At the top levels of golf, the talent level is so good that trying to differentiate between them based on golf skill alone is like trying to figure out who the smartest Mensa member is.
Of the millions of people that play golf, only 200 or so play on the PGA Tour in a given year. If a player has made it to the big stage, they are good ball strikers, chippers, putters and know how to score. How, then, are we supposed to look at a PGA Tour field and figure out who has the best chance to win and explain why some players just can’t seem to get it done and why others have a knack for finding the victory circle? It is cliche, but the ability to win on the PGA Tour — or even in a friendly match at your local club — originates in your brain. And the most important factor swimming around in the six inches between your ears? Confidence.
Jason Dufner, who won the Byron Nelson today for his second tournament victory in as many starts — after a previous period of 164 winless starts — is the perfect illustration of the value of confidence. What changed? Why is Dufner suddenly striping his shots rather than hitting them in a manner we would describe using his last name? The answer is easy: He finally feels he can win.
It would be possible to sit here and look at certain statistics in Dufner’s game and use it to explain his triumphs in recent weeks. Maybe his strokes gained putting improved by 5 percent, maybe he is hitting it 4 yards closer on approaches from 125 to 150 yards or maybe his sand saves are improving. But these small statistical improvements wouldn’t be telling the real story behind Dufner’s success. The real reason he is the new Mr. Consistency on tour is his belief that he can succeed.
Confidence is bred by practice and positive reinforcement. Visualizing a shot and knowing that the result will be the same as the visualization is the ideal situation for a golfer. Clearly it is important to have a command of one’s own golf swing to inspire this confidence. Swing troubles only make confidence harder to achieve, but a golfer can overcome swing issues on confidence alone. Tiger Woods’ golf game and personal life were in complete disarray at the 2010 Master’s, but his confidence in his abilities and knowledge of Augusta led him to a T-4 result.
Look at the state of Woods’ current game. By all accounts, he is absolutely striping it on the range and at his home course, but under pressure his brain doesn’t trust his swing and his confidence sinks. Everyone finds this confidence in a different way: For Tiger, it is hitting tens of thousands of golf balls until he feels comfortable and ready, for Phil Mickelson, it is convincing himself that he can pull off any shot even when the odds are long and the lie is bad.
If you don’t think confidence is important, head to your nearest golf course and try something. Hit a shot where your last thought is, “There is no way this is going to be good,” and another with the thought, “This one is going to be good and right where I want it,” and tell me how they turn out. Having confidence and thinking confidently won’t make you a scratch golfer, but negative thoughts and self doubt make it impossible to reach your potential.
Golf is a game that has thousands of little aspects that chip away (no pun intended) at a player’s confidence during a round. A poor chip due to a bad lie, a gust of wind that carries a ball into the water or a distraction that causes a bad swing in a key moment can all make a golfer feel vulnerable, but the best players never let external factors affect their confidence.
Confidence issues usually are more intense in major championships, when the stakes are the highest. For this reason, whenever a tournament is near the end and the leader board is bunched, I will always put my money on any player that has won a major to beat those that haven’t. It will be interesting to see if Bubba Waton’s recent Master’s triumph will lead to more tour victories. I would be surprised if it didn’t. I am also excited to see if Rickie Fowler can channel his victory at the Wells Fargo into more titles (he almost pulled a Dufner and went two in a row, contending at the Players’ Championship).
In a climate where every player is a master of the game and full of talent, self belief is what separates the winners and losers at the highest level. But it isn’t just important to be confident on the PGA Tour; every golfer would benefit from positive thinking. Try it and you might find your wallet is just a little heavier when you are done playing that Saturday foursome.