Lost Balls, Poor Swings – Why won’t we see the woods or the trees?

Looking for ball just off green at 14th hole, Pyle and Kenfig

How come you walk straight past your golf ball whilst looking for it in the rough? Yet when your playing partners point it out a few seconds later, it’s sitting up in the rough, clearly visible from space but 20 yards behind where you thought it would be . Perhaps you just don’t want to see it. You want to see your ball 20 yards further on because that’s where you planned it to be. Similarly, I don’t believe in many things. I especially don’t believe in rangefinders. The ‘150 yards’ the SkyCaddie SG 2.5 declares to be the true reading should leave me a 6 iron into the 17th. However, I know it’s an 8 iron, because I’ve always hit an 8 iron from here. OK I’ve always been short but it really is just a flick with an 8 iron;

There is the story of Christopher Columbus and his voyage to the Caribbean islands. It was written that as Columbus’ ships, the Santa Maria, Nina, and Pinta, approached the islands on October 11 1492, the natives could not see them. One account describes how the shaman of the islanders noticed that the waves washing up on the shore produced an unusual pattern. From this observation the shaman realised that something unusual was happening and looked harder out to sea. Eventually he saw the ships at a fairly close range. He then had to persuade the people to also see the ships. The natives had no concept of large ships and they simply could not recognise them. In a similar vein it’s rare for a committee man to recognise slow play in his own group yet spot a shirt not tucked in 200 yards away.

If we don’t expect something to be there we don’t look. Well we look but we don’t see. There was an experiment carried out by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that asked people to concentrate on a basketball game. Whilst the game was being played a gorilla wandered through the players (or rather a man in a gorilla suit) and hardly any of the participants noticed. They seemed to be so focused on the game, or it was so extraordinary, that it didn’t compute.

Looking beyond external physical objects how about taking a look at ourselves? Why can’t we see the poor alignment, the short backswing, the half-hearted follow through in our own game? We see this, and frequently volunteer the information, in our friends – although after a while we barely notice even this in regular playing partners.. We are so used to it, so conditioned that it becomes the ‘dead body in the study’ scenario. This is when people are so used to seeing something that they don’t really process it.

For instance, shut your eyes and think about the room you’re in. What exactly can you remember being on the walls? What’s in front of you that you see every single day? I would guess that when you actually open your eyes and look around there will be something there you will be surprised at. We see but we don’t process. In psychological terms this ‘dead body in the study’ scenario refers to a dead body you may have in the study. Every day you have to step over it to pass through the room. Initially you, of course, notice this but before long nobody seems to recognise this until you get a new person that suddenly starts screaming “You’ve got a dead body in the study!”. In golfing terms there is enormous benefit in having an outsider / coach / professional come in to look at your swing. They can actually see things that you can’t.

It’s estimated that the eyes see a billion pieces of information every second. However the brain can only process a fraction of this information – perhaps 4000 or so pieces of data. This means that there’s an awful lot of information going un-noticed. This would explain the Columbus Caribbean experience, the dead body in the study and a fair amount of golfers’ swings.

So, the moral of the story? Basically people tend to only see what they want, or expect, to see. Golfers, being a little like people, have a mental image of themselves. On the outside they may look like an excited octopus with a stick, but inside they feel they are swinging with the style and elegance of a Bradley Dredge.  Occasionally you will need someone, or a camcorder, to let you really look at your game. It’s only when you can see what’s going on that you can see what’s going wrong.

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