You are on the last green of the tournament. You looked at the leaderboard so you know what you have to do. You need to make this putt for birdie to get into a playoff. Only 20 feet of putting surface stand between you and what you want.
But just like what most of us would do in this moment, you can’t stop thinking about how important this putt would be. How cool it would be to make this 20 footer and go into a playoff. You’ve never won a tournament this big before, and you finally have this opportunity.
You’re so nervous you don’t know how to act. You might try to go through your normal pre-shot routine, but you can’t seem to slow down. You try to get a good idea of the read of the putt, but you can’t stop thinking about the importance of this putt.
You get behind the putt and attempt to slow yourself down with some breathing, and then you step into the putt. You make a couple practice strokes and now it’s time to pull the trigger. Just before taking it back you have a fleeting thought “don’t leave it short” because you know you have to give it a chance.
You have the right line, but the putt slides by on the high side. It was carrying just a little too much pace. You feel ok because you gave it a good attempt. You didn’t leave it short! You tap in and take your spot in 2nd place.
What’s the problem with this scenario? What’s the problem with scenarios that are similar to this? It isn’t particularly glaring, but there are things we can learn.
You may not have been in the position to win a tournament before, but I’m willing to bet we’ve all had shots or putts of consequence that got in our heads just enough to throw us off.
The problem with this specific scenario, and can be applied to many many other scenarios, is that the player was thinking too much about the result and not enough about the process. Yes, we all could’ve guessed that. But what this manifested as was their pre-shot routine being different than normal, and ultimately leading to that one fleeting thought that caused the result to go awry.
We can all identify with this. We have a putt to break 90, 80, or 70 for the first time. We have a shot to clear a penalty area. We have a drive on a tight hole. These scenarios all demand something of us that we’re not always prepared for. So how can we step up in these times and hit shots like they’re normal?
The pre-shot routine is an interesting thing. We think of it as this sacred time before hitting a shot that must be perfectly consistent and never waiver and have perfect thinking throughout. If we can just have a good pre-shot routine we can hit good shots.
So we try to implement what we see the pros doing. Ok they get their yardage and look at their yardage book. They talk it through with their caddy. They grab their club, make a couple practice swings, line it up, and step into the ball. Maybe a couple waggles, a couple looks, and they pull the trigger.
Ok, I can do that! I can have that same pre-shot routine. If it works for the pros then it’ll work for me.
So you try it for a while, only to realize that all that is changing is your physical movements. Nothing is changing internally. You still have those same negative thoughts, or those thoughts of where you DON’T want the ball to go, or those thought about what this shot means for your total score.
If the pre-shot routine that the pros use doesn’t work, then what does?
Well let’s figure it out together.
In my experience of playing competitive golf for 18 years, and what I’ve learned from reading and listening and watching over the years, every pre-shot routine doesn’t necessarily need to be physically consistent, but it definitely needs to be mentally consistent.
But what you’ll find is that by having a consistent mental pre-shot routine, your physical pre-shot routine ends up being consistent. So we have to first get the mental part right, and then the physical part will follow closely behind it.
So let’s go through what a good mental pre-shot routine looks like.
Tangible, Practical Advice
Every good mental pre-shot routine has in some form these 5 steps:
Pick a target
Commit to that target
Trust in your ability to hit to that target
Let it go with a quiet mind
Accept the results with zero judgement of yourself
Those 5 steps are going to give you the best opportunity to hit a good shot. As we know, the purpose of a good mental game is to give your physical game the best opportunity to show. So having a good mental pre-shot routine is the most tangible version of that.
So I mentioned how having a consistent mental pre-shot routine can lead to having a consistent physical pre-shot routine. But how?
If you are going through each of these mental steps, the physical steps will follow suit. Let’s go through a real pre-shot routine to show how.
Step 1: Pick a target
You hit your tee shot into the fairway on the first hole. You arrive at your ball and as you’re arriving you are already at work in your mind picking out your target. You are gathering the necessary info to choose a good target. For some that’s pulling out the yardage book and pacing off yardage. For others it’s getting the lay of the land and grabbing the range finder. So you shoot the yardage, it’s 168.
You know that’s not enough info to base your club choice off of so you also take account of the wind. You decide it’s about 3 yards of hurting wind. You keep a running tally of the yardage in your mind. The total yardage is 171.
