Most golfers agree that the game of golf is at least “90 percent mental.” In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with a golfer who didn’t acknowledge the role that their mind plays, usually as a distraction that stands between the golf game they think they have and the one that keeps showing up on the course.

Even golfers as great as Hall of Famer Ben Crenshaw have said things like “I’m about five inches from being an outstanding golfer. That’s the distance my left ear is from my right.”

But when I consulted one of my favorite golf teachers on this subject, he turned the tables on me. Fred Shoemaker, the author of the inner game classic (one of the few golf books that I consider a “must read”), Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible, in his almost scary Zen fashion, told me that he thinks that golf is “zero percent mental.” Huh?

But then I got it. Fred was not talking about the kind of golf that you and I usually play. He was talking about what he calls “real golf,” or golf in the zone. He was trying to point me toward the kind of golf that people play when they have breakthrough rounds, the way we all want to play, but rarely do. Fred’s point is that golf at its best is not a mental game at all. Rather, it’s a game where we get free of all those fearful, self-limiting thoughts.

Fred told me, “Golf isn’t mental. We make it mental… and most of what goes through our heads doesn’t have any value.”

Fred went on to explain that when he asks golfers who are 100 yards out where their target is, the answer is always somewhere on the green. But when they take their club back to the top, the target has unconsciously shifted to the ball. Fred said that the point of this example is not that “they change targets in the middle of a crucial action. It’s that they don’t know they do.”

Finally, Fred practically taunted me by saying there was only one difference between his truly extraordinary golf game and my inconsistent 15-handicap golf game. He said, “I play better golf than you do for only one reason. In the two seconds that it takes to swing, I am more aware of reality than you are. That’s all. I’m more aware of what’s happening.”

And if you’re like every other golfer in the world who wants to lower their handicap, here’s what Fred Shoemaker’s 33 years of professional golf teaching experience has to say. “I’ve seen an inverse relationship in golf: As your awareness grows, your handicap shrinks. That’s the only thing I’ve ever seen govern the handicap. Handicap is a measure of your awareness… When a person’s awareness grows, there’s no possibility of them playing worse. They always play better.”

Now, that’s something I can take to the driving range, a commitment to develop more awareness of each and every swing. And, in this way, I can move beyond swing thoughts, and even beyond the mental game that interferes with my performance so consistently.

My dream is to come home to just playing golf, one moment at a time. That seems to me to be a game worth playing.


This article was orginally commissioned by Sierra Golfer magazine for their “Mind Games” column. Written by Jon Leland. Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.