Allow me to introduce you to two very good friends of mine, Denis and Alf. As yet they have not met each other, but it is high time they did. I am looking forward to meeting up with Denis again soon, when we travel to South Africa for their national Open. You may well be familiar with the wonderful, gravelly tones of Denis Hutchinson; a sound that is born of a lifetime of whisky and cigarettes. Most impressively he gave up the latter in his mid-seventies, some seven years ago, after much nagging from his doctor. He's been the Voice of South African golf for 30 years or more. After 81 years in existence, he still regularly beats his age by six or seven shots, albeit playing off the senior tees, something that does not seem to merit favour here in Hong Kong. Denis has a brilliant short game even now. The trouble is it starts on the tee! But as he often points out, golf is supposed to be fun, and it probably is not if you’re hitting woods into every green.
"Hutchy", as he is universally known, has always been a fierce competitor. He's one of the old school who just loves to play golf, but he still very badly wants to play well, and to win. He has the extremely rare – probably unique? – distinction of having played in a competition fourball with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, whilst representing South Africa against the USA in the World Cup, somewhere back in the dark ages. When he and I meet, we always play a game whereby we play level, but if either of us goes two holes down we get shots until we are back level. However, for every hole that you do not win when you are getting a shot you pay a penalty of a pound sterling or ten rand or whatever. It is a very good game for players who are reasonably well matched and invariably goes at least to the 17th hole and normally the 18th. My ambition is always to get Hutchy fired up. If he is cruising I know I am in trouble, but when I play well and push him, it gets his juices flowing and he then either plays brilliantly or starts to lose and then he gets really grumpy. A grumpy Hutch is a great thing to behold, and normally means the trophy we always compete for is mine. (It's actually a One Hundred Dirham note from the United Arab Emirates, where the competition first started ten years ago).
But it is his grumpiness that brings me to Alf, or more appropriately ALF, an acronym that Hugh Mantle, an eminent sports psychologist, taught me years ago. (Hugh worked with Colin Montgomerie for many years and became his friend and confidante while Monty was going through marital hell, until being unceremoniously dumped in the way that rich and famous sportsman seem to think is acceptable; but that is another story). It is a very simple mind game to keep you focused on what you are trying to achieve, whilst not getting too technical. The idea is always to play with an objective. Of course you want to play well, and win, but how do you achieve that? Hugh says you should have a clear, and probably limited, thought process for any given day. It may be a swing thought, or a rhythm or target thought. So the "A" stands for "Accept".
As soon as you have hit the ball, it is gone, there is nothing you can do about it. So rather than thrash around with your driver like a demented octopus, blinding and cussing, calmly watch the flight of the ball, acknowledging that its future is now out of your hands, but then move swiftly to the "L" for "Learn". Did you do what you were trying to do, regardless of the direction of the ball? If so, well done, mission accomplished. If not, why not? How can you do better next time? Then forget it and go find your ball. Hugh says most players are incapable of concentrating fully for a round that might (sadly these days) last four or five hours.
So the trick is to relax and switch off in between shots, but then have a mental key that clicks you back into the "F" word, or "Focus", at the right time. For some people this is a 10m circle around the ball, for others it might only be when you start your pre-shot routine. Either way, full concentration on the objectives of the next shot is crucial to success. It may be too late to teach the old dog new tricks, but it's just possible that ALF could help Denis. Maybe I won't introduce them after all …
Click here to see the published article.