The Four Foundations Of Golf: Growing Your Grit

The following is an excerpt from Jon Sherman’s The Four Foundations of Golf, a complete guide to golf that a player of any level can use to lower their scores and increase their enjoyment of the game. 

This excerpt comes from Part Two of Jon’s Book: THE MENTAL GAME.

As much as I want you to have fun and enjoy your golf game, I have to be honest. There are plenty of moments that will test your patience and emotional stability – that’s one of the main challenges of this game. Hopefully, you don’t see this as counterintuitive or contradictory, but I’m going to change gears here a bit. If you want to become a better golfer, you will need to learn to dig in when things aren’t going your way and change your habits. That’s why grit is a valuable asset in your “mental toolbox.”

I’ll try to be careful as I explore this concept. Whenever I mention words like grit, resiliency, or grinding it out, inevitably, I get the response, “well, that doesn’t sound like much fun!” But it’s all a matter of perspective and commitment level.

If you are reading this book to become the absolute best golfer and want to lower your handicap, this chapter will be vital, especially if you lack grit. You will need to make changes, and humans do not like change.

However, golf might not be as serious as an endeavor for you. Or you might not even have many opportunities to play. I’ll let you make the ultimate decision, but grit might not be relevant or necessary for some. That’s the beauty of golf – there is no right or wrong in your approach. 

Exploring Grit

When somebody hears the word grit, it can elicit multiple reactions. Often, people envision a negative state. I will not suggest you white-knuckle it through your round of golf. Grit is now primarily associated with positive psychology.

A psychologist who wrote a wonderful book entitled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

In her research, Duckworth found that grit is a more significant predictor of success than talent. In my journey through golf, I have found that to be the case as well. I’ve seen so many players with outstanding abilities who can’t seem to excel or enjoy golf. Conversely, those who genuinely want to improve and love the process find ways to problem-solve to reach their goals and outperform. More importantly, the satisfaction they derive from that process is gratifying. Personally, I like to hang my hat on grit.

Golf is a very peculiar but addicting game compared to other leisurely pursuits. Let’s face it; our tribe is a little crazy to chase a small white ball around a large field. It’s hard to explain precisely why golf can be so addicting. A lot of it has to do with how challenging the game is and how good it feels to have those moments where we think we figured it out. But with those incredible highs comes a lot of lows. And I believe those lows are why many players quit the game or find themselves in perpetual limbo.

Unfortunately, we can’t have it both ways. You can’t become the golfer at the top of your mountain (which is different for each player) without climbing through some mud at the bottom. 

Angela Duckworth’s words are better than mine:

One way to think about grit is to consider what grit isn’t.

Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something.

Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an “ultimate concern”–a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.

Talent and luck matter to success. But talent and luck are no guarantee of grit. And in the very long run, I think grit may matter at least as much, if not more.

Many golfers can identify with some of these words. And, of course, I want your pursuit of better golf to be primarily fun and playful. But because this game can be so challenging and mentally exhausting at times, adding a bit of grit is almost necessary for most. 

What Grit Can Look Like Off the Course

There are so many examples of how you can add grit to your golf game.

While I’m no master of grit, my experience has shown me its value over the years. Some parts of the game came easier to me at times than others. But eventually, I hit a lot of frustrating walls. 

I was utterly terrified of intermediate wedge shots for years and would do anything to avoid leaving myself 30-80 yards from the hole. Eventually, I realized this was impossible to do, and to get better, I had to conquer the problem head-on. So I poured over Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible. I highlighted, took notes, and made a genuine effort to absorb the information. 

Then I spent hours of meaningful practice to settle on a wedge technique that I could feel comfortable with. Slowly, I became more and more comfortable with these shots while I played. But there were still plenty of times where I chunked a shot, or worse, the dreaded shank! But because I was so determined to solve the problem, I felt confident I could overcome these adverse outcomes. 

In a way, I was shifting my mindset and identity. While I still have to work on these shots to maintain my skill, I believe I am an excellent intermediate wedge player. One of my favorite authors, James Clear, describes these as identity-based habits. 