Now what’s the slope? You decide that it’s about 2 yards uphill. The total is now 173.
It’s November, so it’s not as warm as it always is and you probably don’t hit your clubs as far as normal. And it’s the first hole, and you usually take a few holes to where you’re warm enough to be hitting your clubs full length. So you decide that these factors add 5 yards. The total is now 178.
What are the greens surfaces like? Like we said, it’s November which means the greens are usually pretty firm this time of year. And from 178 your club usually releases a little bit. So you decide you need to land it 7 yards short of the hole to let it get as close as possible. That makes the total 171.
You’ve now got your yardage, not you need to decide where to aim. The pin is 4 yards from the left edge. You typically hit a 5 yard fade from 171. And you know from the data you’ve been gathering from your past shots that your average proximity from 171 is about 38 feet. For context, a PGA Tour player’s average proximity from 170 is 30’ 5”. So you know that wherever you aim it could end up 38 feet from that point, right left short or long. So you have to aim for it. 38 feet is about 13 yards, so you know you can’t aim at the flag, because a very normal shot could end up 13 yards left of a flag that’s only 4 yards off the edge of the green. This would probably be a bad miss because it would lead to a short-sided chip or bunker shot, an almost certain bogey. So you have to aim for 13 yards left right short or long will be just fine and leave you a putt or at worst an easy chip. Because you reliably hit a 5 yard fade, you’re going to allow for it, which means subtracting that from the 13 yards. So with the flag cut 4 yards off the edge, that means you aim 4 yards right of the flag.
Now this aiming advice is a general rule of thumb. You may need to adjust for really bad trouble like bunkers, penalty areas, or out of bounds. But this method is a lot better than most of us do. We see a flag and aim at it. Or we just aim for vaguely center of the green. But with this more detailed target picking based on averages and math you can confidently know that you’re aiming in the correct place and let your natural fade go where it needs to. And be totally ok with where it ends up. If you hit it 13 yards left of your ultimate aim point, you’ll still be on the left edge of the green. And if you hit it 13 yards right of your ultimate aim point, then you’ll just have a long putt.
The first mental step was to Pick a target, so you can see how that mental step requires physical actions. It’s a lot of small steps within that first step, but if you are doing this enough it will become second nature. I can do all of this in about 20 seconds.
Step 2: Commit to that target
So now that you’ve picked your target, you have to start transitioning into thinking less about the details and more about trust. But first you have to commit to the target you’ve chosen. We touched on this briefly in Step 1 where you can let your natural fade go where it needs to. This is commitment. Believing that you’ve chosen the right target and loving that target. And then loving the club you’ve chosen to hit to that target.
This isn’t some major mental thing you have to do. It’s more of what you don’t have to do. You don’t have to second-guess what you’ve chosen because you’ve made a decision based on real data. This gives you the confidence to freely commit.
This mental step in the pre-shot routine comes with a physical action like lining up the ball from behind, picking an intermediate target, or even visualizing the actual path of the ball shot-tracer style.
Step 3: Trust in your ability to hit to that target
Once you’ve committed to your target, you are now heading fully into less thinking and more playing. You now have to internalize your target and the feeling of being committed to it. You have to trust that you have the ability to hit this shot.
Trusting you have the ability doesn’t mean lying to yourself or being falsely positive. It simply means knowing you can hit this shot because you’ve done it before. As we know from a previous episode, you get confidence (aka trust) from two sources: past results and preparation. So you know based on either hitting this shot well in a past competitive round or repeatedly in practice that you can hit it well now.
This mental step in the pre-shot routine usually comes with physical actions like practice swings or maybe even a mantra like “let it go”. Or one that my friend Casey once told me “let your talent take over”. Whatever it is needs to be a simple reminder that you know what you want to do and you’re going to let your body do it.
Step 4: Let it go with a quiet mind
Once you’ve committed to your target and trusted in your ability to hit the shot, it’s now just a matter of stepping into the ball and letting your body perform what you’ve prepared it to perform. For some, you have one simple swing thought. For others, it’s just the sound of your mantra in your head. Or for others, like Bob Rotella likes to say, you have a soft gaze at the ball thinking about nothing in particular other than sending the ball to your target.
