Golf---The Game and The Hidden Game
The Game of golf is one of the great loves of my life. I love the game for many different reasons. I love getting
out on the golf course and competing with friends to see who can win and have bragging rights for the day. I love
competing against the course to see if I can break par and beat the course. I love the challenge of keeping my
mental composure during a bad round or when I am in contention to post my all-time best round. These last two
competitions consist solely of a game going on within my mind. But that is exactly the beauty of golf, there is the
game as defined by the rules of the game and then there are all the games within the game.
Throughout the next few pages, I will touch base on the game of golf as it is laid out in the rules. I will also discuss
the game between the golfer and the course/ golf course architect. And finally, I will discuss the game that takes
place within the golfer’s own mind.
The Game as Defined by the Rules---player vs. player
At its very core, the game of golf is simply this…you try to hit a ball into a hole, which is usually a few hundreds
yards away, in as few strokes as possible. You hit the ball as it lies. If for some reason you can’t play it as it lies,
like say it is in the bottom of a pond, you have to add some penalty strokes to your score.
There is a book of rules that is maybe 60 pages long that details all the rules of golf with its main focus being on
how to assess those penalty strokes I’ve already mentioned. But in essence, it is a simple as I have lain out…play
the ball as it lies and put it in the hole in as few strokes as you can.
When a group of people take to the golf course to play a competitive round of golf, they abide by these governing
rules. However, there are two main ways to track who is winning. One is called stroke play, the other match play.
In stroke play, the winner of the match is the person whose total number of strokes (including penalty strokes) is
the lowest. This is probably the simplest and most straight-forward way to play golf. In fact, almost all of the
events on the PGA Tour are played in stroke play format.
In match play, the winner of the match is the one who has won the most holes. To determine who wins a hole, you
simply find out who put the ball in the hole in the least amount of strokes. However, after a hole is over the
strokes start over. For example, if on the first hole player “X” scores a 3 and player “Y” scores a 5, then player
“X” wins that hole and goes “1 up” for the match, due to the fact he won the first hole. If on the next hole, Player
“Y” scores a 3 and Player “X” scores a 7, player “Y” wins the hole and evens the match. The total stroke tally
doesn’t matter. The number of holes won is the only statistic that matters in determining the winner.
The types of games and the number of players playing the games can get more complex, but in essence those
are the main games played and the scoring system employed.
This is the game in its most basic form. You play someone and see who can get the ball in the hole in the most
efficient manner. It can result in hours of fun on a per day basis and, in fact, a lifetime of fun over the years.
The Game---Player versus the course/architect
Another intriguing game that is played on the golf course is the subtle and often overlooked game between the
golfer and the golf course. However, that battle with the course is actually a battle against a very educated, very
savvy and cunning man known professionally as a golf course architect.
The battle is almost unfair as the most experienced golfers have about 30 years of wisdom to draw off of, while
the architects have experiences dating back to the 1800’s to use in the fight. As fun as the game between
dueling golfers is, perhaps the most fun an experienced golfer will have is the chess match he players versus the
This chess matches beginnings can be traced back to Old Tom Morris in Scotland. Mr. Morris is considered by
some to be one of the original golf course designers and he introduced a variety of strategies through his
placement of hazards and his planning of the green complexes. Willie Park, Jr. built on Old Tom’s ideas with his
development of rolling greens and natural bunkers with strategic placements, which led to routings that would
maximize the use of the land to create more strategy in the playing of the game, while enhancing the beauty of
The next master of the game was Harry Colt. Perhaps Mr. Colt is the most important person in the history of this
chess match. His skills concerning routing and strategic design formed the foundation for all the future designer’s
ideas. In fact, his writings have proven to be timeless gems and excellent resources for the designers of his day
and our present time. However, Mr. Colt’s most devious ploy against his opponent, the golfer, may just have
been the fact that he introduced the idea of creating written drawings of the golf courses he was designing. With
this new tool, he could plot and plan anywhere/anytime in regards to how to best defend the hole from the
Herbert Leeds and Walter Travis built on this idea of strategic design and took the “penal school” of golf to a new
level with their very deep and punishing bunkers. Although these two did not work together designing courses,
they seemed to be born of the same cloth concerning their bunkering ideas.
