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Setting the Standard

By Alex Nicolson PGA, Premium Golf Founder (article first published in Golf Monthly, 2014)

A key part of the Enjoyment approach is to help stack the odds in your favour when it comes to having a good time on the course. Golfers get so obsessed with performance that they forget the other elements that shape their experience. Whether what you got relates to your score, accuracy of pitch shots or even the weather, the nature of an event doesn’t, in itself, determine how you feel.

It is what you judge events against that inflates or deflates your experience. Your standards are benchmarks that you feel need to be reached, and although rarely discussed, they largely determine your chances of having an enjoyable game of golf. Results are only pleasing results if they meet or exceed your standards.

Head in the Clouds or in Touch with Reality?

Within how many feet of the pin do you think you should be able to hit a 50-75 yard pitch shot? How close would Rory McIlroy hit it? Pick a number for each. Would it surprise you to learn that Rory’s average shot from 50-75 yards finished 18 feet away (PGA Tour 2012)? Whilst the golf geeks amongst you might have known this, I’d wager a reasonable number of you picked a higher standard for yourselves than the world No. 1’s average.

The disparity comes from the fact that we are mainly shown the best shots on TV, and similarly in our own game we are more likely to remember the really good or really bad shots – we don’t naturally form an average view. Consequently, the majority of our standards are not accurately referenced or helpful.

Standards in Practice

This effect was apparent with a 15 handicapper we coached recently, whose standards for approach shot accuracy (75% of greens in regulation) and putting (not 3 putting) turned out to be significant sources of his frustration with the game. Like many golfers, his desire to record his stats heightened after good rounds and a couple of rounds in which he had hit 14 or 15 greens stuck in his mind.

As a result, his view of what his average was had become warped. His resulting high standards meant that during the round missing greens caused frustration and tightening of the swing. In between rounds he spent a disproportionate amount of practice time on approach irons.

We recommended that during the round, if he was going to measure anything, it was a quality that led to good results - which for him was “freedom of swing” - rather than the results themselves. In reality the average 15 handicapper hits less than 30% of greens. 75% would put you among the European Tour’s top 20 for accuracy. This information immediately led our pupil to reassess his relative strengths and weaknesses.

“Not 3 putting” - another results-focused standard that our pupil was applying during the round - was leading to defensive and inaccurate approach putts. Commonly this is present when the term “inside the dustbin lid” is applied.

We encouraged him to entertain the possibility of holing every putt in order to create the attentiveness required to truly read the green properly. Secondly, we suggested that over the ball his standard became a level of commitment to the stroke, helping him to release his natural instincts more freely.

Make Standards Work

In our balloon analogy (last month), we depict standards as clouds, and only by floating above them will you feel the warm rays of enjoyment. Set too high they put enjoyment out of reach. Set too low, they make disappointment less likely, but may also limit your growth as a player.

When to Scale Down

Easily fulfilled standards are helpful if you don’t have the time or inclination to improve. I advise golfers with a new family, for example, to ease up on their standards until they have time again to improve. Sleep deprivation makes life hard enough without beating yourself up on the golf course as well.

When to stretch yourself...a little

For aspiring improvers, feeling short term pain as a result of unmet standards can be good if it results in positive action. The trick is to set the standard slightly higher than your current ability and attempt to close the gap with improved results. If your standards are set at an unrealistic level, as with our pupil’s approach shot accuracy, frustration and de-motivation become almost inevitable.

Being engaged in the shot and the round is relaxing and conducive to good play. So, the less time you spend judging results against your standards while you’re playing, the better. You might find that using a quality like “freedom of swing” is a more helpful standard. An element like this is more within your control, shot by shot, than where the ball finishes, or your accumulated score. Shelve analysis of the numbers until after the round when the dust has settled.

Picking standards that are appropriate to your game and the reasons you play will help you take the right turns in the journey to more enjoyable golf.

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