Lessons from the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone

This week’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational provided a unique learning experience.

Did their expectations do them in?

We saw the world’s number one player, struggle to his worst finish as a professional, while the number two player in the world was coping with a new kind of pressure, the chance to take the number spot away from Tiger Woods.

So why weren’t Tiger and Phil able to muster anything better than +7 and +8 respectively?  Was the course unfair?  Hunter Mahan shot a 64 on Sunday to win by two shots.  Goosen, Furyk, Harrington and Oosthuizen had good rounds in the mid 60s.  So I would say that the course was not unfairly setup.

I think two things happened.  It appeared that Mickelson became very technical. His swing wasn’t as fluid and powerful as he usually is.  And his putting was shaky at best.

I think Tiger phoned it in.  He had given up hope, he had lost his fight, and he just wanted to get out of there.

What’s interesting about the Tiger story for me is that he had felt that his game was where it needed to be.  He thought that he had found some keys to playing well again.  He also had a lot of confidence from the venue itself.  He had won 7 out of the last 10 times he played without finishing worse than 4th.  Given all those factors he came into the event expecting to contend, if not outright dominate.

Could Tiger’s expectations been his downfall?  Where they realistic based on the amount and the way he’s played this year?  Did he put pressure on himself in a way that he’s never really done?

Lesson learned

As a golfer who is working his game down to scratch (though I still have a way to go), I got a lot out of watching this event.  Surprisingly the lesson I came away with was to be kinder and more patient with myself.  If the world’s #1 and #2 players, can have days like those, why am I expecting so much of myself?  Why don’t I just play the game, shot by shot, and see where that takes me?

Recently I had worked really hard to prepare for my local city championship.  It was my first time qualifying for the event at the Championship division, meaning there was no handicap.  I prepared for several weeks, and felt my game was ready for the event.  I ended up playing some of my worst golf in recent memory in those two days and missed the cut by a wide margin, and although I can’t draw a direct comparison to what happened with Tiger and Phil, I believe I can learn from what I saw this week at the WGC.

It is frustrating to show up at the course without the game you know you are capable of.  It is even more frustrating when it is a tournament situation and you realize you just don’t have it that day.  How can you turn it around?  How can you post a good score, when you don’t have it, and how do you change what you are thinking so that you can change the experience?

Days like that happen to everyone.  If you come in with high expectations you automatically put more pressure on yourself.  But you can’t come into it with low expectations either.  I think one of the hardest things to do is to set aside your expectations and just play the game.

There’s a lesson in every shot

As I kept thinking about what the way Tiger and Phil played, for some reason I thought about that Rolling Stones song “You can’t always get what you want”.  I think that every round of golf, every shot has a lesson, “But if you try sometimes/you just might just find/you get what you need”.  I’m using that tournament experience as something I can learn from.  And just remember, it happens to everyone.  Be kind to yourself, stay patient, and good things are bound to happen when you get out of your own way.

Asking the right questions

The Golf BrainI was reading Fearless Golf by Dr. Gio Valiante, and in chapter 4 he talks about the questions that guide us.  I’m reminded of that scene in “The Matrix” where Trinity and Neo are at the nightclub early in the movie and she says to him, “It’s the question that drives us.”  In his case the question was “What is the Matrix?”, but in golf the question is “What is my target?”.

Often though we get caught up in things like our score, our competitors, pressure, what I did on the last hole, or 3 holes ago and we get away from asking “What is my target?”.  But Dr. Valiante is right.  The questions do drive us.  Asking the right questions can help us play better, make better decisions and keep us in the moment, while asking the wrong questions, can quickly take us out of the moment and down that road we’ve been before, and we know where that road ends.

The wrong questions introduce fear and distractions, they make us focus on the past or on the future, and they take us out of the zone if we were in it, or more likely, just take us further away from being in the zone.

So how do we get to the point where we are asking the right questions?  One of the key ways I think is to think well about the strategy, the way we want to play the hole.  Thinking about strategy puts us back squarely in the present.  Asking ourselves the question “How do I want to play this hole?” is much more constructive than something like, “I usually hit way right on this hole, what if I do that again? Or worse, what if I hit it in the water?  What if I look like a fool?”.  One question gets your mind moving in a direction that allows you to marshal your resources, the other takes you out of the present, introduces fear and doubt, and makes it hard to focus on this shot right now.

