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The Mental Game of Golf

Written by: Cesar Figueroa

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"Golf is a Game of inches. The most important are the 6 between your ears"

Arnold Palmer

Introduction: Golf Psychology & The Mental Game of Golf

The mental game of golf plays a massive role in your success, often serving as the unseen driving force behind a golfer's performance. While physical skills, technique, and equipment are undoubtedly crucial in the sport, the mental aspects of golf are just as important, if not more so. The ability to harness one's mental strength and maintain a focused, positive mindset can make all the difference between success and struggle on the golf course.

 

The mental aspects of golf encompass a wide range of factors, from managing pressure and anxiety to maintaining confidence and concentration. A golfer's mental state can significantly influence their shot selection, swing execution, and overall performance. It can determine how well they navigate the challenges of the course, respond to setbacks, and capitalize on opportunities.

 

When a golfer's mental game is strong, they are better equipped to handle the psychological demands of the sport, such as dealing with pre-round nerves, staying composed under pressure, and rebounding from a poor shot or a bad hole. Conversely, mental weaknesses, such as self-doubt, negative self-talk, or an inability to focus, can hinder even the most skilled players.

 

Overview of the Article


In this article, we will discuss the intricate relationship between psychology and golf. We will explore the various mental aspects that impact a golfer's performance, discuss research studies relating to mindset and sports, examine the strategies and techniques that can help players enhance their mental game, and discuss the positive affects golf as on your mental health. 

 

From pre-round rituals to in-game mental exercises, we will uncover the tools that golfers at all levels can employ to boost their mental resilience, confidence, and overall performance. Whether you're a beginner looking to gain a mental edge or a seasoned pro seeking to fine-tune your mental approach, we will discuss all things golf psychology.

The Mental Game of Golf - Quote from Jack Nicklaus highlighted over a picture of him, discussing his visualization techniques.

The Mind - Body Connection in Golf

The mind and body connection has been discussed all throughout history.  This fascinating research study found that negative talk, and constant criticism greatly affected gymnastic athletes.  The study aimed to conclude the influence of positive and negative self-talk over 258 female gymnasts aged 12-20.  With pre and post-game measures to evaluate the participants, there were a few key take aways from the study.


  • Big Impact on Performance: Positive self-talk helps athletes perform better. When they encourage themselves and focus on the good, they can improve how they play or compete. 

     

  • Coaches are Key: The study shows that coaches aren't just there to teach sports skills; they're important for helping athletes learn how to talk positively to themselves. By being supportive and creating a good environment, coaches can help athletes build up their own inner cheerleaders.

     

  • Positivity Leads to More Positivity: The snowball effect, the important finding from the study is that when athletes are in a positive space, they're more likely to use positive self-talk. So, it's not just about practicing sports but also about learning to keep the good vibes going.

     

  • It's Not One-Size-Fits-All: Athletes are all different, and what's going on around them can be different too. So, helping them with their self-talk means thinking about their personalities and the specific situations they're in. That way, they can learn how to give themselves the right pep talks at the right time.

     

  • More Than Just Words: Positive self-talk isn't just about saying good things. It's connected to feeling involved and important in what they're doing. So, programs that help athletes feel this way can make their self-talk more effective.


While the study focuses on gymnastics, and is more about how coaches can positively impact athletes lives, we can take away a few areas and relate them to golf. 

 

One, is being conscious of your surroundings. If you are having a bad day off of the course, this can translate to on the course.  So be mindful.  

 

Second, continue to give yourself positive affirmations, on and off the golf course.  

 

Third, know that not every ritual/pre-shot routine will work for you, figure out how you can be your own personal cheerleader, and implement to ensure positive vibes.  

Take aways from the mind-body connection study from gymnastics and to relate it to golf psychology.

Golf Psychology 


Have you ever played with someone who is having a bad round and their negative influence impacts your mental state?  Or do you see them spiral and play worse and worse as the round goes on?  

 

This isn’t a random occurrence, but rather, it gives credence to the notion that negative self-talk invokes negative performance in golf.  Diving into Golf psychology is one of the most important of any sport, and your mindset can affect your overall game. 