When you’re looking to solve a problem in your golf game, having grit and the proper habits is usually a winning combination. I recommend the book Atomic Habits to just about everyone who follows Practical Golf. 

James Clear writes:

The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).

To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.

Imagine how we typically set goals. We might start by saying, “I want to lose weight” or “I want to get stronger.” If you’re lucky, someone might say, “That’s great, but you should be more specific.”

So then you say, “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to squat 300 pounds.”

These goals are centered around outcomes, not identity.

Golfers fall into the same trap. Saying that you’re a 20 handicap and want to become a ten handicap is not enough information. You will have to take a much deeper dive into your game to figure out what is holding you back and what habits you need to change to get there. I’ve given you some ideas earlier in the book on doing this more efficiently and analytically. Grit is the fuel that will keep you going as you face inevitable setbacks in creating this new identity.

I’ve had to go through this same process with my driver and putting. In my quest to become a better tournament player, it became apparent by watching other golfers and benchmarking my performance that these were also problems that needed to be solved. The predicament was that I kept telling myself, “I’m a great iron player, but I just struggle off the tee and on the greens.” 

It wasn’t easy, but now I genuinely believe that I am good at both. But I had to change my processes and habits along the way. As I kept slowly chipping away and celebrating my tiny accomplishments, I was also proving my new identity. I did not want to be the dissatisfied golfer who looked at the course with fear anymore. 

Using Grit On the Course

I have had my share of mental battles on the golf course, and I know how many of you will struggle. For years, I would approach golf as a make-or-break proposition. I would go out to play with a devastating combination – lack of preparation and unrealistic expectations. My score was the only litmus test of success, and when I felt it was out of reach, I would give up on the day. I had almost zero grit.

I found myself in a binary state – I was either trying way too hard or entirely checked out.

Along the way, I witnessed many of the same behaviors in others. What is most interesting is that having grit elsewhere in life does not necessarily mean it will translate to your golf game. I’ve played with successful business people, professional athletes, and plenty of other high achievers who undoubtedly have serious grit. But it was nowhere to be found once they teed it up. After a few bad swings, they would lose their composure and continue in a negative mindset for the rest of the day. 

There are many reasons why “golf grit” is harder to develop. It’s much easier for some to give up when you become embarrassed and your ego is damaged. I know that was the case for me. 

So what is grit on the golf course? For me, it’s a straightforward definition. It’s a commitment to yourself that you will not give up and stay mentally engaged no matter what happens. And this is another moment where you have to choose your adventure. For some, this level of commitment might not make sense or isn’t fun. And I have to stress that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition; there is no perfection with grit.

Every round of golf is an opportunity to learn, grow, build new habits, and work on your grit. I used to play a terrible game with myself where I would either turn on or turn off for the day. Let’s say I had a bad opening stretch of holes; I would tell myself, “OK, you’re done for the day.” And then six holes later, I might have a few good shots and then say, “wait, you’re back! This is a real round.” This mental inconsistency is not productive.

With these earlier chapters in the mental game section, I’m ultimately building a process you can commit to on every shot. I will get into specifics on what I believe are productive elements of pre-shot and post-shot routines. Overall, grit is the commitment to going through these routines on as many shots as possible. 

I hope you can start building more consistent and positive habits on the golf course. In concept, this all sounds very simple. But to this day, despite what I consider a very high grit level, there are still rounds where I have to struggle to stay engaged. And I believe on those days, it’s where you have your best chance to grow your grit and solidify these habits. This is no different than someone trying to establish a fitness routine – the moments you feel tired and lazy are the actual test.

The Big Ideas

  • Grit is a necessary component in your “mental toolbox” – it is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals.
  • Have a positive mindset and solve problems through analysis and change your habits.
  • Altering your identity and being specific about what habits you will change is crucial.
  • Growing your on-course grit and staying engaged in rounds no matter your results is how many golfers break through to the next level.