Between The Ears

Better golf by making better decisions

to start playing your best golf? Is your swing dialed in and you’re confident with your ballstriking? How about your distance off the tee? Are you happy with your chances to reach an occasional par-5 in two? Is your short game ready for action?

Okay, those were the easy questions. Now let me ask you this: how’s your mental game? When was the last time you practiced your decision-making, controlling your emotion or trusting your instincts?

Hmmm, by now, hopefully I have your attention. Playing your best golf isn’t just about putting time in practicing your swing mechanics. You have to work equally as much on your ability to make wise decisions and react the way you should when things don’t go your way. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite tips that are designed to help you play better between the ears and, ultimately, shoot lower scores.

This scenario follows what you saw in the opening photo of this article. I’ve hit a good drive on a par-5, but my tee shot leaked a little to the right and I’m just barely on the fairway. I have two choices. First, I could lay up and put the ball down in the fairway far enough to leave myself with an easy short shot to the green. Or, I can pull out my 3-wood and go for the green, which as you can see is guarded by a few bunkers.

Now, my ball (which you see in the photos below) is just on the first cut of rough, and I actually have a pretty good lie. I’m only 242 yards from the middle of the green, which is right in the wheelhouse for a smooth 3-wood. Decisions, decisions, decisions!

For this shot, I’m going to go for it with my 3-wood, and here’s why. I’ve addressed three key things. First, the lie. I have a perfect lie for hitting a 3-wood since it’s on a cushion of grass. Second, I take a look at my distance, and 242 yards is a very comfortable 3-wood for me. Next, I’ve determined my shot shape and the angle I have towards my target. Because I’m playing from the right side, I have plenty of room to accommodate my natural fade ballflight.

Based on these variables, I’ve made a decision to let ‘er rip. If I don’t catch it flush, the ball will likely end up in the fairway. If I do hit it well, the ball will land soft on or close to the green thanks to my usual fading ballflight.

I’ve decided to go for the green based on the variables I’ve described, but there was also another element to the mix that lead me to take the gamble and go for the green. I had to make sure I felt it was the right shot at the right time. When I held the 3-wood in my hand, I felt confident that I could execute the shot. I also had no trouble visualizing the shot beforehand. The wide fairway accommodated my fade, and I had an innate sense that 3-wood was the way to go.

Sometimes, even when all the variables point towards going for the green, your gut may tell you the better play is to lay up. When it speaks like that, listen to it and lay up! Play the safe shot and don’t hesitate. On the other hand, when the variables aren’t in your favor to go for it and laying up is the safer play, stick to your routine and don’t feel as though you could will the ball to the hole with your 3-wood. Play it safe when you don’t feel comfortable, no matter what the circumstances are. You may have a perfect lie in the fairway, but if it doesn’t feel right to go for it, don’t!

Sometimes we get so fixated on what lies ahead that we forget where we’re standing. On this hole (a sharp dogleg to the right), I’ve got to consider not only what club to use, where I want the ball to land and what shot shape I should play, I also need to find what area on the tee box gives me the best chance for success.

It may not look like much of a big deal, but the two tee box positions in the above photo greatly affect my performance on this hole. The one on the left forces me to play a straight tee shot because it pulls the trees on the left side more into play. I may be able to better see the fairway as it doglegs right, but it’s a tricky angle for my natural left-to-right ballflight. At the top of my swing, whether I’m aware or not, my eyes will notice that I have to steer a straight shot from here, and it’s likely I’ll swing with less fluidity and make more mistakes. This is precisely why you sometimes feel uncomfortable on some tee boxes. It’s because your body and your eyes are trying to tell your mind something that you haven’t consciously noticed yet.

The tee position on the right is much better for me, and I feel much more comfortable from here. I can’t see the fairway as well, but I’ve allowed more room to hit a soft fade. This slight adjustment in tee positioning shows that the difference between feeling comfortable or not can be as subtle as a few feet from side to side.

Consider your natural ballflight and be conscious of what part of the tee box is best for you. Also, it doesn’t matter if the hole is 600 yards or 300 yards. Go with the club you feel comfortable with off the tee. As you can see, I’m hitting 3-wood. Why? It feels right.

