Editor's Note: This story has been updated to describe how the Masters, perhaps the world's most demanding tournament in terms of the golf mental game, continues to take its toll on contenders — a fact that fits perfectly with PGA teacher Rick Sessinghaus's instructional piece, which originally ran in 2011.
IF YOU DON'T THINK professional golfers play under considerable pressure, then you may not have seen the last two Masters — or any major you can think of, for that matter.
In the 2016 Masters, Jordan Spieth looked like a lock to notch his second straight green jacket as he stood on the 10th tee. Then came two straight bogeys and the hard-to-watch meltdown at the dastardly par 3 12th, where he rinsed two balls en route to a quadruple bogey and eventual finish well behind Danny Willett. And this year saw Spieth make another quad, this time on No. 15, though earlier in the tournament, which gave him time to recover and get in the hunt. Alas, both he and his final round playing partner, Rickie Fowler, faded down the stretch while the long-denied Sergio Garcia finally notched his first major — chiefly through managing his emotions.
Other recent major meltdowns abound. Back in 2010, at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, the third-round leaders (Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney, respectively) fell victim to the incredible pressure and ballooned to final rounds in the 80s. With all eyes on them, these two young promising players struggled mightily under enormous pressure. It was tough to watch them collapse, and something all too familiar to the average golfer. Both players unraveled early, and unfortunately, once the dam started to crack, it burst apart under the weight of pressure. They both eventually regrouped, but the damage was irreparable.
Why does this happen? And, more to the point, exactly what happened and how can you avoid a similar fate when the pressure is on you?
First, it's important to know that your thoughts and emotions directly impact how you perform, so you have to be aware of how your mind reacts to challenging circumstances. You have to be mentally tough, so you can bounce back after a bad hole, poor shot, bad bounce or disappointing round. Your mind is your most important piece of golf equipment, and, after watching how bravely Dustin Johnson fought his way back to contend at this year's PGA, I was happy to see that he recovered so well from his disappointing U.S. Open finish.
To help you become a mentally tough golfer, I've devised what I call the Five Cs for Competitive Golf. By learning the Five Cs, any golfer, regardless of his or her skill level, will strengthen mind power. Read on, and get tough.
Commitment All too often, when golfers feel pressure on the course, their minds race, and they start to think about all the wrong things: their swing, bad shots that may have happened in the past, potential future mis-hits, the list goes on and on. This cycle of negative thinking creates the kind of doubt, indecision and/or lack of confidence that leads to poor shots. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thinking about bad outcomes produces them.
To steer away from all the negativity and keep your game on track, you have to commit fully to each and every golf shot, regardless of how straightforward one may seem. Sounds easy, but how do you do that? Well, first you have to know what types of shots you're capable of pulling off and if you can do that on the shot you're faced with. From there, narrow your possible swing choices (fade, draw, etc.) to only one, so that you feel confident in your ability to hit that shot. To help boost your confidence, either visualize a well-struck shot that you've hit before or picture your present one landing exactly where you want it. Then home in on your target, keeping a clear image of it in your head as you swing and knock it stiff.CONCENTRATION
Concentration On the golf course, concentration can be defined as being able to stay focused on the shot at hand, so you don't become distracted by either how important the shot is or how difficult the situation is (like having to hit your approach shot to a tucked pin, as seen in the photo above).
Unfortunately pressure creates a lot of distractions. Rather than concentrating on the shot at hand, and staying in the present, players begin to overthink the importance of the situation. This severely limits the chances that they'll pull off a great shot. Great shots are the result of remaining present, not focusing on the consequences of possible outcomes.
To make your best swings and play your best golf, divert your focus from all the negative what ifs and focus on what you can control instead. Visualize a great shot, talk positively to yourself (I'm going to hit a slight draw that lands five feet to the right of the flag) and follow a set routine that'll ingrain a rhythm and help improve your concentration. See your target very clearly and picture a positive outcome, keeping in mind what you want to happen, not what you don't want to happen.