This is where something like Game Sense is very helpful.  Listening to the program will teach you those strategies.  Then when you ask yourself “How do I want to play this hole?” you can pull up strategies that work.  Instead of focusing on useless, doubt creating questions, you can strategize and step up to the ball confidently because you know that with the right strategy, even if you don’t hit the perfect shot, you can get away with it and miss it good.  That alone can result in more confident and fearless golf.

So remember, it’s the question that drives us.  Choose the right question and you move in the right direction.  Choose the wrong question and it’s like trying to play with one hand  tied behind your back.

Use your natural autopilot to play your best golf

golfer

“Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course…the space between your ears.”

Bobby Jones

Ah, the mental game of golf.  Have you ever noticed that some of your best rounds occur when you can just get out of your own way?

When you look at the literature surrounding the mental game, whether it’s Dr. Bob Rotella, Dr. Joseph Parent, or any of the other excellent sports psychologists and mental game coaches, one of the recurring themes is getting out of our own way,

They all have their own approaches to achieving this but it is certainly not easy.  Especially not when something is riding on the line (your club championship, your best round, your first time breaking 100, 90 or 80).

One of the reasons that I kept the word Zen in this website is that I have come to believe that the Zen philosophy is completely applicable to golf.  My view of Zen is that optimal performance occurs when the thinking mind is silent, when we allow the body to do what it has learned, to simply react to the shot and situation.  But how often does that happen?

The truth is that we enter an autopilot like state nearly everyday.  If you drive a car, you do it instinctively.  Have you ever had the experience of driving, and during the drive you “zone out” for a few minutes, and you look around and recognize that you are still driving perfectly well, miles down the road?  That’s the autopilot taking over.

That can be used in golf.

However the main obstacle that gets in the way is thinking about technique.  Often when we hit a poor shot, we automatically go into diagnosis mode and technique mode.  We try to figure out what went wrong.  Did my elbow stick out?  Was my backswing too long?  Did I take the club back too far inside?

I think the first response should be “Did I pick out a good target?”  or something along those lines.  Once you are on the golf course it is too difficult to change technique.  Many of the bad shots that we do have don’t come from bad swings, but they come from bad decisions.

A bad decision can happen when we don’t inspect the lie carefully.  It can happen when we don’t take the slope or the wind into consideration.  It can happen when we don’t know our distances very well and under club.   I would imagine that the average golfer can shave 5 strokes off their game by making better decisions.

Ray Floyd in his excellent book “The Elements of Scoring” says that if he was playing against you, and he had the same physical game as you, he could beat you every time because he would make better decisions.

That’s something to think about.  Those decisions are not related to swing technique (although your options are constrained by your skill level).  They are related to your game plan and what information you take into account.

Elements to a successful mental game

  1. Carefully evaluate the situation
  2. Plan your shot
  3. Visualize the shot vividly
  4. Fully Commit to the shot
  5. Execute

The steps above can help to keep you away from entering a technique mindset.  Focusing on the target, visualizing the ball flight, and trusting your swing will usually produce excellent results.  Focusing on technique brings your conscious mind into play.  Your conscious mind is not the best swinger of the club.  Your unconscious or subconscious mind that runs your body does a far better job.  Keep your conscious mind occupied on strategy, visualization and trust and you can allow your subconscious to produce the swing you need.

Do your best to keep technique-related thoughts out of your mind while playing a round.  Changing your mental game will take practice and discipline but it should pay dividends.

Scoring when you don’t have your best stuff

Being a scratch player, to me, means being able to score well when you’re not playing particularly well.  When some part of your game is off it takes guts to grind out a good score.

My scores in the last 3 rounds have been about 10 strokes over my course handicap.  Ouch.  Now, I am working on some swing changes so that takes time and patience before it translates onto the course.  But it is difficult to know you can shoot a 78 and end up with and 87.  It’s tough when you can feel the round slipping away but you don’t know how to get it back on track.

Today I feel I learned something important.  Throughout the round I did not feel like I had my best stuff.  My ball striking was off and I wasn’t sure where the ball was going to go.  I had a slow start 3 over par for the first 5 holes.  But I finished strong going 3 over par over the next 15 holes.  I really had to grind on each shot.  I only hit 7 greens in regulation, 4 fairways, but I only needed 26 putts.

What were the keys to this round?

1. Staying patient

2. Vividly visualizing

3. Staying within my capabilities

1. Staying patient

For me this was probably the most difficult thing to do.  It was very frustrating to hit those early misses.  I had some of the worst ball striking I’ve had in a while.  I also had to rein in the feeling that the round was getting away from me.  I reminded myself that this was really early in the round and to just try and play comfortable, and not go for too much.