 

  • Confidence and Self-Talk: A golfer's mindset before they even approach the ball can set the tone for their swing or entire round. Positive self-talk and mental imagery techniques can build a your confidence, leading to more controlled and precise swings. If a golfer is doubtful, their hesitancy can creep into their swing, leading to mistakes and inconsistency.

     

  • Concentration and Focus: The mental game of golf requires a high level of concentration as it's often played over extended periods, demanding consistent performance throughout. A focused mindset allows your to better read the course, gauge distances, and execute a strategic play. Distractions or a wandering mind can lead to poor decision-making and technical errors during swings.

     

  • Stress and Pressure Handling: How a golfer manages stress and pressure can impact their physical performance. Being under stress can tighten muscles, disrupt the fluidity needed for a good swing, and lead to rushed or miscalculated shots. Conversely, a calm, collected mindset helps maintain a smooth, unhurried, and effective swing.

     

  • Adaptability and Resilience: A golfer's mindset regarding adaptability will influence their overall game, especially when they face unforeseen challenges such as weather changes or unexpected course conditions, slow play, an angry cart mate, or any other random occurrences. A resilient attitude helps them remain determined in the face of setbacks, maintain a consistent performance, and avoid letting one bad shot ruin an entire game.

     

  • Routine and Discipline: Many golfers rely on routines to keep their mindset steady and ready. This discipline in their mental approach helps create consistency in their swings and overall game strategy. It keeps them grounded, especially in high-stakes moments, and allows for better control over their game.

     

  • Post-Shot Reflection: After taking a shot, a golfer's mindset can influence their ability to reflect on and learn from the outcome. A positive and constructive attitude will help them glean insights to apply in subsequent shots, while a negative mindset might hinder growth and adaptation.

 

In essence, the mental game is paramount in golf. A positive, focused, and resilient mindset translates directly into a more controlled, confident, and effective physical performance on the course. Golf isn't just about having the physical skill to hit the ball; it's about having the mental fortitude to navigate the challenges of the game.

Pre-Golf Mental Preperation

Establishing a pre-game routine is important to ensure you get your mind right ahead of playing.  Everyone’s ritual will be unique to them, and not every person will be the same.  However, a few things you can do to enable a prepared mental game of golf:

 

Meditate

Meditation has been proven to calm the mind and, therefore calm the body.  Even 10 minutes ahead of your tee time can help foster a more calm mentality, and a positive mindset ahead of your round.

 

Breathing Exercises

Start your mental prep with 8-10 minutes of deep belly breathing, to help focus your mind and relax your body. If you get distracted, gently refocus on your breathing pattern. After deep breathing, ease your breath back to a normal rhythm. Beginning with your face and moving down to your toes, scan each body part for tension, using your breath to release tightness or stress you find. Pay attention to each sensation you encounter, and consciously use your breathing to find a sense of calm and relaxation throughout your body.

 

Practicing Gratitude

Gratitude can be a powerful tool to combat anxiety on the golf course, shifting your focus from fear to appreciation. Remember, you're about to play golf, not facing an ordeal like surgery or an exam. Identify three aspects of your upcoming round you're thankful for, unrelated to your score—like the scenery, your health, companionship, or learning opportunities. Keeping these positive elements in mind throughout the game reduces pressure and fosters a positive attitude, helping you navigate the round's inevitable challenges more smoothly.

 

Yoga

Incorporating yoga into your pre-golf routine can be a game-changer for your performance. Through focused stretches and poses, yoga warms up the body, increasing flexibility essential for a fluid, unrestricted golf swing. The practice also enhances mental focus and reduces stress, preparing your mind for the concentration required in golf. Additionally, yoga's breathing techniques can calm pre-game jitters, ensuring you start your game with a sense of tranquility and controlled energy. Overall, yoga harmonizes the mind and body, setting a solid foundation for a successful round of golf.  There are a variety of golf-specific Yoga routines that you can find online.

 

Music

Music has the power to shift a golfer's mindset into a positive space before hitting the course. By listening to uplifting or calming tunes, golfers can stimulate psychological responses that ignite joy, motivation, and relaxation, essential elements for maintaining composure during the game. Music helps drown out negative or distracting thoughts, allowing players to focus on the rhythm and feel of their upcoming performance. Additionally, familiar tracks can evoke memories of successful rounds or happy moments, providing an extra confidence boost. Essentially, the right playlist acts as mental preparation, tuning the player's attitude and emotional state, readying them for the challenges on the course.