No matter how finely tuned your golf swing, or how mentally tough you become, you’re still going to hit the occasional bad shot. Humbling, isn’t it? Even the best players in the world are not immune to making mistakes. And sometimes, it’s not even a mistake that leads to an unfortunate situation. Luck, good or bad, is always a factor in the game. In this instance, my tee shot (on a par-5, luckily) has found the trees on the left side of the hole. It’s a par-5, meaning I don’t have to necessarily advance the ball as far as I can to try and save a good score. I’m going to pitch out, but I want to make sure I evaluate how to do that.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you actually practiced hitting pitch shots out of the rough and back into the fairway? It’s not something most of us spend much time doing! But truth be told, hitting a recovery shot is just as important as any other. Time to do it right.

Most golfers assume hitting a pitch recovery shot means taking a short iron or wedge and pitching the ball back into play. Okay, fine. Sometimes that’s all you can do. But in some instances, there are more choices to make and a short pitch back into the thick part of the fairway isn’t always the best choice. In the above photo, you can see I have quite an opening. Why would I pitch the ball back into the fairway with a short iron when I could advance the ball much farther?

I can’t hit a full middle or short iron because of the tree branches above me. So, first thing I do is choose the right club. I’m going with the 4-iron. For this shot, I can hit the 4-iron without having to deloft the clubhead too much, which, when you deloft an iron, you make it easy to dig into the turf, often resulting in a fat recovery shot. Instead, consider a lower-lofted iron and lower your ballflight that way. If you artificially play the shot with the hands far forward, you’ll find that much harder than it would be with a more natural and lessened forward shaft lean that engages the bounce on the sole and prevents digging.

Then again, if your ball is nestled deep in the grass, use more loft, and go ahead and play with forward shaft lean. You need that steeper angle of attack in that case.

Hitting a good recovery shot usually means limiting as much unnecessary movement as possible. Distance isn’t as important as direction, so the key in this shot is limiting movement and making solid contact with the face pointing in the right direction.

As you can see in the sequence above, I’m making a rotational, body-driven swing with less hand action and lower body action than I normally would have hitting a full swing iron shot. Again, think control first, distance second and remember to use the loft of your iron to adjust for trajectory, not an extremely hand’s forward position (unless you’re in the deep rough.)

Having good mechanics will certainly help in the successful execution of the shot; however, I see too many golfers playing trouble shots without being committed to the shot. If you stand over a shot and you’re still not sure you’ve made the right choice, you’ll become tentative. Doubt of the decision and fear of the consequences get in the way of pulling off successful trouble shots. The decision is based on the lie, the risk versus reward and your skill set. When you assess all of those variables, it will lead to a committed visualization of what you want, which leads to a decisive swing.


We all want to hit the exciting recovery shot that sometimes Tour players make on TV. And as fun as it is imagining yourself to be Tiger, Rory, Bubba or Phil and hitting an all-world recovery, most of the time, Tour players actually opt to get the ball back in play more than they do try for the hero shot out of trouble. Pitching the ball back into the fairway doesn’t make for great entertainment on television, and you don’t see players do it as often on the broadcast, but truth be told, they do it more often. Tour players know that they’re more likely to hit a hero shot from a better lie and/or better position to the pin from the fairway than they do from way off the short stuff.

Now, I know there are some mixed messages on these two pages, and sometimes you should go for broke and try to hit the big, exciting recovery shot. And sometimes, you may be in such a bad spot that you need to stab down on the ball with a lot of forward shaft lean and scoop the ball out. The point is, recovery shots should be rehearsed and practiced, and you should be aware of multiple options. Take time on the range hitting quarter and half shots, and get a feel for how high and low the ball flies, as well as if they fade or draw. Also, aim precisely and practice with precision in mind, not distance.

If you practice your recovery shot routine and options, you’ll be more inclined to succeed on the golf course the next time you need to make a decision from a tough spot.


Like the previous spread indicated, sometimes you’re going to make mistakes, and sometimes bad things just plain happen. Here, I hit what I thought was a perfectly flush 8-iron, dead straight at the pin. Unfortunately though, just as the ball lifted into the air, a gust of wind picked up and pushed against my ball higher than normal. And guess what? My ball got caught up in the wind, lost it’s velocity and plop, there it goes right into the lake! Yes, a good shot just ended up being a terrible one. It’s now on to the drop area to try and salvage a tough par or bogey.

