Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Did Rory Learn?

The drama of golf.  Sometimes it is like Ulysses, played out in a day.  Sometimes it takes weeks, months or even years to fully understand the drama.  Think of Greg Norman's or Ben Hogan's careers.  Rory McIlroy's drama began in April at The Masters.  He looked like a champion for three rounds, but then fell apart to shoot an 80.  

The body language tells it all.  Dejection, sadness, defeat.
Rory was our hero in a Greek tragedy and the gallery became the chorus.  We could only guess about what flaw brought him down at The Masters.  However, in less than 60 days, Rory overcame the tragedy and rose from the ashes of his defeat.  Very dramatic, isn't it? 

What Rory did is what all of us do in life, we work at something, we fail, we adjust and we do it again.  Rory managed to fail, adjust and succeed on the first attempt if you only count majors.  My question is what did Rory adjust?  What did he learn upon reflection of the events of The Masters?  My guess is, he realized there is more to manage than the golf course.  

Last week, the blog covered the Five Deadly Sins of Course Management.  Today, we are going to talk a bit about course management, but also how to manage your golf game and yourself.  These can be thought of as three separate skill sets, but they intertwine in a round of golf to create a package of greatness or a mess of mistakes.  Rory showed both outcomes during the Masters, but somehow managed to adjust his management skills to create simply greatness in the 2011 U.S. Open.  Here is a synopsis of the three types of management skills needed to play great golf. 

Managing yourself over the course of a tournament round is crucial.  You need to understand what you can and can't control and get a firm grasp on the things that you can control, such as your attitude and energy level.  Then you have to figure out how to act when the things you can't control start happening, such as bad bounces, slow play, opponent's birdies, or bad weather.  The list could go on and on, but this is the point where you need to figure out what bugs you and how you will deal with it.  What happened to Rory at The Masters?  Was the spotlight too bright?  Was the play too slow?  Were his thought spinning forward to a green jacket when they should have been focused on a 3 foot putt?  None of us know, but what we do know is, he figured out how to better manage himself in a major championship.  