 

Visualization Techniques

Visualizing success on the golf course doesn't mean assuming it will definitely happen; it's about building confidence and readiness for whatever comes your way. Legends like Jack Nicklaus and Muhammad Ali credited much of their triumphs to mental rehearsals, picturing victories before they were physically achieved. This practice of mental preparation convinces your subconscious that you've already succeeded, reducing fear and anxiety. By the time you face the actual challenge, you're more at ease and confident, thereby enhancing your likelihood of success.

 

Positive Affirmations

Embracing positive affirmations isn’t just an act of self-assurance; it's about fundamentally rewiring your thought patterns and nurturing a growth mindset. Greats like Serena Williams and Michael Phelps have used positive affirmations not just as motivational tools, but as critical elements in their arsenal to overcome self-doubt and the pressures that come with professional sports. These affirmations, simple statements like "I am a capable golfer" or "I am a resilient golfer," are seeds planted in the fertile soil of the subconscious. When nurtured, they grow into robust beliefs, crowding out negativity and creating a mental landscape dominated by positivity, resilience, and a readiness to tackle each hurdle head-on.

 

The key is consistent repetition, allowing these affirmations to infiltrate your thoughts, thus initiating a positive feedback loop within your brain. The more you reinforce that you’re capable, the more you begin to believe it as an undeniable truth, forging an environment where success isn't just a possibility; it becomes an expectation. By establishing this stronghold of positivity, you’re not only preparing yourself to handle the wins but also to manage setbacks with grace, understanding that they're not failures but stepping stones on the path to greatness.

 

Understanding Your Personal 'Why'

Your 'Why' is more than a goal; it's the compass that guides you through life’s vast and often unpredictable landscape. Understanding your personal 'Why' is like capturing the essence of your motivation, the very core of your internal drive. It’s what pushed icons like Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs past the boundaries of the ordinary, helping them persevere when they faced obstacles, criticism, and moments of self-doubt.

 

Digging deep to identify this 'Why' is a journey into your values, aspirations, and what you’re willing to struggle for. It’s recognizing what truly fulfills you, separating momentary pleasures from lasting contentment. This insight becomes your anchor, your unwavering point of reference amidst the chaos of everyday life.

The Mental Game of Golf - Pre Game Mental Preperation.

 

Types of Visualization


Shot Visualization: Before taking a shot, close your eyes and envision the trajectory you want for the ball, the swing path, and the ball landing precisely at the intended target. Picture the surroundings, feel the club in your hands, and hear the sound of the shot. This technique helps align your body and mind to execute the perfect stroke.

 

Success Scenarios: Imagine yourself conquering challenging moments on the course. This could involve sinking a long putt, getting out of a bunker effectively, or hitting a perfect drive on the toughest hole. By visualizing success in these scenarios, you're mentally preparing to handle them with confidence in real play.

 

Calmness Under Pressure: Visualize yourself in a high-pressure situation, such as a tournament or a tiebreaker. Feel the pressure, but see yourself breathing deeply, staying calm, and maintaining a positive demeanor. This mental rehearsal prepares you to manage stress and perform well under actual pressure.

 

Whole-Round Visualization: Before a game, take a moment to visualize the entire round of golf. See yourself moving confidently between holes, executing each shot with precision, and navigating the course effectively. This comprehensive technique helps set a positive tone, preparing your mind for a consistent performance throughout the entire round.


Tiger Wood's Example Pre-Game Warm Up


Information from Golf.com's article, a summary of Tiger Wood's example pre-tournament warm up. 

 

"Tiger Woods exhibits a meticulous pre-tournament routine before his opening round at the Hero World Challenge, commencing his preparation on the putting green 1.5 hours before tee off. He spends the initial phase intensely focused on putting, starting from mid-range putts to long 60-footers, intermittently engaging in brief interactions with fellow golfers. By 10:57 a.m., Woods progresses to the short-game area, practicing chips of varying difficulties and bunker shots, each segment highlighting his precision and adaptability.

 

At 11:07 a.m., he transitions to the range, warming up with pitches before moving into full swings with his irons, meticulously adjusting to the crosswind. A brief interlude for hydration and a snack precedes a series of strategic ball striking, practicing different swings and adapting to the wind conditions, punctuated with pauses for discussions with his caddie, Joe LaCava, and checking his phone for potential updates or information.