Composure Golfers who don't stay composed on the course rush their movements, often letting little things affect them. These excess emotions affect their ability to make good decisions and execute shots.COMPOSURE
The game's best golfers, however, maintain a steady composure throughout the round, from the 1st tee to the 18th green. (In fact, I like to define composure as keeping your mood consistent from hole to hole, and not allowing your emotions to ebb and flow with each shot.)
As the competition heats up, it's more important to be calm, cool and collected. Act as if you belong in the heat of the moment; act as if you're ready to win. Use your body and breathing to get back to being composed. After a poor shot, take a mini timeout and learn from the shot. Use a postshot routine to assess what caused the result. It may have been a wrong club decision, lack of commitment to the shot or just a poor swing. After taking the time to analyze, you can move on, knowing what caused the poor result. The most frustrating thing in golf is hitting the same poor shots and thinking that they'll continue throughout the round. Learn from the result and move on to the next shot with a clean slate. Many golfers react immediately to poor shots with either critical self-talk or deflated posture. Sure, we don't want to hit poor shots, but being critical of each result only intensifies the emotions. Also, put each shot in perspective–all golfers have recovered after a poor shot. Remember the times you've made that great par out of trouble. One poor shot doesn't always equal a bad score. If you lose composure, it'll certainly lead to a series of poor shots and a disappointing round.COMFORT ZONE
Comfort Zone Intense competition pushes lots of golfers' comfort zones to the brink. That's not surprising. Most people feel uncomfortable when they have new experiences, whether on the golf course or not. Whereas some folks cave under intense competition, the strongest competitors expand their comfort zones by embracing the challenges that lay ahead of them. The players want to accomplish something they haven't done before. They thrive on the pressure.
If you have a hard time attaining that level of peak performance, how do you train yourself to get there? One way is to define the situation differently. Instead of looking at a new situation as something to be nervous about, see it as something to have fun with and embrace the chance to go for it. Too often, golfers begin to protect their score when they have reached that new personal best, while others see it as an opportunity to go even lower. Are you playing to win or playing to not lose? Sometimes the fear of failure creates negative pictures that lead us from shooting a great round to an average round. When you feel uncomfortable, it's important to get back to your present shot and define the outcome you want to execute. It all gets back to mastering the process.
Calculate When a golfer is under pressure, he or she feels as though time's moving faster than normal. As a result, he or she ends up making quicker (and sloppier) decisions than normal. If that sounds like something you do on the course, take a moment, step away from the shot and assess the given circumstances. How far away am I? What's the wind doing? Where on the green will I have an uphill putt? What's my target? Reverting back to the factors at hand, refocus your energy in the right direction.
Golfers under pressure–that is, golfers who typically don't think straight–risk a lot more than they would under normal situations. I tell my students that the goal is to treat each shot–regardless of its significance–the same and to go through their preshot routine that helps them make the smartest decision. After you calculate what the shot entails (and the risks involved), you'll more likely be fully committed to that shot. And, once you're committed, you eliminate a lot of the risk that goes with bad decision making.
Rick Sessinghaus, PGA, coaches all levels of golfers on how to improve both their swing mechanics and mental skills. He's the author of Golf: The Ultimate Mind Game, is a sought-after corporate speaker and teaches at Chevy Chase Country Club in Glendale, Calif.THE FIVE Cs, SUMMARIZED
COMMITMENT: Narrow your possible swing choices to only one shot. Either visualize a well-struck shot that you've hit before or picture your present one landing exactly where you want it.
CONCENTRATION: Divert your focus from all the negative what ifs and focus on what you can control. Visualize a great shot, talk positively to yourself and follow a set routine that'll ingrain a rhythm and help improve your concentration.
COMPOSURE: After a poor shot, take a mini timeout and learn from the shot. Use a postshot routine to figure out what caused the result. After you take the time to analyze, you can move on knowing what caused the poor result.
COMFORT ZONE: Instead of looking at a new situation as something to be nervous about, see it as something to have fun with and embrace the chance to go for it.
CALCULATE: The goal is to treat each shot–regardless of its significance–the same and to go through the preshot routine that helps you make the best and smartest decision. After you calculate what the shot entails, you'll more likely be fully committed to that shot.