You collapse at the eleventh hour on golf’s major-championship stage, in full global view. Your colossal oil leak humiliates you and is scrutinized ad nauseam. At that point, you have a choice: Rebound or roll over.
Recent history, of course, shows Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy chose the bounce-back option post-major heartache. Not every golfer, though, has the mental, emotional and physical tools to do so. As renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella submits, “Some guys don’t want to get there again. The easy option is to give up on yourself and be happy with just having a nice life.”
Scott, the current Masters champion, and McIlroy, winner of two majors by eight strokes, recovered successfully for reasons beyond their massive talent. Notably, they took away the positives of having played so well for so long, applied the lessonsand found a way to handle the major pressure soon after. In effect, they heeded the sage advice of Hall of Famer Tom Watson: “Get yourself in position again, and do it better next time.”
Decades before McIlroy and Scott rebounded admirably, years before those two were even born, Watson was something of the poster child for major resilience. At 24, he led the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot after 54 holes but closed with 79. The next year, he led the Open at Medinah by three midway but blew up with 78-77. A month later, though, he converted at theOpen Championship for the first of his eight major titles.
“I learned to win by hating to lose,” said Watson, the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. “That’s the backbone of what it takes.”
Watson said he worked to improve inadequacies, found “an ounce of confidence” through experience and preparation, and was hellbent on doing things right, without fear, the next time.
“I went right back to work and took my anger out on the dirt on the practice range,” Watson said. “I got rid of my frustration in the dirt and came up with a solution.”
While McIlroy and Scott have overcome, gifted contemporary Dustin Johnson has yet to follow suit in majors. Interestingly, Johnson’s three close calls were undermined by mistakes that run the gamut:
Emotional (after an early triple bogey at the 2010 U.S. Open), mental (not recognizing he was in a bunker at the 2010 PGA Championship) and physical (a 2-iron approach out of bounds on 14 that dropped him four behind at the 2011 Open Championship).
If nothing else, he can learn from two peers who didn’t suffer long.
McIlroy, then 22, won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots two months after he shot a final-round 80 and blew a four-stroke, 54-hole lead at the Masters. Scott converted at Augusta, just two majors after he bogeyed the final four holes and lost the 2012 Open Championship by a shot to Ernie Els.
“I used that as a positive and motivator,” Scott said. “Your inner pride takes a real hit, and you want to rectify that as quick as possible because you know you’re capable of more. It’s (a mindset of) ‘I’ll show them and I’ll show myself.’ ”
Scott also applied a technical adjustment at Augusta. His miss under pressure over the years has been to the left, and that was evident down the stretch at Royal Lytham & St. Annes last July. He yanked an approach at 15, overdrew a 6-iron into thick rough at 17 and hit a 3-wood drive into a left fairway bunker at 18. So Scott worked with coach Brad Malone, his brother-in-law, on improving his takeaway and fixing the problem.
McIlroy’s tweak post-free fall was more mental. He discovered he needed to think differently under pressure and came away saying, “It was a valuable experience to blow a major like that.”
When the Open rolled around at Congressional, McIlroy had another way to deflect tension. As it turned out, he sang his way to a rout. It’s not every day an Adele tune (“Rolling in the Deep”) factors into a major victory.
“I didn’t sing it quite as well as her, but it played every morning on the radio, so it was a song stuck in my head that week,” McIlroy said.
The young Ulsterman says he had feelings on the Masters Sunday he had never felt before. Clearly, as they say, he got ahead of himself. When his lead shrank from four strokes to one on the outgoing nine, mind games set in.
“(The shriveled lead) is what I was thinking about instead of my next shot,” McIlroy said. “So I learned to stay in the present, to stay in the shot you’re playing, because nothing else matters. The only thing you can control is that next shot, and that’s something I had to learn. I think you have to go through those experiences to be able to handle it better.”
History proves him correct.
Tom Kite had 13 top-6 finishes in majors, including three seconds, before he broke through at age 42 at the 1992 U.S. Open. Davis Love III, a Kite protege, won the 1997 PGA at Winged Foot a year after bogeying the last two holes (three-putting the 18th from 18 feet) and losing the U.S Open by a stroke.
“You always take the positive out of it,” Love says now. “As Rotella always tells you, it’s not the last two holes; it’s 72 holes, and you know you did well. So you keep persevering instead of feeling sorry for yourself. You keep telling yourself you have game. It’s like a 3-point shooter in basketball. You keep shooting. It’s a cockiness attitude, but you have to take the positive rather than the negative.”
Rotella couldn’t agree more. Having counseled countless golfers over the decades, the psychologist says the first thing a player who blows a major must learn is this: “I know for sure I can win. I know I can handle it mentally and emotionally and get there. I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
The next key, he says, involves desire.
“Some players get so much grief when they lose, they wonder if they want to get there again,” he said. “So it’s crucial that you want to get back in the hunt.”
Then there’s visualization. Not just in regard to shots and putts. Trophies, too.
“You’d better start visualizing yourself winning,” Rotella said. “It’s easy to go to bed every night and visualize having lost. But you have to focus on the positive and hang around the right people and visualize getting there next time. That’s an important part of the puzzle, because everybody is going to ask what went wrong.”
Rotella has been around long enough to know that some players clearly act differently on major weekends than at regular PGA Tour events. He has seen many turn into “uptight nerds.”
“If they miss one shot on the range, they overreact,” Rotella said. “Two weeks earlier if they missed one, they wouldn’t even think about it.
So you’ve got to be able to stay cool and calm.”
Not to mention confident and committed.
“The key is to get up every day and continue to be optimistic and work your tail off and believe you’re going to get one of these majors,” he said. “What keeps you alive is having a challenge. And the great athletes don’t care what they have to go through to get it.”