 

By 11:35 a.m., Woods has advanced to practicing with his woods, demonstrating controlled draws and fades with his driver, and briefly socializing with fellow golfer Justin Thomas. As noon approaches, he refines his short game with a final wedge practice before returning to the putting green. His routine culminates in a series of putts from varying angles and distances, showcasing his focus on mastering the green's challenges. After a brief exchange with other professionals and key individuals, including Bryson DeChambeau and Hero CEO Pawan Munjal, Woods concludes his pre-round regimen at 12:05 p.m. with his first tee shot, marking the end of nearly an hour and a half of methodical, strategic warm-up designed to prepare him physically and mentally for the tournament ahead."

 

Tiger Woods is famously known for his mental strength. This resilience stems partly from the confidence he has in his game, which is a result of methodical practice, and partly from the teachings of his father, an ex-Army Special Forces veteran. Earl Woods' approach to parenting and coaching wasn't always viewed positively, but it significantly influenced Tiger Woods' mental fortitude.

 

Earl would intentionally create distractions, such as jangling his keys while Tiger was putting, or making Tiger read a book while watching TV, challenging his son's focus. Most notably, he would continuously berate Tiger to test his mental endurance and push him beyond his limits. Though these tactics may seem extreme, they were instrumental in shaping Tiger's ability to persevere through adversity on the fairway and triumph in numerous major championships.

The Law of Attraction in Golf

The 7 laws of attraction for positive golf mindset | Golf Psychology

The concept of the Law of Attraction revolves around the idea of manifesting what one focuses on, whether positive or negative, and it's believed to be governed by a set of universal laws. These principles can be applied to virtually any aspect of life, including golf to win at the mental game of golf. Below, we'll discuss what are commonly referred to as the "7 Laws of Attraction" and how they relate specifically to the game of golf.

 

The Law of Manifestation: 

This law suggests that whatever you focus on consistently, you will manifest in your reality. In golf psychology, this could be understood as concentrating on positive outcomes, such as visualizing oneself executing the perfect swing, making a difficult putt, or winning a tournament. By vividly imagining these scenarios, a golfer will be more likely to actualize them.

 

The Law of Magnetism:

This law means that individuals attract what they emit into the universe. For golfers, maintaining a positive attitude and high vibrational energy on the course can attract similar positive circumstances, like favorable ball lies, friendly weather conditions, or even a receptive and supportive crowd.

 

The Law of Pure Desire: 

According to this law, when someone desires something without underlying doubt or conflict, they are more likely to achieve it. In the mental game of golf, this would apply to having a clear, undoubted intention of hitting a target or scoring below a certain threshold. The purity of this desire, free of conflicting thoughts, can attain this goal.

 

The Law of Delicate Balance: 

This law states that desperation and excessive attachment to outcomes can push them further away. For a golfer, this means understanding the importance of staying relaxed, avoiding overthinking shots or the final score, and not being consumed by the fear of losing. This composed mindset can often lead to better performance.

 

The Law of Harmony:

This principle suggests that when we align with the natural flow or harmony of the universe, we expend less effort in achieving our desires. For golfers, this can relate to the idea of "being in the zone," where movements and decisions happen effortlessly and everything seems to align on the course.

 

The Law of Right Action: 

Actions that emanate from good intentions and moral compass are believed to have positive repercussions. In golf, sportsmanship and respect for the game, adhering to etiquette and traditions, the course, and fellow competitors can create a positive atmosphere that might reflect back favorably on a player's game.

 

The Law of Expanding Influence: 

This law revolves around the idea that individuals have a unique purpose in the world, and their influence expands as they align with this purpose. For golfers, this could mean recognizing their unique strengths and style of play, focusing on these elements to improve their game, and influencing others by contributing positively to the sport.

 

Applying these laws to one's approach to golf requires a blend of mental discipline, positive visualization, emotional balance, and an ethical approach to the game. Golf, often being as much a mental challenge as a physical one, can significantly benefit from such holistic strategies.

