*this article is transcribed from our interview with Matt just before the 2023 WMPhoenix Open. You can listen to the full conversation (and learn a lot more) by dl'ing and logging in to the Golf Guru App.
Early on in my career I was told by my manager that I had ‘it’ in abundance. He didn’t mean that I hit the ball further, or putted better. He meant I had the heart, the balls, and the desire to achieve that he’d seen in players like Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy.
For me, that mental strength is what my success comes down to. A willingness to dig in, make myself really uncomfortable when I practice, building my own pressure. Then in competition I trust that the work I’ve done will pay off.
Here are five ways that you can build mental toughness too.
1 Practice With Intensity & 'Transfer'
If I’m working on my swing, my technique, then I’m working on that and that alone. I’m not worried about the ball flight at all, just the positions. Once my swing’s in a good place, I do what me and my coaches call ‘transfer’.
That means adding in an outcome based drill. Things like aiming at a flag, imagining it’s on the right side of a green, I’ve got to hit it left of that flag but within a certain distance. Can I do it? I create loads of competitions against myself all the time, I have to create that intensity. Can I hit five drivers in a row down an imaginary fairway, can I hit it to that particular spot five times in a row? Once you’ve done it four in a row and you get to that fifth one, I guarantee you’re going to be feeling it.
The best drill like this I’ve ever done is one on the putting green, and I’ve done it for 11 years now. I call it the ‘Donalding Drill’, because I learnt it from Luke Donald.
It's 20 putts, 4-8ft, four putts from each distance, different breaks around the hole. You're going through your full routine on every putt. You have to make 15 out of 20. If you don’t, you start again.
You normally get to the last couple of 8ft putts and you’re really feeling it. That’s the thing, you have to give yourself enough pressure where you don’t want to start again. You’ve got to have the heart, energy and the will that if you do miss, you start again, because it makes you harder, tougher, more confident. It builds a lot of mental strength.
2 Train It & Trust It
The best example I can give of this involves that same ‘Donalding’ putting drill again. In 2018, when I won three times on the DP World Tour, I did this drill on the Saturday night in Denmark before I won on the Sunday.
Everyone was saying to me ‘why are you practicing your putting, go home and rest’. But I knew the next day I’d have two or three of these length putts for birdie or par, to keep momentum. In the end I had a 10ft putt on 18 in regulation, and I remember saying to myself ‘I’m ready for this’. I rolled it in.
On the first playoff hole I had a 6fter down the hill, I remember saying to myself ‘I’ve practised these more than anyone else’. I holed it, and then won the tournament on the next hole.
That affirmation of practice under pressure, putting myself in an uncomfortable situation, over the years it has hardened me up. These kind of drills are the best way that I know to build confidence, heart, your brain and balls. You’re ready then to go to battle. You can step up on that first green, face an 8fter for par, and trust that you’ve done the work, and you’ll build faith in your pre-shot routine because you know that it works, so you can stick by it.
A lot of golfers don't do it, they won't restart the drill if they fail, they'll go home instead. From what I've seen over the years, the golfers I've grown up and played against, it's the ones that dig in that are the ones that succeed.
3 Be Decisive In Your Target
When I’m not playing well, it usually comes down to being indecisive, which means I feel uneasy over the shot. For example, if I’m putting and my thoughts are ‘it looks like it should be a 1 percent slope, I’m going to hit it there and see where it goes’, then I’m 100% not going to putt well that day.
I putt best when I’m decisive. My thoughts will be ‘ok that’s a 1.2 slope, I’m hitting it at that speed and it’s going in”.
It’s the same with the long game. I pick my numbers, pick my spot, be really confident in them and pull the trigger. Let’s go.
Last week in the Dubai Desert Classic, 1st hole, I’ve hit a great drive, 170 to the pin which is a nice number for me. I pick my target, (I use a diamond shape for my dispersion which helps me in choosing a target), but just before I take the club away and during my swing, I’ve got that sort of uneasy sensation, and I’ve pulled it left of a left pin. Disaster. On Tour it’s almost impossible to get up and down from there.
If I have this uneasy feeling, what I try to do is step off the shot so I can adjust my target to where I feel comfortable. Even if I'm aiming further away, from there I guarantee I’ll hit a better golf shot.
It’s the understanding of yourself where you pick a target that you feel comfortable with, you’re clear and decisive, so then once you’re over the ball you’re just thinking clear, positive thoughts and you’re 100% committed. I guarantee you’ll have better outcomes from that.
4 Break Your Round Down Into 6 x 3 Hole Matches
18holes is a long round of golf. You’re in your head a lot so you need to try and be in the best possible space you can be to help you play your best golf. For me that’s not thinking in the past, it’s thinking forward, giving myself little goals to be intense about. I love being in the thick of it, it seems to help me focus and play my best.
So what me and my caddie try to do is create a different challenge to just ‘let’s play well and shoot a low round’. We break it down, so I focus on a smaller, short-term goal. We might try and build a game into the round.
One that we do is 3 holes against the golf course. 3 holes would be ‘ok we try and beat the golf course on these hard holes’ or maybe on an easier stretch the goal is 2 under.
It’s 100% a dissociation tactic, it’s taking me away from the overall outcome, the bigger picture and the score I’m on. Especially in a tournament round of golf. I might have a poor start to the round, but you don’t want that to fester. I don’t want that to change the way I’m playing. So this helps me reset if I have a bad run. It helps to take me away from what has happened in the past and look more forward.
Or if I’m playing great, it helps me stay out of my own way and not think of the bigger situation I’m in. I’m simply thinking ‘what’s our goal, what’s our next target. Ok this is where I’m at, this is what I’m going to do.’ That helps me to go low when my game is on.
5 Aim To Hit The Middle Of Every Green
If you’ve got a card in your hand and it’s a medal or a match, you want to put your opponent under pressure. Start hitting more greens.
I guarantee that if you go out onto the golf course and you disregard the flag, try to hit it in the middle of the green, you’ll hit better golf shots and you’ll hit more greens. You’ll gain more confidence from that, and have more fun. The natural curve of your ball, your natural dispersion means that you’ll hit some close, and you’ll start hitting the middle of the club face more often.
People think Tour Pro’s are very good, and we are, but we’re not AS good as people think. We’re not hitting shots to where we want to a lot of the time. For example, if you’re watching golf on TV and a pin is on the left, and a Pro hits it on the green left of the flag, just know that they weren’t aiming anywhere near that.
Bogey avoidance is better than trying to force birdies. A lot of the time we’re not aiming for the pin, so middle of the green is a safe place for you. No matter what your ability, it’ll save you a handful of shots.
I rarely aim at a flag now, but oddly I’ve holed more shots from the fairway in the last 12 months than I have ever done.
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