Much to the chagrin of the golfer’s scores but much to the delight of the overall golfing experience, Charles Blair
MacDonald hit the golf course architecture scene. Not only did he make wide use of the strategies laid out before
him, he took the idea of plotting against the golfer to the next level by actually traveling the world and studying
golf courses to develop the “greatest golf course.”
William Frownes added his thoughts to the equation by voicing his beliefs that a shot played poorly should be a
shot irrevocably lost. He continually added bunkers to any location where players frequently missed their shots
and attempted to ensure they could not recover from these spots without the appropriate penalty.
Hugh Wilson took all of these ideas to heart, but added to them with his ideas that a course should be full of
options and opportunities to try and score. Play conservatively and accept moderate scores or try to challenge
the course and, perhaps, beat par…or perhaps endure harsh penalties.
George Crump seemed to like these ideas from Wilson. He developed a course full of opportunities to score, but
also filled with opportunities for punishment. He may have been the first architect to use intimidation to influence
a golfer’s play. He seemed to enjoy utilizing challenging green contours to place tremendous pressure on a
Donald Ross entered the scene with his subtly punishing style. He used just a few bunkers, but all of them
strategically placed. He also took the concepts surrounding the greens and green complexes to a whole new
level. He placed a greater emphasis on green contour and short grass around greens as another way to defend
Ross might have been the subtle genius, but AW Tillinghast brought artistic beauty into the game. Of course, we
all want to have this chess match between the architect be a challenge…but why not have it be a beautiful
As players became more skilled at their ball striking, George Thomas introduced the idea of rewarding a player
who could work the ball. Fades and draws were required on certain holes and both were occasionally required
during the same hole.
William Flynn seemed to build on George Thomas’s idea of working the ball. Flynn laid out his courses so that
the player’s had to be shot makers in order to break par. He would use slopes on the greens and in the fairways,
trees and bunkers to force the players to hit the appropriate shots.
Robert Trent Jones introduced the world to target golf by pinching the fairways and lining the approaches and
greens with bunkers. Hit the target or pay the price seems to be what he was dictating to his opponents in the
chess match. Mr. Jones also introduced heroic golf to the world, which, in a sense, means that the golfer was
required to pull off a “heroic” shot or pay the price. One of his favorite heroic shots was the carry the water par 3
Pete Dye built on Mr. Jones’ water theme as he viewed the finality of water as a way to influence golfers to play a
particular shot or hole. He also seemed to like small greens with crazy slopes to defend his course from the golfer’
Mike Strantz seemed to build on George Crump’s intimidation idea as he is quoted as having said, “It is important
to make the golf hole look more difficult than it really is...if your mind convinces you that it really is a difficult shot,
you’re beat before you even take the club back.”
So as you can see, the chess match is stacked against the golfer and is slanted in favor of the architect. With all
these great architects colluding against the one lonely golfer, how can the game be fair? Well, maybe it isn’
t…who knows…but it is fun!
Golf---The Mental Game
“It is important to make the golf hole look more difficult than it really is...if your mind convinces you that it really is
a difficult shot, you’re beat before you even take the club back.” – Mike Strantz
This quote is absolutely right on the money. However, being beat before you take the club back does not only
occur from a golfer sensing a hole is more difficult than it actually is. In fact, defeating yourself happens time and
time again on the golf course for a variety of reasons. I think this very topic is what the great Bobby Jones
referred to when he said…
“Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears.”