 

Many people regard these ideals as unrealistic, yet numerous successful individuals have adopted these principles, attributing their achievements to them. The New York Times Best Seller "Think and Grow Rich" reinforces these very principles, drawing inspiration from the tycoons of the late 1800s who credited their success to this mindset. Several modern-day celebrities also strongly believe in the law of attraction as a cornerstone of their success, including:

 

  • Denzel Washington

  • Conor McGregor

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger

  • Jim Carrey

  • Lady Gaga

  • Oprah Winfrey

  • Jay-Z

Golf Psychology: Staying Present in Golf

Staying in the present moment during a round of golf will impact your performance. The mental game of golf involves focusing on the current shot or task, avoiding distractions from what happened earlier in the round or what could happen later. Here's how to maintain that focus:


One Shot at a Time Mentality: Adopt the mindset that the only shot that matters is the one right in front of you. Previous or future shots don't exist in your mind at this moment. This approach helps keep the focus sharp and avoids the accumulation of pressure.

 

Deep Breathing Exercises: Use deep breathing techniques to center yourself. When you find your mind drifting to a past mistake or worrying about an upcoming hole, bring yourself back to the present by concentrating on your breath, feeling each inhalation and exhalation. This can help clear your mind and refocus your attention.

 

Develop a Pre-Shot Routine: Routines can help create a sense of normalcy and control. By performing a consistent pre-shot routine, you signal to your brain that it's time to focus on the task at hand. This ritual can help drown out "noise" like stress, pressure, or distractions.  This can be something as simple as wiggling your toes 4x before every shot.  Whatever it is, it gets you into that mental preparation to execute.

Positive Self-talk: Maintain a dialogue with yourself that reinforces your ability to handle the task at hand. Instead of thinking, "I can't mess this up," rephrase your thoughts into, "I've got this. I'm focused on this shot." Positive affirmations keep you grounded in the present by reaffirming your ability in the now.

 

Mindfulness and Meditation: Practices like mindfulness and meditation can enhance your ability to stay present. They train your mind to attain a state of active, open attention on the present, allowing you to acknowledge thoughts as they arise and consciously bring your focus back to the current moment.

 

Controlled Focus: Learn to direct your focus on aspects you can control. You can't control the crowd, the weather, or your opponents, but you can control your reactions, your demeanor, and your approach to the next shot. By acknowledging this, you detach from uncontrollable outcomes, helping to anchor yourself in the present.


Staying in the present during a round requires consistent mental effort, but with practice, these techniques can become second nature. They help minimize anxiety, reduce the impact of mistakes, and maximize focus and performance on the course. Each shot is a new opportunity, independent of the last, and deserves the full attention of a mind unburdened by the past or future.


 

Course Management & Decision Making

Course management in golf isn't just about deciding what club to use or aiming for the right part of the green; it's a comprehensive strategy that involves the mental aspect of the game, including understanding one's abilities, the course, and conditions, and making smart decisions under pressure. Here's how the mental game of golf involves your decisions of course management, strategic decisions, and risk-taking:

 

The Mental Game of Golf and Course Management:

 

  • Self-awareness: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses allows you to navigate the course in a way that plays to your advantage. Are you good with 7 iron 140 yards out, but awful at the approach 60-70 yards out?  Plan your approach to optimize the use of your strengths and mitigate the exposure of weaknesses.

     

  • Emotional Control: Manage your emotions on the course. Frustration or over-excitement can lead to impulsive decisions, like attempting an overly aggressive shot after a poor hole or getting complacent after a series of good ones. Staying calm helps in making rational decisions.

     

  • Focus and Decision-making: Good course management requires concentration on each shot. Understanding the risk/reward scenario and deciding based on rational thought rather than emotional impulse is key. It involves strategic thinking, like choosing the safer fairway shot over an aggressive line that could end in the rough or out of bounds.

     

Making Strategic Decisions Based on Mental State:

 

  • Assess Your State: If you're feeling anxious or unsure, it might not be the time to attempt a high-risk shot. Instead, opt for a strategy that increases your confidence, even if it doesn't promise a significant reward.

     

  • Adapt Your Play Style: Based on whether you're feeling confident or are in a more cautious mindset, you might adapt your play. If you're playing well and feeling confident, take the extra risk.  Regardless of your state, it's calculated and methodical.