 Here are some things that you can use to help you improve your self management on the golf course:
  1. Never let one part of your game have a negative effect on another part of your game.  If you carry your disappointment over a 3 putt to the next tee, you have allowed your putting to effect your driving.  This spiral can go on and on.
  2. Be realistic.  What are the percentages of the shot at hand?  Does more pressure create more desire for the miracle shot?
  3. You can never “make up for” bad holes or bad shots.  That mentality will compound your mistakes.  Mistakes will happen to all players.  Instead of making up for them, figure out how to let go and refocus.  Remember to leave the desire for perfection at home.  Golf is not a game of perfection.
  4. Start the day with a game plan for your mental game.  Stick to the plan throughout the round.  An example might be as simple as this; I will see each shot I want to hit, commit to it and hit it. 
  5. Understand your adrenaline level and stay level throughout the day.  If you get to a situation that “pumps you up” make sure you allow for that.  Eat a small amount every six holes to keep your energy level stable.  Drink plenty of fluids! One bottle per nine on a cool day and two bottles per nine on a hot or windy day when walking.
  6. It is your responsibility to deal with any distractions you meet.  If you become a victim to an annoyance or a distraction, you have lost control.
  7. Always have the proper gear for the day.  There is no excuse to not have an umbrella, rain gloves or extra towels when you are in bad weather at a tournament.  
  8. Understand that you will have challenges throughout your day and accept that you will deal with them as well as possible. 
  9. Have a solid pre-shot routine that allows you to focus on the shot at hand, aligns your clubface and body for the shot and gives you the rhythm needed to hit the shot.  Have a solid post-shot routine that allows you to keep reactions to a minimum and keep your cool under pressure.  After you hit a shot, it is past and your goal should be to be focused on the next shot needed.
  10. Be yourself!  If you are a talker, talk on the course.  If you are quiet, then its okay to be quiet.  If you love to smile, no need to play with a grim look.  The person you are away from the course is the person you should bring to the course.
Game management is the skill of knowing your game, understanding your strengths and weaknesses and playing to your strengths on the golf course.  Personally, I didn't notice any weaknesses in Rory's game, so I am not sure how much this needed to be adjusted, but according to the commentators he has a "left miss" so I guess even record breaking needs some management.  Here are some things that you need to be a great game manager.
  1. Know how far you carry each club in the air.
  2. Have a “go to” shot you can rely on when under pressure.
  3. Learn how to work the ball both ways.
  4. Have a bump and run shot in your bag from 50 yards and in, as well as the flop shot.
  5. Know your strengths and use them when you play.  For example, if you are a great bunker player (over 50% up and downs), feel free to go at pins tucked behind bunkers.  If you are a poor bunker player, play to the center of the green when the pin is tucked.
  6. Know how to control punch outs.  Too many players punch out of trouble into trouble, because they never practice punch shots or control distance on the range.  
  7. Play in the wind whenever possible and learn to control your trajectory and ball flight.  
  8. Play in the rain whenever possible and learn to juggle your umbrella and two towels so your gear and hands stay dry.
  9. Practice for trouble, not for perfect conditions.  Learn to hit good shots from divots, deep rough and funky bunker lies.
  10. Be a great putter.  All great tournament players manage the greens well.
Managing the golf course is the x's and o's of preparation and competition.  It is the skill of knowing the competition course and how it can help you score.  It is understanding where you want to land the ball off the tee, which angle you want to approach the hole from and where it will be easiest to putt from to any hole location on the green.  When you are a skilled course manager, the course seems to open up for you.  Great course managers hit what poor course managers think are lucky shots that bounce off of hills into the fairway or hit slopes on the green and curl slowly toward the hole.  They look at the course and see a road map of how to play it.  If, however, you ignore what the course designer visualized, the course will penalize you for the smallest mistakes.  Here are some things to look for the next time you play a practice round.
  1. Stand on the back of every green after playing a hole and look at the hole.  From this perspective, you will notice where the hole is open and where the trouble is located.  You will also see how the ball can best be played to the green.
  2. Take notes on each green and be consistent.  For example, split the green into quadrants with front right named “A”, back right named “B”, etc.  Then on your course notes, you can keep track of where you want to be in regards to each quadrant.  On the course, in the heat of the competition, your notes will be simple and straightforward.  A big X through A will mean that is a pin you need to play away from, while a circle around the B means you have a green light. When competition is heated or important, things seem to speed up and the simpler you make your notes, the better it will be for making quick decisions.
  3. Use arrows to denote slope and speed.  One arrow is fast, two arrows means very fast.  This will help you to remember where slopes are on fairways and greens and allow you to use them to help you.
  4. If there is a tiered green, write down the distance to the top of each level.  When you look at your hole location sheet, you will be able to tell which level the hole is on.  You can do this prior to your round to help you make quick decisions. In fact, if you get to the course early and get a hole location sheet, you can copy your course notes to it so you only have to look at one thing for your approach shots and putts.
  5. Figure out where the widest spot is in each fairway and land your ball in that area.
  6. Look for the best view of the green from the fairway.  
  7. Figure out the prevailing wind and make sure to pay attention to the holes that have doglegs or trouble on the side that the wind blows toward.  Make sure if you work the ball a certain direction that you really pay attention if the wind blows the same direction as you work the ball.
  8. Find out if there is local knowledge that can help you, such as greens break toward the river. 
We can say that Rory adjusted his skills in a few months time, but it actually has been a long process.  It started when he was a little guy and playing against older, stronger players.  Over his career of junior golf, amateur golf and as a young pro, he has steadily learned to deal with lots of factors that can cause a round of golf to go south.  Major championships are like giant magnifying glasses.  The toughness of the course set up and the desire to win increase the pressure on even great players.  Weaknesses of any kind are magnified.  Rory's job after The Masters was to figure out where he was weak and adjust to correct it and create a strength.  His biggest failure lead to his biggest success because it forced him to adjust his weaknesses and create strengths. 

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