Start with the target

The target is everything

Golfers and golf coaches often talk about the game as if there are two distinct aspects—the mental side (how we think) and the physical side (how we swing).

But I believe the game is holistic; everything works together. Golf is like life—the whole sch-bang mixes together.

In providing golf lessons this season, I’m having a lot of fun combining the mental and physical aspects of golf to coach people on the important role of the target.

This blog is to provide you with increased awareness of the role of the target and how that awareness can improve your game significantly without you having to try changing your swing, which is enormously difficult.

In fact, by focusing more on the target, your swing will change naturally.

I begin many of my initial lessons with a new student by playing a little game of catch.

I’ll ask the student to stand in one spot and throw the ball to me underhand. Meanwhile, I imitate a receiver in football, and swerve all over the range, going farther away, coming closer, going away again, and so on.

Without fail, we throw the ball the perfect distance to each other every time. Whether I put my receiving hand high or low, the student throws it accurately to my hand every single time.

Acknowledging the student’s perfect throws, I’ll then ask: ‘How did you do that? How did you get it to me perfectly every time?’

The response, of course, is usually something like: ‘I have no idea. I just threw it to you.’

Here’s my idea of what’s happening:

  • First, the student has a very clear idea of the target: me
  • Second, the student’s intention is to throw the ball to the target

Thus, the brain and body have a distinct target in mind, and a concrete intention to throw the ball to that target. And they execute the task flawlessly because … our brains and bodies are absolutely brilliant.

  1. Everything in golf begins with the target

It’s almost silly to consider, but most golfers are not aware of the target as they prepare to swing, chip or stroke a putt. They are focused internally, usually on moving a body part in a certain way.

That doesn’t make sense: The objective of golf is to send the ball to the target. You wouldn’t get in your car without having a destination in mind, nor would you focus on your ability to turn the wheel. You start with the target in mind and everything happens in response.

It’s the same in golf. Start with the target in mind, and your brain and body will figure out how to get the ball there.

  1. The ball is not the target

In this section, we’re talking specifically about using irons, but target awareness will also help your driving.

When golfers hit the ball fat—their iron hits the ground, then the ball—they usually have some kind of mechanical explanation, such as ‘I lifted my head’ or ‘I didn’t shift my weight.’ They will often say the same thing when the club hits the middle of the ball with the edge of the club, which is called a thin shot.

They may be partially correct. But the primary reason that golfers hit the ball fat or thin is that they were focused on hitting the ball. That may sound weird. Aren’t we supposed to hit the ball?

Yes, but here’s the problem: If the ball is the target, when you make a long swing, the brilliant brain and body will slow the club down to ensure you hit the ball—your target. Your brain and body will cause your hand arms to slow down or even stop. But due to momentum, the clubhead keeps going forward—either into the ground behind the ball, or into the centre of the ball.

Instead of focusing on the ball, focus on swinging to the target, whether that’s a distant tree, a flagstick or the hole. That’s the real target. When you are focused on swinging to that external target, your brain and body will swing the club through the ball to your distant target.

This will help you to contact the ball with a descending blow and down through the turf, which is the order you want with an iron. (In future blogs, we’ll talk about target awareness and driving.)

  1. Target awareness improves distance control

Many golfers complain to me that they are forever leaving putts short. No matter how often they tell themselves to ‘get it there’ or ‘don’t leave it short,’ they chronically come up short. And then they’ll over-compensate and blast the ball way past.

The culprit again is usually a lack of target awareness, and again the player is likely focused on something mechanical in the stroke.

Here’s a great exercise for improving your target awareness:

  • Set-up over a putt to a hole about eight- or ten-feet away
  • Stroke the putt while looking at the target
  • Hit a number of putts; it may take you time to get used to putting this way
  • After a while, putt with your eyes on the ball while keeping the target in mind

Go back and forth—hitting some putts while looking at the hole, and then while looking at the ball. Compare your experience.

Whether you are looking at the target or keeping it in mind as you putt, when your focus is on the target, your body and brain are freed up to execute the task—such as playing catch—without self-interference. You’ll be surprised at how much more freedom you have in your stroke, and how your distance control improves.

It’s really easy to get distracted by the various aspects of golf, especially when you struggle. When your game goes south, always check your fundamentals first.

And the place to start is your awareness of the target.

Tim O'Connor
Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band!

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