The mental game of golf which occurs in your very own mind is the third and, perhaps, the most difficult game to
win. It is a constant battle that must be fought at every stage of the actual game. It must be fought while
practicing on the driving range, while you approach the first tee, as you stand over a tough chip or putt; it rears its
head if you are having a tough game or one of the best of your career. It is omnipresent and all successful
players have learned to win this particular game.
The battled begins as you practice the game of golf. It begins with generating adequate confidence which will
enable you to believe that you can post a score versus your opponent or the course that you are satisfied with.
Upon gaining this adequate level of confidence, the golfer has overcome step one of the mental game and he
approaches the tee.
Then the next stage of the game begins…First Tee Jitters.
Many times golfers have seen there games excel on the driving range, but as they approach the first tee box their
nerves begin to overwhelm them. This phenomenon is experienced by almost every golfer and must be
overcome to end up winning the third part of the game (the mental game).
Overcoming these feelings requires not only a level of confidence in your game, but also a sense of self-
confidence within your mind. The more experienced golfers have dealt with the phenomenon many times and
have become used to it. However, the neophyte golfer needs to be aware that these feelings will await them on
the tee box.
It is my opinion that both of these issues are a direct result of the player’s fixation on shooting a “good score”.
They are relaxed on the practice range and are hitting free and loose with no fear or tension. Then as they
approach the first tee, they begin thinking of the consequences of hitting a bad shot and how that will effect their
score and they begin to lose that relaxed feeling. This fixation is the primary weapon your own mind will use
against you in the mental game of golf. Overcoming this fixation is the key to winning all three of the golf games
that I have been describing in this article.
Let’s see how this fixation can effect someone’s game and how it can infiltrate all aspects of the game.
So, you head to the first tee full of nerves and anxiety. You slice your tee shot into the rough/tree line. You can
see your ball, but you’ll have to punch out. As you journey down the fairway you replay over and over in your
mind what you did wrong on your tee shot. Maybe you were too quick in the transition, maybe you swayed your
weight too far into your backswing, maybe you stopped your swing before follow through and, essentially, hit at
the ball and not through it. Whatever the case, you can’t let go of that shot.
You finally reach your ball. As you are getting into position to hit this punch out shot, you are not 100% focused
on the shot at hand. In fact, you are still upset at your drive. They were so good on the range, so then why did
you block this shot into the woods. WHY?!?!?!?
But then, “Oh no”, you hit this chip-out shot fat and the ball barely trickles out into the fairway. You’ve only
advanced it 25 yards. Ugh! You are laying two, hitting three, with no chance to make the green.
Okay, okay…you begin to focus and realize the consequences of not understanding the most important shot is
the one you are about to hit. Hey, if it is good enough for Ben Hogan it needs to be good enough for you.
So, you lay in the fairway a solid 3 wood to the green. However, there are traps to the left and right of the green.
You remember that you are a SOLID three wood away from the green. If you fat it, you will have yet another shot
to reach the green. If you slice or hook it, you are in the dreaded sand. You could lay up and play your two
favorite clubs into the green and have a for sure short putt to end the hole.
Nah…the heck with course management and analyzing all the different shots to choose from, you decide on
letting a 3 wood rip. After all you’ve got make up all the lost ground that resulted from your poor tee shot and
chip-out if you want to hit your target score.
Whack! You let that three wood rip. Of course, it fades into the greenside bunker. Once again as you travel
down the fairway, you are left alone with your thoughts. You remember that darned Bobby Jones a little too
late…”golf is a series of mediocre shots that result in a good score, rather than one or two miraculous shots”.
Darn him and his insightful wit!
Then the sand shot. Let’s say you regain your focus and are set to hit a good shot. You are calm, you
remember all the techniques for the shot that your pro taught you and you swing the club with smooth fluidity.
Voilà! The ball splashes out of the sand and rolls to within 12 feet of the cup.
Now, here you are laying 4 about to hit a makable putt to save bogey and not ruin the whole round before it really
gets going. All the time you spent on the driving range hitting drives, did not pay off on this first hole as your
nerves took over which resulted in your slice. But now it doesn’t matter…drive for show, putt for dough, right?