     

When to Take Risks and When to Play It Safe:

 

  • Taking Risks: If you're behind and need to make up ground, or if you've hit a groove where your shots are landing just as intended, you might decide to take a calculated risk, like going for the green on a long par 5. This decision should be based on thorough knowledge of your capabilities, current performance, and the specific hazards of the shot.

     

  • Playing It Safe: If you're protecting a lead, or if your game has been off, particularly in areas that a risky shot would demand, it's wise to play conservatively. For example, opting to lay up in front of a water hazard, ensuring a more comfortable next shot, could be smarter than going directly for the green and risking a drop.

 

In every case, the golden rule of mental course management is to make decisions that set you up for the highest chance of success, based on your current mental and emotional state, as well as your skill level, and past experiences. The best players are those who can accurately assess their situation on the course, their own abilities, and the risks involved, and make clear-headed decisions that reflect this assessment.  Every hole should be played differently, regardless of how many times you have played a particular course.
 

Golf Psychology: To Improve Mental Health

Golf Psychology | Mental Health Benefits, The Mental Game of Golf.

This study aimed to explore the experiences of individuals with mental health problems or substance use who participated in systematic golf activities as part of a Golf as Therapy group. The study investigated how these individuals perceived the impact of golf activities on various aspects of their lives, including physical and mental health, social interactions, and daily activities. The research was conducted through 12 individual interviews, and qualitative content analysis was used to analyze the data.

 

The findings of the study indicated that participants reported positive effects on their physical and mental well-being, as well as improvements in their daily activities. The main theme that emerged from the data was "Shaping a New Direction in Life." This overarching theme encompassed several categories, including:

 

1. Ameliorated Physical Fitness:

Participants experienced improvements in their physical fitness as a result of engaging in golf activities, suggesting that the mental game of golf had a positive impact on their physical health.

 

2. Creation of a Social Meeting Place:

Golf provided a social setting for participants to connect with others, emphasizing the importance of social interactions and support within the group.

 

3. Improved Focus and Concentration: Engaging in golf activities helped participants enhance their ability to focus and concentrate, potentially contributing to improved mental well-being.

 

4. Practical Help and Support: 

Participants found practical assistance and support within the Golf as Therapy group, suggesting that the program offered more than just recreational benefits.

 

5. Reduced Mental Symptom Burden: Participants reported a reduction in mental health symptoms, indicating that golf activities had a positive influence on their mental health.

 

Overall, the study highlighted the multifaceted benefits of participating in systematic golf activities as part of a therapeutic approach. It demonstrated that golf had a positive impact on physical and mental health, social connections, daily functioning, and the overall well-being of individuals dealing with mental health problems or substance use issues.

 

If you have played golf, you know this information isn't new.  The feeling after a great round, with great company, and being in the sun, is indescribable to a non-golfer.  This is the most beautiful aspect of the sport.  It gets you in the sun, creates a mental challenge, is a social sport, is a workout (especially if you walk the course), and it's a hobby you continually strive to reduce your handicap.  The best part of the game is it's something you can play well into your senior years, and enjoy with your spouse for decades to come.

Conclusion: The Mental Game of Golf

In wrapping up, it's unmistakable how intertwined golf and mental health truly are. This classic game is not merely a sport of physical endurance but also a mental voyage that demands and fosters a unique blend of concentration, resilience, and tranquility. Navigating the fairways and greens provides an escape, teaches life lessons, and offers a therapeutic communion with nature, unlike any other sport.

 

But the journey through golf is about embracing the peace that comes with a solo practice session, the camaraderie during a round with friends, and the personal growth that emerges from competition. Whether you're battling anxiety, looking for a new way to relieve stress, or simply seeking a pastime that brings a sense of accomplishment, golf might just be the unexpected answer you've been searching for.

 

For those ready to embark on this journey, the path need not be intimidating. We invite you to check out our comprehensive 'How to Play Golf for Beginners' - a resource crafted with care to ease your initiation into the golfing world. It breaks down the basics, ensuring your start in this game is as enjoyable as it is informed.

 

And for our seasoned readers, don't forget that comfort and confidence go hand in hand on the course. Feel free to explore our exclusive collection of golf gloves, designed to provide the grip and assurance you show off your personal style and flair.

 

Below we have linked a number of studies that helped curate this article, and some great books on the psychology and golf.