2. Vividly Visualizing

I think this was a major key.  Normally I pick out a target and I think about what I want the ball to do, then I do a slow half-swing emphasizing the movement I want to feel.  Today I did something different.

I would walk up to the ball, and from behind vividly imagine the flight path.  I would see the ball take off a roughly the same speed that an actual shot would, but I would see it leave a bit of trail (sort of like the tail of a comet) as it headed to the hole.  From this point of view of looking at the ball from behind it I would also see me taking the swing that would hit the shot.  Sort of like watching a preview of it.  I had never really done this before this way.  I also would not address the ball until I had really clear visualization.  Then once the visualization was really clear and I addressed the ball, it sort of felt like stepping into the shot that I saw.  I would address the ball, see the path again and swing.  Once I started to do this it was amazing how many shots actually took the path that I visualized.  Obviously not every shot did, but it was amazing to me how many actually did what I saw in my minds eye.

3. Staying within my capabilities

Although it was tempting to hit the “hero” shot, I did my best to stay within shots I knew I could pull off.  When I was chipping or pitching instead of really trying to get it to the hole I gave myself slightly bigger margin for error.  I think this took some pressure off me, and the pitches and chips came off really well, on a number of holes I was left with easy tap ins for par this way.

Although my ball striking was not where I wanted it to be, I was happy with the score at the end and I felt that I am on my way to being a scorer and a scratch player.

Applying Fearless Golf

How difficult is it to play Fearless Golf?

In ordinary situations, on your favorite course, on your favorite hole, with your favorite club, and with ideal weather it’s probably not that hard.  But what happens when you are in a tournament, or there is some money riding on a putt, or you’re on the 16th hole needing pars in that last two holes to beat your best score.  Is it easy then to play fearless golf?  Probably not.

I think playing fearless golf requires awareness.  You must become aware of when the fear mechanism is triggered and act accordingly.  Too often we get caught up in the moment and instead of taking a moment to gather ourselves we push through, for whatever reasons we have.  Usually we end up with a bad result, a hooked or sliced shot, a shot OB or into the hazard, or a stubbed chip, or a weak or overly strong putt.

I set out this morning to play Fearless Golf in difficult conditions on my home course (temperature in the upper 40s, wind blowing around 30 MPH, with a threat of rain on the way).  You would think that in these conditions it would be difficult to play fearless golf.  What’s the wind going to do to my shots?  How much shorter will the ball fly in the cold?  What are the greens going to be like?  Will my hands be too cold to get any real feel putting or chipping?

I noticed the fear response came up a number of times.  I pictured a drive being taken by a slice wind way right OB.  At that point I had a choice.  What do I do about it?  I didn’t want to just hit then because I had a really ugly picture in my head.  I told my self “You’re playing fearless golf, you’ve hit this drive great before lots of times.”  I would then picture my ball flight as I wanted, relaxed by body, and especially my hands, and swung with confidence.  I hit it down the middle in ideal position.

I made several key birdie putts in the round by thinking “Fearless Putting”, including some breaking downhillers.  In the end I ended up with a score about 7 shots better than I expected.  I was fearless and it worked.

Fearless Golf

I got a new book today, by Dr. Gio Valiante and Mike Stachura.

One chapter into I would considering recommending it.  When I look at the differences when I am able to pull off great shots and when I’m not there does seem to be an element of fear in it.  I think a lot of pressure comes from fear; fear of losing, fear of looking foolish, fear of slicing, fear of hooking, fear of hitting it fat, etc.

Do you ever notice when you are practicing that effortlessly a lot of shots come off great.  Your chips are closer to the hole with several going in, your putts are firm, on line and track right in, your drives are long and straight?  Then you get on the course and that ease is gone…

I think a big reason is that there are now consequences, penalty shots, lost balls (OB or in hazards), difficult lies etc.  All of these things that can go wrong creep into your thoughts unless you are determined to keep a strong mindset.  But like Dr. Valiante says, we actually get the fear response before we can even consciously recognize it.  If we don’t do anything about it when we do recognize it (hopefully before we swing), then it’s too late.

The next time I go out to play, I’m going to make a point of approaching every shot with confidence and certainty that I can pull it off.  Obviously it is unlikely that I’ll pull off every shot, but going into it confident that I can will make a big difference.