ORLANDO, Fla.- This is the story of a conversation between golfer Greg Norman and sports psychologist Rick Jensen.
I have long admired Norman’s straightforward nature, and I have been an ardent fan of Jensen’s ability to help golfers deal with the mental gremlins that invariably invade everyone’s golf game. Even though this story has not been circulated in public, I don’t believe I am divulging any secrets here.
Besides, Jensen related the tale to some 600 golf professionals and health-and-fitness experts at the 2012 World Golf Fitness Summit.
It is the story of April 14, 1996, when Norman took a six-stroke lead into the final round of the Masters. The Australian shot 78. It was a monumental collapse by Norman, and the word choke seems permanently attached to any recollection of that day.
And yet, Jensen wonders, are we missing part of this story? His conclusion: Yes, we are.
According to Jensen, Norman was ranked 149th in greens in regulation heading into the Masters. Hardly cause for confidence or inspiration.
Jensen recalled Norman’s explanation: “It was a mental flaw caused by a physical flaw. Going into the Masters, I was playing terribly. I had lost control of my ball.”
So Norman contacted teacher Butch Harmon. Jensen’s memory of what Norman told him about the conversation:
Norman: “Butch, I can’t go into the Masters hitting the ball like this.”
Harmon: “Greg, we don’t have time to make a swing change. Use your course management. Use your short game.”
Jensen, looking back, said to Norman, “Really, how bad could you be hitting it? All your iron shots were going right at the flagstick.”
Norman’s response: “You don’t know where I was aiming. I was hitting it so badly I didn’t go for a single pin. I would aim 12 yards to the right (of the hole), and then I would pull it to 2 feet. Every ball that went crooked seemed to go crooked toward the hole.”
Then came the final round.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Norman told Jensen. “I’m probably the only guy in the world who thinks, ‘I don’t know if I can hold it.’ I didn’t sleep a wink.”
And on Sunday, “Every ball I aimed over there, went over there. I aimed crooked, they went crooked.”
Reconstructing the final nine, Norman explained to Jensen, “I said to myself, ‘Forget Butch; I’m going to fix this thing.’ I started tinkering with my swing on the back nine. That was the mental mistake I made. The physical mistake, of course, was that I wasn’t prepared going in.”
One of Jensen’s consistent messages is to pay attention to tendencies. Don’t label a golfer a choker if he is repeating a frequent pattern.
Another example: Phil Mickelson on the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open. A par wins the championship for Mickelson, while a bogey puts him in a playoff. He makes a double bogey, hitting a hospitality tent with a tee shot that went wide left.
“He was 160th in driving accuracy coming into that tournament,” Jensen said. “This wasn’t a choke. It was a weak link under pressure.”
Jensen’s analysis of what Mickelson should have done: “Make a course-management decision. Ask himself if maybe he shouldn’t hit driver. Think about using a 3-wood or a long iron off the tee.”
Now there’s a lesson for all of us to consider.