Now, when that sort of thing happens, remember that it’s only one shot of many that you have to execute, and you can’t let one shot be the catalyst for several more bad shots to follow.


For me, hitting what I thought was a good shot that ends up being a bad shot is very frustrating. It’s especially maddening when things like this happen that seemingly aren’t your fault. But, it happens! And likely, it will happen again.

Better players know how to react to a bad shot quickly and come time to hit another shot, move on just as fast. It’s okay to have a moment of anger and frustration so long as you have the ability to move on and be done with it in a hurry.

A simple way to minimize a negative reaction is to hold your finish until the ball lands. Believe me, waiting that three to five seconds before the ball lands will be like having a mini time-out. Just observe the ball in the air without the immediate judgment that so many bring to each shot. This short cooling-off period will minimize the intensity of the frustration. The goal is to be able to bounce back and move on.


If I react to a bad shot and let anger take over so that it manifests in my body, well, that’s going to definitely linger long enough to affect my ability to not only think clearly, but also make relaxed golf swings.

The emotions that you feel have a direct effect on your grip pressure, breathing patterns and tempo. Your swing will definitely react differently and another poor shot will occur. The goal of the postshot routine is to break that cycle of: bad shot > negative reaction > physical effect > another poor shot. The keys to regain control are constructive self-talk (learn from the shot), slow/deep breathes and transitioning into a productive preshot routine only focusing on the present shot.

Take a breath, think about what just happened, diagnose why it may have occurred and use a bad shot to remember how to avoid the same mistake later in the round. I probably should have hit a 7-iron anyway, ensuring I at least get the ball on the green and not near the pin in the front part of the green. Next time, I’ll play the safe shot and be happy with a par instead of trying too hard (and failing) to make a birdie.


Ain’t that the truth? A round of golf lasts several hours over 18 holes. You’re going to hit good shots and bad shots, have lucky breaks and bad breaks. The important thing is acknowledging that before you tee off, and not going to the first tee with a specific score in mind. “Gosh, if only I can break 90 or 80 today, I’ll be happy.” Breaking that thought process will allow your mind and body to play without the added pressure of hitting a target score. Also, what happens if you don’t hit that score and there are still a few holes left to play? It’s likely things will get worse because you’re already angry and frustrated that you’ve missed your number. It’s even tougher when you get close to your target score on the closing few holes. That kind of added pressure is totally unnecessary!

Start the round fresh with a clean mind, and don’t worry about your score before or during the round. Save your analysis for after you’re done playing, and evaluate the mistakes you made, the good shots you hit and how you could go even lower next time.

When it comes to putting better, preparation is key, and you want to feel as comfortable as possible before you tee off. A great way to do just that is to practice some long putts first, but only for speed control. Don’t worry about a target, in fact, you can even putt to the edge of the green. By ignoring the target, you can better gauge your desired stroke length and tempo. Practice this for a few minutes until you feel you can control your speed well enough.

Once you get a feel for roll and speed, the time comes to add direction. Use the practice green to your advantage, and read it like you would if you were on the golf course. Don’t simply putt a ball and make an adjustment to the next ball based on how the first one rolled. You can’t do that on the course, so why do that here? Practice each putt as though it counts.

Once you dial in your speed and have determined the direction you want your ball to start, it’s time to execute and trust your decision! When you’re over a putt and in your stance, it’s not time to second guess and reevaluate your intended line. No, it’s go time, and all you’re checking at this point is your ball position, alignment and making sure you make a smooth, sound putting stroke.

Preparing to putt great is one thing, actually executing on the course is another. Too many golfers get away from going through their process and turn their attention to just the outcome. For instance, does your attitude change on a putt if it’s a birdie, par or bogey? If your attitude changes on one type of putt versus another, you’ll quickly get out of your routine and start focusing on outcome. This leads to thinking about missing it and what that will mean to your score, which is exactly the opposite of what you want to do! All that great preparation is wasted, and frustration ensues if you have a negative outcome in your mind.

The key to good putting on the course is to embrace the process for each putt and treat it the same no matter the circumstances. The process includes: determining your intention of speed, the line that matches that speed, seeing the ball go in and getting the body relaxed to execute a smooth stroke.

Often, golfers get off to bad starts and don’t look at their preround routine as the reason why. A preround routine isn’t jumping out of your car, putting your golf shoes on and running to the first tee.

