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Men's golf masters the mental challenge

BY BEN SCHUFF | SEPTEMBER 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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No one can defend a golfer. There isn't an opponent on the golf course waiting to block a shot or deflect a pass.

It's just the golfer, the ball, and the course.

The simplicity of the game places an emphasis on staying mentally sharp throughout an 18-hole round.

For this reason, Iowa men's head golf coach Mark Hankins holds a formal session once a week designed to improve the mental aspect of each player's golf game. These sessions consist of exercises, coaching lectures, looking over handouts, or reading articles that offer insight to the mental side of golf.

"Golf is probably one of the hardest mental sports there is because it's just you versus yourself, and you against the golf course," Hankins said. "Basically, what you have is about four-and-a-half hours of walking and time to think. If you get the right things in your mind, that can be good. If you allow the wrong things to come in your mind, that can be bad."

The exercise portion of the sessions focuses on several skills, like relaxation and deep-breathing techniques, visualization, a pre-shot routine, or a pre-round routine. All of these, Hankins said he hopes, will help his players stay calm and not try too hard.

Players can be pushed to their mental limits particularly on opening days of tournaments, when they play two rounds back-to-back. Such was the case at Iowa's first tournament about a week ago, when they played 36 holes on Sept. 11 at the Gopher Invitational.

"It's extremely grueling mentally," redshirt freshman Ian Vandersee said of days when they play back-to-back rounds. "You're out there for upwards of 10 hours without taking a break, and it's just a grueling process that you have to be able to handle."

To deal with the mental challenge, one thing Hankins tells his players to do is focus while they are taking their shots, and then take their mind off the game while they're walking in between. Singing a song to themselves or taking in the course surroundings are a few of the ways Hankins suggests to his players stay relaxed.

"You can't stay focused for four-straight hours," the fifth-year coach said. "You have to come in and out of focus."

Aside from the formal session, Hankins said every day is an opportunity for his golfers to work on the mental part of their games, noting that "75 percent of what we do is mental."

Senior Chris Brant said he's noticed significant strides in his mental approach since he joined the team as a freshman.

During his days in junior golf, he said he would just go out and "wing it."

But now, with an improved mental edge, he has lowered his stroke average since the fall of his freshman season by about four shots per round.

"Whether you want to call it the 'zone' or whatever you want to call it, I'm looking for that every time I go out and tee it up," he said. "I'm looking for that place where I know I play my best mentally. It's a place of freedom, a place of confidence and relaxation."


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