You are hereMental Skills (Or the Lack Thereof) and Recent Sporting Events: Tom Watson at the 72nd Hole of the 2009 British Open

Mental Skills (Or the Lack Thereof) and Recent Sporting Events: Tom Watson at the 72nd Hole of the 2009 British Open

By admin - Posted on 19 August 2014

What a great performance by Tom Watson during the 2009 British Open! Was there really anybody (except perhaps Stewart Cink) who didn’t want to see Watson win his sixth Claret Jug? How stirring it was to see him perform at such an exceptional level for four straight days! His performance during this tournament, and his professional record, prove that he is indeed one of the mentally toughest competitors in the sport of golf. It was simply inspiring to watch him compete and maintain his composure and focus over those four days.

One aspect of Tom’s mental toughness was evident in the way he talked about having a “game plan” and sticking with this strategy during the competition. How many of you have actually developed a “game plan” for your competitive rounds? Deciding before the round where you ideally want to place your tee shots, what clubs you’ll use on which tees, identifying specific spots to which you want to lay-up? Determining that on certain greens there are places at which you’ll aim, regardless of where the pin is placed? Sticking with the game plan, and not allowing the heat of the moment to influence your judgment, your decision-making?

Another example of his mental toughness was his ability to stay focused and emotionally composed. Despite the enormity of what he might accomplish, what a victory would mean to him and the world of sports, he still played his rounds one shot at a time, never seeming to get “too far ahead” of himself. He must have borne down and narrowed his attention on each shot, keeping his focus on that shot only. This is one of the traits of a mentally tough athlete, always striving to stay fully grounded in the exact moment of the present. The future and the past; both are irrelevant to the athlete with the most highly developed mental skills.

So, what happened to Tom on the 72nd hole? Needing to hole an eight foot putt to win a sixth British Open, he made a poor stroke that was not only wide of the target; it was about 12 inches short! How could this have occurred? In post-round interviews, Tom stated that on his first putt from out of the short rough, “I wasn’t going to leave it short, and sure, I gunned it on by.” Regarding the putt he subsequently had left, the eight-footer that he missed so badly, he only stated that he “…made a lousy putt.”

I can’t say with any degree of certainty why Tom made such a poor stroke on that putt. But what I do know is that almost every time a good player makes a very poor stroke or poor shot, there is a mental error that led to the poor execution. So, what mental error might be responsible for a skilled golfer badly missing an eight-footer? Three somewhat related “thinking errors” come to mind.

One error would be facing such a putt, and being afraid to miss it! The problem with such thinking is that it leads the golfer to try to avoid doing something (missing the putt), as opposed to focusing on what is relevant in order make the putt. Being fully committed to the line and speed is much more helpful than worrying about missing the putt.

A second error might come in the form of an internal demand about one’s performance (and the subsequent outcome), such as “I absolutely must make this putt.” The problem here is that when you have these internal demands, it tends to produce tension and pressure, neither of which are helpful when striking a putt or swinging a club.

And the third type of error involves thoughts such as “I’ll win the tournament if I sink this putt.” The problem with this type of thinking is that it places your focus on the future, and detracts from the focus needed for the present moment. And you give yourself the best chance of making a good stroke when your full attention is devoted to the task at hand, not what will happen if this putt drops.

Did Tom Watson fall prey to these types of mental errors? I really don’t know, and it would only be speculation on my part to suggest one or more of these errors led to him “making a lousy putt.” However, as I mentioned earlier, in the vast majority of cases when we see a talented golfer make a poor putt or poor stroke, there is an error in the thought process that underlies the physical mistake. It would be interesting to hear from Tom himself exactly what was in his head as he got ready to strike that putt.

Tom Watson has been, and still is, one incredibly tough golfer. His mental skills are highly developed and his toughness is something we all can learn from. In his post-tournament interview, he again demonstrated his ability to think properly when he began by telling the press and other observers, “This ain’t a funeral, you know.” That’s the wisdom of an experienced competitor who knows how to keep a tough, tough, loss in proper perspective.

Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP
Golf Psychology Consultants
(702) 395-2170