Sunday, February 20, 2011

Get Out of Your Way!

What?  No, I didn't mean to say get out of my way, I meant to say your way.  Can you play a round of golf and stay out of your own way?  And what exactly does that mean?

I have the opportunity to watch tournament golf these days and I have seen a lot of players who are obviously feeling the heat.  The player who best handles the heat on the final nine holes will often win the tournament.  This morning, the Golf Channel covered the final round of the Avantha Masters from New Delhi, India.  I had never seen many of these players, so I settled in to watch.  Pairings were messy due to fog delays throughout the week, so the leaders were sprinkled throughout the field.  A young Indian, SSP Chowrasia had it going.  He got to -7 with really solid play and great putting.  He has an incredibly smooth stroke and I really liked his routine.  It reminded me of Jenny Chuasiraporn's routine when she played in college and on tour.  He stood behind the putt and then walked the line and did an "air putt" over the line on the break point.  You could tell that he visualized the entire putt quite well.

SSP Chowrasia

So SSP was cruising.  He was eight groups ahead of the leaders and playing with no pressure, until he suddenly realized he was -7 and leading the tournament.  On the par 3 16th hole, SSP got noticeably quicker.  He is a fast player, but suddenly everything speeded up.  A change in tempo is one of the first signs that a player is thinking about more than he or she should.  Speeding up often signals impatience or a focus on results.  It happens when a player gets out of the moment and feels the weight of the situation.  Things went from very easy and smooth for SSP, to tight and quick.  He failed to finish his backswing on the par 3 and pulled the shot well left of the green.  He quickly chose an option without going through the possibility of a drop from an awkward stance close to the cart path.  He hit a very tough chip shot with a bit of a hitch and was still short of the green.  He then chose a putter where he probably would have chipped had he not been feeling pressure and jammed the ball a good 12 feet past the hole.  He missed the come back putt and made a double.  Suddenly, everything had changed.

Meanwhile, eight groups behind him, Robert Coles was now tied with SSP at -15.  Coles has been on the European Tour for 15 years and has never won.  He is a true journeyman, but a solid player.  Because Coles was eight groups back, he had a very clear goal.  He needed to finish the final four holes at -1 to win and at even to get into a playoff.  Coles didn't speed up, but instead, he slowed down.  He got bogged down in his decision making and took longer over the ball before pulling the trigger.  His tightness led to a bogey on the final hole and left him one shot back at the finish of the event.

Both players lost their rhythm.  These changes in rhythm aren't the problem per se, but instead, they are the effect of the problem.  The cause is usually seeing a situation bigger than the shot at hand.  Experience in tense situations is usually a good teacher.  If you are struggling to break 90 or 80 and start thinking about it when you get close to the 18th hole, you might fail once or twice and then learn that you need to just focus on the shots.  Many of my students shoot 80, 81 and 82 a bunch and then suddenly shoot a 75.  Most don't have scoring breakthroughs of a shot or two, but five or six.  They fail enough to learn and when they completely let go of worrying about their score on the final two or three holes, they find that shots magically drop away.

Here are different heart rhythms and the effect of the different emotions.

I talked about mental game last week and covered the importance of scripting or planning how you will think and act on the golf course.  Experience is simply failing to act as you would like and telling yourself what will be different next time.  You are in effect, scripting your success.

Was he trying too hard for his first win?  Did he "want" it too much?  Was he thinking about the fact that this might be his only chance?  Did he try to play perfect golf?  Any of these scenarios are possible and he may keep only his own counsel so we may never know.  However, the way that it shows itself to us, the viewer, is a change in rhythm.

SSP sped up and Coles slowed down.  Do you think it is possible to simply control your rhythm to control your game when the pressure is on?  That is certainly a great approach to take.  By controlling your rhythm, you are taking a proactive approach to your game.  Your mind is on something within your control.  Your pre shot routine will be an important part of this strategy, as will the tension in your muscles.  Check out this video of Annika stating how long her pre shot routine took on each and every shot.  Annika on her pre shot routine  She states in the video that her routine takes 22-24 seconds.  Brilliant!  She is the only woman to shoot 59 in competition, so she obviously has played solidly while out of her comfort zone.  The only difference between touring pros and those of us trying to win a side bet is, the pros generally have a caddy to help remind them of the importance of routine or to keep them loose so they don't tighten up over the ball.  We will have to serve as our own caddy when we get a bit out of our comfort zone.

What do caddies do?  First, they understand that your skills haven't left you.  A simple reminder of what got you to the 70th hole in the lead is often calming enough to keep you loose.  Caddies are also crucial in helping to choose the right option.  If you are indecisive, they take the bull by the horns for you and if you are rushing into the shot, they slow you down and talk through the options.  One other thing that caddies do is paint a picture.  To keep a player completely focused on the shot at hand, they get involved in the shot.  They talk about where it should start, how it should fly, where it will land, how it will release or check and how close it will be.  They get so completely into the shot, that the player has no choice but to join them in the vision. Decide how you will talk to yourself when you are close to achieving a great round or a win on the course.  Be your own best caddy on the golf course.
Fred Couples and long time caddy Joe LaCava

It is a great time of year to start setting your golf goals.  I used to play in a foursome every Sunday morning and each spring, we would all write down our personal best score.  If we bettered that number on a Sunday morning playing with the group, each of the three would pay $100.  That alone was a great goal to focus on throughout the summer.  We cheered each other on and if we had to shell out $100, we were generally pretty happy about it.  We knew it wasn't an easy task.  Do you have a goal going into the spring?  What is going to make you nervous or throw you off of your rhythm?  You should aim to get out of your comfort zone and learn a bit each time you are uncomfortable.  The goal is to stay out of your own way by staying focused on the shot at hand and not allowing the big picture to be more important than the small picture in front of you.

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