The first step in a proper preround routine is to warm up the body. I don’t know about you, but I need some time to stretch and get my back ready for golf swings. I use a device called Smart Flex (, which helps me stretch out my muscles and simulate the proper rotation of a golf swing.

The second step is to warm up the swing. This doesn’t mean fixing the swing; it means developing the balance and tempo you want to use on the golf course. I use a sand wedge and do three-quarter shots to get into my rhythm. I then progress through my clubs with my intent on having a smooth tempo and solid balance.

The third step is to warm up the mind. Here’s where I actually do full preshot routines and hit specific targets on the range. I imagine the first three tee shots I’ll encounter that day and maybe some tee shots that require me to shape the ball. By rehearsing these shots, I’m waking up my focus and developing confidence for these key shots.

The final step of my preround routine is getting comfortable with the greens. I spend a few minutes putting some long putts to gauge the speed and then finish with some shorter putts to boost my confidence. Now, as you go to the first tee, you’re physically and mentally ready to play your best. This routine can be modified for 10 minutes or 45 minutes.


1 Getting Easily Distracted. There’s a lot of downtime in golf, which allows our minds to wander. Some players begin to think of the holes that are coming up, while others are thinking of the phone message they just received from work. These are distractions that will take away from you being focused on the current shot. Instead, ask better questions of yourself to stay focused. How is this lie of the ball going to affect my shot? What angle do I want to come in from to this hole location? What’s my intermediate target on this chip shot? Questions like that will change your focus and get you to stay focused on what’s relevant for the present shot.

2 Obsessed With Score. Yes, we keep score, and it’s an important aspect of the game; however, if golfers only focus on their scores, it will create a major distraction. Thinking of score too much creates anxiety and added tension. Instead, focus on the process of each shot. Use a mental routine, breath deep and survey the shot at hand. Check for wind, elevation changes–basically, do what you can to distract yourself from your score and think more about hitting shots. You can only control the current shot, and thinking of what could happen to your score will only pull you away from making a relaxed, confident swing.

3 Reacting Emotionally To Poor Shots. Golf can be a frustrating game, if we let it. If every time you hit a poor shot you react with anger and frustration, it will be very difficult to bounce back and be ready for the next shot. When we experience frustration, it affects our tension level, decision-making and enjoyment of the game. No one hits good shots all the time, but your reaction to your poor shots will determine your mind-set for the next shot. The best players use a postshot routine to learn from a shot instead of constantly being critical of their performance. Being able to learn from the shot and move on is a mental game skill you should develop. Ask yourself, “Why did that ball go there? Was it a mental error or physical error?” Then, make a practice swing, and put the club back into the bag and move on to the next shot, leaving the last shot behind. If you can manage your emotions, you’ll begin to bounce back quicker and enjoy the game more.

4 Lack Of Course Management. Okay, you may not be able to play like Tiger, but knowing your strengths and limitations can help you shoot lower scores. So many golfers play shots based on their ego and not on reality. These poor decisions lead to blowup holes and further frustration. When you play to your normal patterns, you’ll be more comfortable and relaxed, which leads to better performance. Play to your strengths. Know your average distances you hit clubs. Play your normal shot pattern–if you normally hit a 20-yard fade off the tee, play it, don’t fight it! A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t hit a certain shot at least 70 percent successfully, then play that shot no matter how the hole is shaped. When you’re comfortable with your decision-making, it will result in a relaxed, confident swing. Make the best decisions based on your game and you’ll shoot lower scores.

5 Losing Confidence. Believing you can hit a shot successfully is crucial to lower scores. Unfortunately, many play golf with doubt and fear. So many choose to remember poor shots or think of worst-case scenarios. You need to choose to be confident by recalling past shots you’ve hit well in similar situations, visualizing the shot exactly how you want to perform it. Check your self-talk to make sure you switch it from negative to positive, and improve practice habits to work on shots that give you trouble. By using other mental game skills like course management, focus and emotional control, you’ll actually improve your confidence. All aspects work together to make or break your performance. Put time in today to avoid making these mental mistakes, and see your score lower.

Rick Sessinghaus, PGA, is “Golf’s Mental Coach” and is based in Southern Calif. Learn more about how to improve your mental game at and

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