Besides two great 18-hole layouts and a terrific short course, golfers fortunate enough to be members of the Olympic Club in San Francisco have at their disposal an indoor range, a state-of-the-art fitness facility, nine teaching pros and Carolyn Hoffman, the only psychologist who works solely for a golf club. As those bank card ads used to say, membership has its privileges.
Hoffman, 33, played field hockey, lacrosse and soccer while growing up in Saratoga, Calif. She graduated from UC San Diego in 1990 with a degree in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in sports psychology from Kansas in 1995-After two years in private practice, Hoffman was hired by Olympic in '97, primarily because she had transformed Paul Kennedy, the club's general manager at the time, from a mechanical 12 handicapper into a results-oriented seven. She has been a staff member ever since, as available to the club's 6,000 members as one of the pros or the masseuse. Unlike those colleagues, though, Hoffman isn't paid by the session. She receives a salary from the club, so her checkups from the neck up are essentially free to the membership.
Says Hoffman, "The majority of golfers I've observed are negative, mechanical and indecisive. I try to teach them to focus on the shot, not on the swing. In every other sport, whether shooting a free throw or pitching a baseball, focusing on the target is natural. Only golfers obsess about the swing, breaking it down into pieces and thinking about swing plane and hand position instead of where they want the ball to go."
Hoffman, a nine handicapper, has worked with hundreds of members at Olympic, initially meeting them in her office and then moving to the range or the course, depending on the client's wishes. The skill level of those who seek her help runs from that of a former pro who had qualified for last year's U.S. Senior Open to that of frustrated beginners. "An elderly gentleman brought me his scorecard, which added up to 176," says Hoffman. "He amazed me for several reasons. First, I couldn't believe anyone would actually keep that card, that he would still be counting. Second, I was blown away that at his age he would ask a woman sports psychologist, someone 45 years younger, to help him with his game." The consultations proved fruitful for the frustrated senior. Hoffman says he shaved about 60 shots from his score.
The best clients are the "sponges," says Hoffman, referring to people who willingly seek help. She cites a man who took up golf late in life. An untold number of lessons, golf schools and training aids hadn't helped him break 100, but several sessions with Hoffman did. Sounding like a weight-loss counselor, she proudly says, "He has taken 15 shots off his game, and he's keeping them off."
Any golfer familiar with the inner game has heard Hoffman's rap. "I try to teach the members that you cannot disconnect the body from the brain," she says. "What you think about, whether you realize it or not, has a tremendous effect on your body. You must control your thought process. People say, 'I don't understand it. I specifically said to myself, Don't hit it in the water, but it went right in the water.' The body is listening to the mind, and the mind is obsessing about the water. Players need to think about where the ball needs to go, aiming at a distant tree limb or the corner of the clubhouse, for example. You're obviously aware of the water, but you must focus on the target, not the danger."
Hoffman has cut back on her hours at the club so she can travel with her husband of 14 months, former basketball coach P.J. Carlesimo, who's an NBA analyst for NBC and an Olympic member. (They were introduced by club members.) Perhaps because he's used to giving orders instead of taking them, Carlesimo has been a slow learner. "If I'd listen to her as her clients do, I wouldn't be such a lousy player," says Carlesimo, a 14 handicapper. Hoffman has a different theory. "I try to counsel P.J.," she says, "but he's a little set in his ways. He was single for 50 years, so he's used to figuring out things on his own."
She pauses, then adds with a laugh, "Even if it takes him longer than it should."