Well, why didn’t you practice more putts? You don’t have a good answer for yourself. You step up to hit the putt,
it lips out. You feel you were robbed! You hit a “good” putt, what the heck!!! But of course, another quote runs
through you head, this time from the great Jack Nicklaus,
“when you lip out several putts in a row, you should never think that means that you’re putting well. When your
putting well, the only question is what part of the hole it’s is going to fall in, not if it’s going in.”
Ugh! Double bogey right off the bat. You are frustrated and angry with yourself as your “good score” just
became all the more difficult to reach.
Alright…now let’s take a step back (maybe two steps back).
In order to win this mental game of golf, you have to understand a number of things. The first is the game of golf
itself and what it takes to succeed. Many beginners think it is how far or how well you strike the ball. For certain,
that is part of the tool set necessary to win…but not the most important. First and foremost, you have to hit the
ball straight. As you become more skilled you can work the ball left or right, but right off the bat you need to be
able to hit it straight. Distance is not top priority.
Then as you approach the green, you have to be able to execute the short game…chipping and putting. A dear
friend of mine told me during one of our rounds together that a good short game can make up for a lot of flaws in
your golf game. He’s 100% correct.
So, step one is understanding this and constructing your practice sessions around getting better at these two
areas of the game. If our friend in the example above would have known this, he would have made his 12 foot
putt and hit his tee ball into the fairway. Both of those shots cost him 2 strokes and kept him for achieving par.
Next is indeed, focusing and concentrating on the shot at hand. The Ben Hogan quote I used above maybe the
best piece of advice a golfer can get. The most important shot in golf, is without question, the shot you are about
to hit. Furthermore, the great Bobby Jones said the following concerning concentration,
“A leading difficulty with the average player is that he totally misunderstands what is meant by concentration. He
may think he is concentrating hard when he is merely worrying.”
As always, Mr. Jones is spot on.
It is my opinion that winning the mental game of golf is the first step to becoming a happy and joyful golfer who
can appreciate all the layers of enjoyment inherent in the actual game of golf. Without it, golf is tedious,
frustrating, and a waste of time. It is a joy and pleasure to play, but without mental peace in your life and on the
course it will most likely be ruined.
This fact leads me to my last thought concerning how to win the mental game of golf. I think it is a wise idea to
have an alternate scoring system for the game. Most of us, as I have mentioned before, have a target score they
want to shoot. They approach the first tee jacked up to see if they can achieve this goal. But as soon as the
wheels begin to show signs of falling off the wagon, they become angry, upset, or disappointed that this target
score will not be achieved. I suggest having another game to play specifically aimed at winning the mental game
that is being played. Align it so that you gain points for remaining focused on the correct things throughout the
round. For example…
You score a point every time you are focused on the shot at hand. No matter your current score, be it good or
You score points for hitting the smart shot…as successful golf is a series of mediocre shots which result in a good
You score points for hitting putts inside 12 feet…as that is where you make your dough.
You score points for shots that land where you intend them to land.
You score points for shaking off bad shots and remaining in a positive frame of mind…this should keep you
concentrating and not worrying.
I am sure you can customize your alternate game of golf to suit the areas of the mental game that you need to
work on. However, it is important that these points accrue whether you are playing well or poorly. It is just as vital
to remain focused on hitting the shot at hand if you are battling the nerves associated with posting your lowest
round ever as it is to avoid posting your worst round ever. That is the beauty of the mental game, it is always
Concerning the game of golf and the game within the game, I think they actually build on one another in reverse
order. I suggest starting with the desire the win the mental game of golf. Once you are successful at that, you will
then be able to do battle with the course. By understanding yourself and then seeing what the golf course
designer is trying to test you on, you should be able to post solid golf scores which should result in successful
competition versus actual human opponents.
In closing, have fun and hit’em straight!