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Keep the caveman happy

Our brains are split into two personalities – one instinctive and irrational, the other thoughtful and measured – and the potential for conflict is great. Alex Nicolson explores how we can appease both to make the game more enjoyable. First published in Golf Monthly 2014

Evolution has a lot to answer for. It’s highly likely that when Charles Darwin penned On the Origin of Species, he thought a lot about how the human genetic code would play havoc with someone’s golf.

One part of the brain evolved to kill things that could be killed, run away from things that couldn’t, and procreate with Mrs Caveman. This person has no capacity for language or rational thought, is highly instinctive and likes hitting things… hard.

Then came the second part of the brain. This person learnt to talk, think in terms of percentages on the golf course and realised that if he built up enough brownie points with Mrs Professor during the week, he could maybe play both days at the weekend. So the caveman and professor formed a partnership, and this still exists in your head.

Although we have made a lot of progress as a species, things can still go wrong very quickly. The potential for conflict becomes particularly apparent when you have a driver in your hand!

Driving Demands

Much sound advice about driving the ball is often not applied. This isn’t because the advice doesn’t make sense to the professor, but because the caveman thinks it’s boring.

Unsurprisingly, the incentive to improve his fairways in regulation stat is no match for really launching one. Part of learning the enjoyment approach is to understand that to truly make a change in your golf, you need to get both guys on board.

Outlined below are some useful strategies to help you maximise your power for more enjoyable golf.

Selecting the right (golf) club

Of all the features of a driver that affect distance, loft is king, with length of shaft being a key secondary factor. For every swing there’s an ideal loft. Adding loft would lose a few yards, but would also reduce a slice or hook. Reducing loft can add yards, but will accentuate sidespin.

The good news is that the prevalence of adjustable drivers means you can easily swap between safe (but a little shorter) and long (but a little less accurate), and keep both the professor and caveman happy.


Enjoyment is largely determined by how results measure up against what you wanted. In driving, too, your standards will determine whether or not you will be pleased with your efforts. I’ve yet to custom fit or coach a golfer who underestimates how far they carry the ball.

Measuring your average carry distance periodically (average means including the mishits!) might be a little painful initially, but reassessing your standard to reflect reality will not only make big drives in the future even more satisfying, but also ensure you start making smarter decisions off the tee – and hitting fewer fairway bunkers.

Be clear about the task

People’s attempts to improve often rely solely on sitting the professor down and telling him about how to “turn his shoulders” or “transfer his weight”. This can be helpful, but I would recommend letting the caveman have a go first. The thing to remember is that although he doesn’t take instructions well, the caveman does have very strong instincts. The first step to power is to be very clear about what your club needs to do to the ball to hit it long and straight. Hold the clubhead up in front of your face. Remind yourself that at impact the ball needs to be struck with the middle of the clubface (power), while the face points to the target (straight). If you forgot about how you swung it for a bit, and really focused on what the clubhead was doing, you might surprise yourself.

The caveman might not understand swing plane, but that doesn’t mean to say he’s not a very good problem solver. After all, he learnt to throw spears at moving targets, so he might be able to hit a driver as well.

I will deal with this subject in more depth later in the series.

Reframing the task

Golfers who care about power are always going to care about power, even if accuracy is what’s hurting their score. A sneaky way of improving both, while keeping the caveman happy, is to effectively say, “Power is great, but have you ever tried ‘effortless’ power?”

By drawing attention and attaching enjoyment to maximum power for minimum effort, you can start to direct the brain towards efficiency. That may not sound very exciting, but it feels brilliant. Shown the pleasures of an effortless drive which goes miles, the caveman begins to associate pain with an open clubface or wasted effort, and intuitively starts to learn long and straight.

Swinging freely

Lastly, for golfers who see themselves exclusively as professors and have willingly exchanged power for control, note that distance and control aren’t mutually exclusive. Every swing has a level of effort at which it achieves its maximum efficiency. I’ve coached many golfers who were less accurate because they didn’t use enough of their strength. It’s possible that, whether what floats your balloon is accuracy or distance, aspiring to swing with freedom could give you more of both.

By looking after both characters in your head, you can become part of that enlightened group of golfers who experience consistently rich enjoyment of the game – that’s where the real power is.

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