To “play within yourself” is probably the best advice that we could give any golfer. At any level, this is the single most important factor in consistently playing your best golf.
Playing within yourself means knowing your own game, where the limits of your capabilities currently lie, and having the mental strength to play just inside that boundary.
Don’t mistake this for “playing safe” or intentionally underachieving. Think of it more in terms of “playing easy”, making the game as simple as you can, avoiding unnecessary risks, playing smart. Play shots that allow you to relax, rather than putting undue pressure on yourself. Swing easy. Accept what the course gives you.
You’re still testing your ability as a golfer, in fact more so. And you’re still improving, much more so!
You’re growing as a player, as a scorer, as a performer. You will shoot lower scores. You will win more.
There’s nothing “weak willed” about this approach. You’re adopting the attitude used by the greatest sportsmen in history, in all sports; an attitude exemplified by the two greatest golfers in history, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. This is about being tough, seriously strong, a winner.
Jack and Tiger, at their best, could shoot at every pin. They could hit every shot, split every fairway, and drive par-4s. On your home course, they could shoot in the low 50s every week. But they don’t need to, not to win, and winning is what they have done better than any golfer who ever lived. They also know that they play better when they don’t try.
Neither of these greats could ever be accused of “playing safe”. Yes, they’ve regularly played irons off the tee, aimed for the middle of greens, and lagged putts to tap-in range. But when you watch them dominating a difficult course, destroying the field, they’re actually playing aggressively, to the best of their ability, and demonstrating astonishing skill. The key is that they’ve chosen precise targets to attack that give them the best chance of success, targets that reduce the chance of wasting strokes.
Both of these golfers had reputations for being almost impossible to beat once in the lead. Much was said about their “air of invincibility” that intimidated other players. There may be some truth in that, but we believe it had more to do with their attitude. When in the lead, these guys would keep playing within themselves, maybe more so. There’s no way that these guys were going back to the field, they knew that the field had to catch them, and they knew how difficult it is to chase in this game. They trusted, with absolute certainty, that they were at their competitive best when they played within themselves.
“I never did any real amount of winning until I learned to adjust my ambitions to more reasonable projects shot by shot, and to strive for a rate of performance that was consistently good and reliable, rather than placing my hopes upon the accomplishment of a series of brilliant sallies.”
Bobby Jones, on winning thirteen majors in seven years.
Playing within yourself is about being physically and mentally relaxed, balanced, poised. From the first tee you get into an easy, repeatable rhythm. Hit a smooth drive that gets you in play, followed by an easy iron that puts you in the middle of the green. You’re well on your way to a great round of golf!
You may sink some putts, you may not, but you’ve established a confident rhythm that you can maintain throughout the round, and scoring opportunities will continue to arise. Sure, you could have been more aggressive from the start, and that might have given you a better chance of making birdies, but you’d have put yourself on a mental roller-coaster, and when the course bit you, as golf courses invariably like to do, it could have destroyed your rhythm and your confidence.
Play within yourself and your wrists will stay soft, your swing will be smooth, and you’ll strike the ball better and hit it further.
Play within yourself and you’ll make better decisions. You’ll play enough club, and not try to force it. You’ll have more control and get closer to the flag more often, despite choosing more conservative targets.
Play within yourself and you’ll be calm and confident, able to stay out of your own way. Because you’ve chosen a target with plenty of margin for error, there’s less pressure to hit the perfect shot. You’ll find it easier to clear your mind and fully commit to the shot. You’ll be a better golfer.
Does the following sound like you? You’re on a long par-4. You can reach the green in two, but it’ll take two of your best. You go for a big one off the tee, to give yourself a chance. You put yourself in trouble, and you either make a big score, or you manage a very stressful scramble just to rescue a bogey. You find yourself in an edgy, swash-buckling mental state that means you’re likely to push even harder on the next hole. This is not going to be a low-scoring day!
A better golfer would have taken a smooth fairway wood, even an iron, off the tee and put themselves in play. Laying up to their favourite distance is easy from here, even with a less than perfect shot. Middle of the green for three, with a putt for par, it’s a probable bogey. But it’s a long par-4, making it a low handicap index, so a bogey is a net par. This golfer is playing to par at worst, they’re relaxed and confident, ready to score well again on the next hole, and the one after that…
Playing within yourself takes a lot of patience and mental strength. If you aren’t used to it, you’ll feel, at first, like you’re leaving opportunities out on the course. If you are to play your best golf, you must learn that this feeling is a lie. You only feel this way because the thrill that you get from pulling off risky shots has fooled you into thinking that’s your normal performance. You’re deluded.
Playing within yourself is going to take practice, it’s a learned skill. It also requires an honest self-appraisal. But if you work on it, you’ll quickly start to produce a sustainable level of play. You may miss the buzz you get from that rare heroic shot, but that will be quickly replaced by the fantastic feeling of shooting consistently lower scores.
Your confidence will soar, you’ll be unencumbered by the stresses produced by pressure and fear. You’ll smile a whole lot more and you’ll have much more fun out on the course.
Your swing will be smoother, with better timing. Your rounds will consist of one confident, positive stroke after another. You will have a better golf swing. You will be a better golfer.
Oh, and you’ll win more, which is kinda fun!