CARY, NC - Richard Skinner has been golfing for more than 50 years.   

To this day, he'll do anything to improve his game.   

He has fancy clubs that are supposed to improve accuracy.   

He has spent hours at the driving range or on the practice green.   

And he obeys superstition: Never use a "water ball" because it encourages bad habits and possesses bad luck.   

Despite all this, he can't putt consistently.   

So on July 15, the White Lake resident drove 100 miles to Cary for a lesson. "If you don't try to get better you're wasting your time," said Skinner, 66, who plays golf at least once a week.   

But during his four-hour stay at Prestonwood Country Club, Skinner never touched a club. And his instructor wasn't even a golf pro.   

Instead, Skinner entrusted his technique with John Weir, a certified hypnotist who helps golfers shave strokes off their game.   

People have long turned to hypnotists for help with overcoming some of life's toughest obstacles, such as weight loss and smoking cessation.    

So it makes sense that more hypnotists are catering to those who subscribe to the tired, but true, cliché: Golf is played in the space between one's ears.   

"Athletes perform best in a relaxed state," said Dorothy Taylor, a Cary hypnotist who helped organize the event at Prestonwood.   

Golf hypnosis, while not exactly new, has enjoyed solid growth in recent years as more athletes discover the link between mental and physical discipline, said Dwight Damon, co-founder of the National Guild of Hypnotists in Merrimack, N.H.    

"Only in the last 20-or-so years have we become aware of the mind-body relationship," he said.   

The awareness has come as hypnosis in general has become a more accepted treatment. The cartoon misconceptions of swinging watches are fading, Damon says.   

"It's being picked up at hospitals more and more," he said, adding that guild membership has grown 70 percent to 12,000 in 70 countries during in the past six years.   

In a banquet room at Prestonwood, Weir walked confidently between tables populated with 10 serious golfers who had paid $75 for his three-hour seminar. They listened intently as he talked about the human psyche and the origins of frustration.    

"Relaxation is the key to fixing your golf swing," Weir said between PowerPoint slides that featured images of golfers and the human brain.    A person's habits, he said, are a reflection of the golfer's self-image and that self-inflicted pressure can hinder a player's confidence, performance and enjoyment.   

Whether a golfer becomes tense before putting for birdie or pulls out a "water ball" before attempting a shot over a pond, negative thoughts undoubtedly change the course of one's game. "It can become a case of the mind not getting out of the way of the body," said Weir, who wore a gray suit and power tie.   

To break bad habits, Weir encouraged participants to breathe deeply, relax their muscles and imagine the best shot they ever hit.   

"Think about that shot. ... What did it feel like?" Weir said calmly to the participants, whose eyes were closed in the dim room. "Visualize that swing."    

Weir told them to play it over - again and again - in their minds. The goal, he said, was to bypass the self-critical thoughts and establish acceptable, positive, selective thinking in the subconscious mind.   

Poor mental mechanics are what brought Roxanne Hicklin to Weir's seminar.   

The Raleigh resident won the Ladies Club Championship at Prestonwood in 2008. But she still struggles with negative thoughts while standing over short putts.   

"I'm more likely to make a 20-foot putt than a 5-foot putt because there's not as much pressure," she said.   

Hicklin said it got to the point where she didn't expect to make the short putts anymore because she became tense while trying not to miss.   

"The lessons hadn't done any good for me," she said.    

Which is why she turned to Weir.   

"I'm not desperate," she said. "This is just something I haven't tried. So, why not?"   

On Thursday, she took to the green for some putting practice at Wildwood Green Golf Club in Raleigh.   

She read the breaks, gripped her club, lined up the putt, took her time and swung smoothly.   

She sunk the 15-footer.

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