No matter how this manifests, it’s important to not be overthinking or doubting. If you are thinking about too much, you won’t let your body do what it knows how to do. And if you’re doubting, you will introduce where you don’t want the ball to go into your mind, which crosses your mental wires.
As a general rule of thumb, your body is pretty good at listening to instructions from your brain. You give the body instructions, it’ll do its best to make it happen. This makes those instructions very important.
If your brain tells your body “Right there is where I want to send this ball” with a clear picture like visualization, then your body will know exactly what you intend for it to do and will be much more likely to do it.
But if you confuse the body with instructions of “don’t hit it in the water” or “please don’t slice this one again” or “we’re playing really well we don’t wanna mess this up” your body isn’t getting instructions of what you do want to happen. So your body will over- or under-compensate for where it thinks you want the ball to go. This results in controlling, guide-y, or slower swings. You can sometimes get away with these, but more often than not they end up in trouble.
It’s important that we step into the ball and pull the trigger with a quiet mind, or at the very least one simple swing thought.
An important note about this step. If you are overthinking or doubtful over the ball, back off, regroup, and step in again. Don’t pull the trigger until you have a clear picture of where you do want the ball to go.
Step 5: Accept the results with zero judgement of yourself
You hit the shot and the ball is on its way. At this point there’s nothing you can do about the result. Once you’ve made impact the rest is left up to uncontrollable factors. So it’s essential that you be able to accept wherever it goes, good or bad.
Why is it so important to be accepting? What you do after the previous shot often carries into the next shot. I’m sure you know from experience that when you’re angry at yourself for hitting a shot the way you did, it usually doesn’t help you hit the next one very well. You bring that baggage with you.
This is where the vicious cycle of hitting a bad shot, then another, then another comes from. Before you know it 4 holes have passed and you weren’t focused on single one of those shots.
So being ok with wherever the ball goes is essential.
Now there’s always exceptions, and acceptance can look very different depending on who you are. Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson have extremely different versions of acceptance. You might even be tempted to think that Tiger isn’t very accepting of bad shots at all. But the thing about Tiger, as emotional as he can be after a bad shot, he is probably one of the most accepting players there has ever been. No one is able to leave the past behind and get fully focused on the next shot like Tiger. And this comes from his form of acceptance.
And just as all the other mental steps come with a physical action, so does the acceptance step. However you need to do it, whether it’s being fully ok and completely calm after the result, or a quick flash of emotion after the shot and giving yourself 10 steps to stew on it but after that it’s over, you need to be able to let the shot go. And through all of this not judging yourself. You can do this because you’ve done the controllable. You’ve worked hard, you’ve gone through your routine of picking your target, committing to your target, trusting in your ability to hit to your target, and then letting it go with a quiet mind.
You can accept because you went through your routine to the best of your ability
So you can see how having a consistently good mental routine leads to having a consistently good physical routine. Checking the mental boxes leads to checking the physical boxes.
Back to our pressure scenario
Now that you have a good mental routine in place, and you’ve worked on it in practice and on the course for weeks or months, you are prepared for any situation.
Now when you’re on the last green of the tournament, you have a process to go through. You’re not even sure where you’re at for the tournament because you haven’t looked at leaderboards all day. You’ve just been focused on going through your routine on every shot.
This last putt is no different. You know it’s for birdie, but really in your mind it’s just another shot that has a target that you’re going to pick. So you work your way through your routine.
First you need to pick your target. You pace off the putt and see that it’s 20 ft, and get a good look at the break from the other side of the hole. On your way back to the ball you stop and see what the slope of the putt is. You get back to the ball and put your line exactly where you know it needs to be because you see your target clearly.
Now you need to commit to your target and trust in your ability to hit to your target. You step back from lining up your ball and visualize the ball rolling on the line that you chose. You see it very clearly rolling all the way into the hole. You are subconsciously giving your body very clear instructions for how you want to roll the ball. With the clear picture in mind comes with it the firm belief and confidence that you have the ability to do it because of your past preparation.
So you step up next to the ball and make a couple practice swings feeling the stroke that it will take to send the ball where you want.
You put the putter behind the ball, take one final look at the hole with a soft gaze, and with a quiet mind you take the putter back and hit the putt.
At this point, the rest is out of your control. If it goes in, great. If it misses, that’s ok too. You gave it your absolute best. You can fully accept the result because you know you did everything you could control.
This is what it means to have a good pre-shot routine.