Brain Game: Remain calm and patient to weather mental madness on course

Greg Norman falls to the ground after missing his shot for an eagle on the 15th hole during final round play of the 1996 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., Sunday , April 14, 1996. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) Dave Martin/Associtated Press - 1996

Brain Game: Remain calm and patient to weather mental madness on course

Brain Game

Brain Game: Remain calm and patient to weather mental madness on course

If you had to name three of the greatest collapses in modern golf history, what would they be?

You might mention Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters, when he blew a six-shot lead and lost to Nick Faldo. Or Arnold Palmer in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, where he squandered a seven-shot lead over the final nine holes and lost a playoff to Billy Casper. You could even mention a number of more recent collapses such as third-round leader Dustin Johnson shooting a closing 82 at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, or Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy losing back-nine leads at the Masters.

Perhaps the greatest stumble in recent history took place at Carnoustie, nicknamed “Carnasty” because of its difficult terrain and unforgiving nature. In 1999, Frenchman Jean Van de Velde stood on the 18th tee with a three-stroke lead in the British Open.

A double-bogey six would win the Open, but Van de Velde stumbled, knocking a wayward drive, a second shot off the greenside bleachers that rebounded across Barry Burn fronting the green, then pitching into the burn on his way to a 7. He ended up in a playoff with Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard, which Lawrie won.

Collapses and breakdowns are common in golf, and what appears to be free and easy can turn into a nightmare with a single swing. Everyone who plays this crazy game eventually realizes that golf protects no one.

How can a player get the train back on the tracks when things go very wrong? Here are a few golden nuggets to help you recover and flourish when you desperately need a mental tourniquet. 

Slow yourself down

In psychology, much research has been done on time perception and time distortion. It seems that when things are going awry and we are agitated, filled with anxiety and fearing bad things, our minds tend to be distracted and start to race. Our focus becomes distorted. We behave impulsively and without purposeful intent.

To counter these feelings, slow yourself down and breathe. After his final round in which he lost the 2016 Masters, Spieth said he simply forgot to breathe and take his time.

By slowing down your walking and doing things a bit more deliberately, you can gain feelings of being more in control and thinking more clearly. Before you step in and address your ball, rehearse your real-time swing a couple of times. These simple tactics help regain your swing composure and provide mental clarity.

Take a mental ‘time out’

Pause and stop the madness, at least for a moment or two. Take your hat or glove off and remind yourself that whatever bad thing just happened is history. Allow yourself to breathe and decompress for a minute before you make another swing.

By allowing the immediate past to dissolve, you can reboot your mental computer to focus on the shot that matters most — your next one.

Remind yourself: ‘I can handle this’

Perhaps there is nothing better to create a state of emotional balance than giving yourself a pep talk. It is good mental medicine to remind yourself that you have been playing well all day and that you are just going through a tough patch.

Say something affirming such as “I can handle this,” or “This is the one shot that will get me going.” These key phrases may sound silly or simplistic, but positive self-talk is a key strategy for a struggling psyche. You can spark powerful neurotransmitters in your brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, to kick in and create balance within your nervous system and combat the negative aspects of cortisol and adrenaline.

Remember, this is a game of you for you, not you against you. Knowing that you can handle adversity is a tremendous source of psychological competence that can create immediate composure.

Get back to your basics

When golfers start to lose focus and swing confidence, they often try a number of things to fix it. Before long, they become so technically and mentally lost, they lose all faith in what led them to play well in the first place.

Forget the technical search and get yourself back to your basics of playing your game one shot at a time and playing shots you know you can hit. For example, hit the club on the tee box that is the safe and high-percentage shot. It doesn’t do any good to fight with a balky club or trying to force the situation.

Having a simple swing key or strategy is the core of every solid round. Remind yourself of your one or two keys for playing well and write them inside the bill of your cap or on your scorecard before you play. A basic plan and solid keys help you stay on track when you start to leak oil.

Patience is confidence waiting to happen

The ability to stay patient and allow his mind to calm down is perhaps the key element that made Jack Nicklaus golf’s all-time major champion.
The Golden Bear always knew that composure is the best way to create a feeling of assurance that good things will happen.

So remind yourself that you do not have to force things to happen and allow good things to come to you.

Many of golf’s greatest rounds were created by players who stayed patient and didn’t try to force a shot, waiting for greater opportunities down the road. Staying patient is not a sign of weak-minded constitution, but rather a warrior-like quality that allows the golfer to strike when the time is right. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the July 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

– Dr. Bob Winters is an internationally renowned sport psychologist who works with champion golfers around the world. Contact him at drbobwinters.com.

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