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.

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.

Mechanical thoughts led to a difficult round

So today I had a bit of a disappointing round after my recent scores in the 70s.  I shot an 82 that felt like a 92.  I managed to score ok, but it felt like a lot of work,  I really had to grind on a lot of holes and I didn’t feel like I knew where the ball was going.  My driving which had been really good recently suddenly left me, and my iron play was mediocre.

I think I put too much pressure on myself after my recent good scores.

Instead of being in the moment for each shot I kept looking back on mistakes or trying to figure out how bad this round was going to be.  Once my shots started to go astray, my thoughts turned very mechanical. Somehow I was able to save the round, as it could have been worse but it was definitely frustrating.

I haven’t hit the driving range in a while so maybe that has something to do with it.  I’ll get back on the simulator and see what’s going on with my swing path and face angle.

Taking Pressure Off

I think maybe one of the ways to be less ball bound is to find ways to take pressure off.  Under pressure, the body automatically does what it’s trained to do, even if that is not the best thing to do.  It becomes difficult to change highly ingrained bad habits if we put a lot of pressure on ourselves.  In a fantastic book by Raymond Floyd, “The Art of Scoring”, he starts out by saying to play comfortable.  He would watch Jack Nicklaus, take a smooth swing off the first tee with a fairway wood or an iron.  He would end up behind the other players.  Then he would take a smooth iron to the fat part of the green, then he would lag his putt to tap in range, and tap in for par.  Jack would continue to play like that.  He said that it gave Nicklaus some additional freedom.  Jack Nicklaus could score really well playing conservatively like that, but because he could do that, he would be able to turn it on and get more aggressive when he needed to.

If I can take the pressure off, then I end up playing much better.  Today I played and I started off with some bad holes.  I had put pressure early on to score well because I felt like I’ve been making some good progress, maybe I can pull off a really good round.  After missing a bunch of fairways from holes 2 to 5, I realized I needed to do something about this.  I needed to find a shot I could get in the fairway consistently even if it meant giving up distance.  This would allow me to take some pressure off.

The thing I do when I need to hit it straighter is that I swing so that it feels like I have no wristcock. The swing becomes a bit more compact, and I will find the sweet spot if I’m out of sync.  It’s not the prettiest swing, and I give up about 10% distance but I know where the shots are going to go.

For the remaining holes I used this on every shot except putting and I ended up turning the round around.  Although I shot a 43 for the front 9, I followed it up with a 37 on the back nine for an 80. I didn’t have a great putting day, and my chipping was mediocre, but I ended up with a good score after all. So that is one way that I take pressure off.

I would like to find some additional ways to the pressure off when chipping/pitching.