Golf putting is a mentally challenging task that most golfers fail to understand; evidenced by time spent on physical practice and little or no time spent on mental practice. Golf putting is uniquely challenging because it is one of the few sporting tasks in which practice and competition take place in different environments: the practice putting green and the golf course greens.
Furthermore, duration interrupted pace of play and an excessive amount of idle time make the golfer vulnerable to external and internal distractions. For example, when on the green a putt lasts only about 2 seconds; thus the golfer who averages 2-putts per green swings the putter for a total of approximately 1.2 minutes on average per round. When we consider the pre-putt routine takes on average 20 seconds per putt (unless your Bryson DeChambeau!), resulting in the golfer having greater than 2 1/2 minutes of idle time on average per green dependent on the number of players. Therefore, In the heat of competition, this excessive downtime can lead to obsessive thinking and distraction, as well as amplification of pre-existing negative self-perceptions, performance anxiety, panic, and affective over-arousal.
To perform well, competitive golfers must have a trustworthy pre-putt routine, as well as other mental strategies to deal with these inevitable distracting thoughts, emotions, and doubts. They also need a sound psychological and philosophical belief system contextualising the meaning of holing or missing a putt. Remember, the ultimate reason many, but not all golfers play golf, is to win and I firmly believe that the mental component of putting is possibly the toughest part of playing golf.
In simple terms, the mental component of putting is the challenge of how well a golfer focuses on the putt at hand, rather than being taken off-task by thoughts, emotions, or poorly controlled physiological arousal. Notably, the protracted pre-performance time can lead the golfer to experience potentially counterproductive thoughts, such as over evaluating the importance or risks of the next putt. This in turn may lead to self-doubt and fear of failure.
At times of heightened pressure in competition, a golfer may experience difficulty ridding the mind of negative thoughts. These thoughts can lead to impaired performance, including the golfer doing exactly what they are trying to avoid (e.g., a 3-putt). Indeed, the research suggests that such behavioural enactment represents an ‘ironic process’. Alternatively, researchers demonstrated that trying not to leave the putt short results in an increased incidence of hitting the putt too long. Thus, ‘ironic processes’ may not just result in enacting the unwanted action, but may lead to over-compensation.
Confidence and trust are the cornerstones to successful putting. The study of confidence is best described as a ‘state of mind marked by freedom from uncertainty coupled with a sense that the desired task will be accomplished. Confidence is based upon the golfer’s past experiences and performances. It is also dependent upon vicarious experience, good preparation and a high-quality pre-putt routine.
A high-quality pre-putt routine is essential in putting. Such a routine can help the golfer’s resilience under pressure. The golfer can invest their attention in a well-established pre-putt routine rather than allowing distractions and self-focus such as thinking about the importance of holing the putt to win a tournament. This permits the golfer to access a cognitive, emotional, and psycho-physiological state that optimises their chances of hitting the perfect putt (i.e., the holed putt!).
Once confidently settled by the pre-putt routine, the golfer imagines the putt, focuses their attention on a relevant external cue or thought, executes with a quiet brain and then evaluates the quality of the execution. This structured approach enables the golfer to stay well-focused, or sometimes to approach or remain in a state of ‘flow’. According to the research ‘flow’ is a state experienced in putting where the golfer may experience a sense of absorption, loss of self-consciousness, altered perception of time (usually slowing), and a sense of control and unity. I am sure you have experienced this state in the past and would like to experience the state of ‘flow’ more often.
The pre-putt routine is a combination of cognitive and behavioural strategies used before the execution of the putting stroke. They incorporate cognitive (covert) and behavioural (overt) processes that help to prepare for the execution of the putting stroke. The cognitive component may incorporate mental functions such as green reading, identifying the target line, visualising the trajectory the ball will follow to the hole, kinaesthetically (awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body through proprioceptors in the muscles and joints) feeling and judging the impact force required to get the ball to the hole and using mental cues such as “smooth tempo” to direct attention. The behavioural pre-putt routine occurs in juxtaposition with mental preparation and may incorporate taking a few practice strokes that simulate the desired putting stroke, adopting the stance, aiming and aligning the clubface to the intended target and fixating your gaze on the target.
Let’s be clear, the purpose of the pre-putt routine is to read the green topography, determine the amount of force required, aim and align the clubface to the target properly, focus attention and direct behaviour to relevant cues that allow the appropriate execution of the putt. These routines can focus concentration and can be extremely helpful to mental preparation for an upcoming putt.
As the research suggests the mind often wanders 50% of the time when on the putting green. Researchers suggest that pre-putt routines work by helping golfers transfer their attention from task-irrelevant thoughts (e.g., I need to visit the dentist!) to task-relevant thoughts (e.g., focus on the entry point of the hole). Pre-putt routines increase the likelihood that golfers will not be distracted internally (e.g., self-focus) or externally (e.g., seeing the clubface fan open) before and during the putt and often allow the performance to stay automatic without the interference of conscious awareness. Although the focus of pre-putt routines has been right before the start of the putt, they should be used systematically during putting practice so they are learned and can be transferred from practice to competition.
Elite PGA golfers have routines varying from short and simple (e.g., Aaron Baddeley) to complex and lengthy (e.g, Bryson DeChambeau). However, research suggests that in general, the shorter the time of the pre-putt routine (regardless of the number of behaviours in the routine) the more successful the putting performance. Limiting the pre-putt routine will help execution by preventing too much overthinking. Indeed, to act more quickly with your pre-putt routine prevents overthinking that can result in acute performance failure.
The pre-putt routine needs to feel comfortable to you and that is why you should create your own pre-putt routine to help sharpen the focus of attention as the time of putting nears. Pre-putt routines structure the golfers thought processes and emotional states, keeping the focus of attention in the present and on putting related cues.
See below for an example of my pre-putt routine:
1. I start reading the green topography from 40 yards out (e.g., to assess the slopes and runoffs by imagining a huge watering can pouring water over the green).
2. I walk from the ball to the hole and measure the distance by counting my steps (my average full step is 3ft.)
3. I check the target line from below the hole, above the hole, behind the hole and the ball.
4. I decide on the target line the ball will follow to the hole.
5. I aim and align the ball to the target, then place the ball on the green.
6. I simulate the ball going in the hole and then swing the putter a few times to determine the torque required for force and distance control.
7. I adopt my putting stance, aim and align the clubface to the ball and target line.
8. I look at the entry point of the hole with my gaze fixated on the target.
9. Paying attention to my attention I initiate the putting stroke.
10. I hole the putt.
Having a robust and disciplined approach to your pre-putt routine will provide an excellent tool for managing common mental errors and controlling your mind wandering when you putt. Notably, pressure harms putting performance and a systematic pre-putt routine could help minimise this effect.
As a putting coach, I can help you interrupt ‘ironic processes’ by first recognising when they occur, and then developing strategies and interventions to lessen cognitive and emotional overload. Prompt and effective management allows the golfer to attend to the task of preparing to hole the next putt.