Once you have the physical skills, then golf is a mental game.
The U.S. Open at Oakmont conjures up scenes of massive church pew bunkers never giving up the golf ball with rough tall enough to hide a horse.
No doubt it is a difficult course with a challenging set up. The secret mental approaches of the pros are at least partially revealed at the American Express Championship Experience at Oakmont. Here you can walk into the pavilion, and experience strategies for playing the signature #4, #8 and #18. The two most prominent mental game experts, Dr. Bob Rotella and Dr. Gio Valiante helped design the experience and will be on hand to discuss nuances with fans.
First and foremost, Oakmont has a lot more pressure on players than just about any other tournament according to Rotella. “Most American players have been dreaming of playing and winning for their golfing lifetimes. This is the one that you go down in the history books with the win, and it is a demanding test physically, emotionally and psychologically,” Rotella noted. Moreover, he stated that many players welcome this kind of course and conditions as it’s a real old-school US open that tests the golfer. Thinking skills are essential to get the most out of that dream and motivation as outlined in his latest book,
Where does the pressure come from? Is the pressure and expectation at the Open more internal with the golfer, or from their entourage and corporate sponsors? Valiante noted it is “Typically a combination of all three. With that said, for the big named players, the ‘noise’ from corporate sponsors and agents tends to be much more amplified than for younger or less established players. Interestingly, the better the player becomes, the less forgiving of mistakes their inner circle often become which is why the great cliché in golf remains that “golf is not a game of perfect.” So much for family.
The increased media attention can be troublesome or welcome. According to Rotella, the top eight players in the world are used to media attention, but this is over the top not only for them but anyone who might creep into contention and not be used to a draining interview and question schedule.
Valiante echoed that theme by noting that just like other high performers, the players need to be acutely aware of time management and schedule. He commented “A golfer who shows up late starts to rush his warm-up and that “speed” translates onto the golf course. Furthermore, they often get “rabbit ears” where they start getting more criticism and (Twitter, TV, etc.), and it really gets in their heads. They start standing over a shot wondering what people are going to think about them if they miss the shot.” So it might be those in contention plan the best for the buzz saw of attention and distraction that comes with this event.
Experience with contending at this event in the past or winning another tournament can be parlayed into a successful mental approach. However, an unsuccessful run when the chance to win was close can conjure up negative emotions and thought processes. Valiante noted that “This is why experience matters. Recall Ricky Barnes leading the 2009 US Open and bogeyed 5 of his first nine holes. Experienced players know how to trigger into their ideal “state” of mind.”
These are obviously athletes who have a much better than average and reliable athletic movement, where they do not have to think about how to perform the action. There are still takeaways for the average golfer from the U.S. Open.
Rotella notes that under-reaction is the fundamental concept after hitting a bad shot. Don’t let the misses or bad breaks start a mental spiral downward. Don’t try too hard, just work consistently. “Watch how they do their routine, the same over and over again, something the average player can take away and apply to their game.”
“Nothing is more important than having a good, repeatable pre-shot routine where they do the same thing before every shot” according to Valiante. He feels that every successful routine has a strategy or progression, a target, then a relaxed and fearless swing, and oh yeah, take a breath!
Maybe this year you will watch the open a little differently when considering how the participants have to deal with executing the perfect shot for the circumstances under all that pressure.