure out what went wrong. You take some more swing lessons, tinker with more ideas, change up your equipment, and try this whole process again. And this cycle goes on and on and on with the occasional good result that keeps you coming back.
You prioritize your mental game, and the time that you put in reflects that. Every morning you reflect on the good things that you did yesterday, and you lay out a specific detailed plan to work on the things you need to improve today. You never get past today in your thinking. You’re always in this two-day routine. Because you are reflecting on yesterday and pinpointing a specific area of improvement for today, you are able to get to the course and you already have a plan for how you’re going to spend your time. For every aspect of the game you have a challenging practice that pushes you out of your comfort zone and puts pressure on your game. You might spend some time with other players while you’re at the course, but most of your practice is alone, because you know in a tournament you’re on your own. You go through your entire pre-shot routine before every range ball, chip, or putt. With every challenging practice, you are marking down how you performed; always tracking your progress in practice. This way you can see what you’re getting better at, and what you need to put more focus on.
At the end of the practice day, you’ve spent just as much time as the other players, but probably hit a lot fewer balls. Every ball you hit is hit with intention, and the outcome of every shot is tracked, accepted, and moved on from. The theme of your practice is “how much like a tournament can I make this?” You’ve practiced like this all winter, and your first tournament of the year is coming up in the spring. You’re excited because you love the feeling of competition, but you are also so used to the feeling of competition that the tournament really just feels like another few days to you.
The tournament is finally here, and you get off to a good start. But just like every round of golf that you have ever played, you make some mistakes. You embrace the mistakes, because you like it when your weaknesses are exposed. In your mind mistakes are just things to work on. You mark it down, accept it, and move on. So you get to the very final hole, and you have a difficult shot to a tucked pin. You feel the pressure, but you’ve been feeling self-imposed pressure in practice for months now. This feels just like all those challenging practices you’ve been doing. You go through the routine that you’ve been drilling in for what seems like forever, and you hit the shot. But you miss it in a bad spot.
You know at one point this would’ve made you really mad. But now you simply accept it, because you know how much variance there is in golf. You mark it down, accept it, and move on. Because you were able to accept it so freely, you hit the short-sided flop shot with a clear mind and get it up and down. You don’t even know where this puts you in the tournament because you were so focused on sticking to your routine all day. Come to find out, this par won the tournament! By accepting the past and moving forward with a clear mind, you were able to come through in the pressure moment. From the outside this looks like you were “in the zone” or “pulling off the clutch shot” or “willing the ball in the hole”. But you were just doing what you had been practicing for months and months before.
Now, the outcomes might end up differently. Sometimes you win, most of the time you lose. That’s just reality. But you have to train your mind to handle the good and the bad. This isn’t done once you show up to a tournament. It’s done in all those days and weeks and months spent working on your game.