Overcoming disaster and putting it behind you

Most every golfer would like to shoot lower scores. Some are prepared to invest a lot of time and money in their pursuit of breaking 100, 90, 80 or maybe even par. New clubs, workouts, a special diet, a fitness routine, coaches, hours on the range – no stone is left unturned in their quest. Others, and I include myself in this category, aren’t ready to go full-on Bryson DeChambeau but we’re curious about what we can do to find incremental improvement or maybe just more consistency.

I’m a “why” guy. It’s never enough to know how to do something if I don’t understand why. That’s why I refer to this series of articles as Learning, instead of Instruction. Instruction sounds to me like something you’re told to do. A drill instructor, for example, barks orders and soldiers follow them. Learning on the other hand is about understanding.

When it comes to golf, I’m eager to learn. And I have a lot of questions.

The first one came about after watching the 2020 Masters last November. During the final round, Tiger Woods scored 10 on the par-3 12th hole after dumping three balls into Rae’s Creek. Amazingly, he then birdied five of his last six holes. I remember being totally impressed but also wondering how he did that. Most players, I think, would have gone to pieces after the septuple bogey.

To find out, I turned to my long-time friend, Tim O’Connor. Tim is a golf and mental performance coach, an award-winning writer, and Head Coach of the University of Guelph golf team. He is the recipient of the 2020 Lorne Rubenstein Media Award, given by Golf Ontario. He is also the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story, and co-host of the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman. And he plays bass in CID—a punk band!

Peter Mumford: Welcome Tim. Here’s the question: Tiger Woods made a 10 on the par-3 12th hole in the final round at the Masters in November, and then he proceeded to birdie five of the next six holes on his way in. Most golfers, I think, most amateur golfers for sure, and even a lot of Tour players would probably mail it in at that point. They’d be so devastated by that disaster hole that they wouldn’t be able to regain their composure and play well afterwards. So how did Tiger do that?

Mental Performance Coach Tim O’Connor

Tim O’Connor: Well, I think that one of the key things is that among golfers who we’ve been able to witness in the modern era, Tiger would be the strongest golfer mentally we’ve probably ever seen outside of perhaps Jack Nicklaus. And so, what are we really saying about that? Really what it’s about is having a way of being in the world and a sense of discipline of thinking and awareness. And what Tiger has been aware of since he was a kid is that you always need to be in the present moment. That comes from a lot of the training he got from his mother, who’s a Buddhist. And so, when we’re in the present moment, we’re not “shoulding”. This should be happening. That shouldn’t have happened. No, we’re just in a state where we’re in the present completely.

I’ll give you an example. Remember in 2019 Tiger won the Masters, his 15th major and he had an 18-inch putt to finish up. And Jim Nantz goes, “I wonder what Tiger’s thinking?” And I thought, “Tiger is not thinking anything. Tiger is focused on perhaps something like his breath or looking around or something, being in the present moment.” So, in the present moment, we’re not looking forward, not looking back or wondering what this means or how it’s going to affect me. Tiger has always had that awareness to be in the present moment. And that takes a lot of practice and a lot of discipline to be able to catch yourself when you go forward and backwards.

The other thing that Tiger has exhibited through his whole career is that he doesn’t identify. He doesn’t have an identification when he’s out there playing that he is Tiger Woods, that his identity is predicated on his performance. If I win this, I’m known as this person, this is going to do that. The greatest performers are, in essence, detached from what’s going on.

So, does that mean that by doing that, it doesn’t set up expectations?

Correct. You just hit a shot and you can accept wherever it goes. But what elite performers do in everything, particularly in golf, is a golfer all he knows is that he can manage – he can’t control – pretty much everything that happens up until contact. And then whatever happens past that, as Ben Kern used say, is up to gods and gravity. So you just take care of business and then wherever it goes, it goes. They play with this level of acceptance because it’s all about just taking care of a business process. You watch Tiger, he’s got things that he does. He has a process that he goes through and he takes care of that. And then once that ball is gone, it is gone. So there’s no great attachment that this ball has to go here.

I would say early in his career, Tiger would respond every once in a while, like thump the club and all that. He was a person. We get disappointed, but he’d very quickly reign it in. The key piece is that Tiger doesn’t ride with whatever the shots decide, whether it’s a success or a failure. And I would say Tiger and great players don’t think that way, the shot is just a shot. They just accept where it goes. So, when you play this way, and this is a classic thing that we talk about all the time, it’s playing shot by shot by shot. You don’t ride this emotional roller coaster. Whatever happens – next shot. Whatever happens – next shot.

Certainly, early in his career, Tiger would occasionally hit a bad shot and he would thump his club on the ground. And I get, or I presume from what you’re saying, that his anger or frustration at that moment wasn’t so much from where the ball went, but from the fact that he didn’t follow his process, or he didn’t execute what he intended to. For many of us, when we hit a slice, we get mad at the slice not at ourselves so much.

I think you’re right. I remember Tom Weiskopf was asked at the Masters one time, “What is Jack thinking right now?” And Tom Weiskopf goes, “If I knew that, maybe I would have beaten him.” So, we don’t really know what Tiger was thinking when he hit a poor shot, but my best guess is that Tiger’s focus was always on his process and his execution. And so his anger would go there. The thing about Tiger and people who play at a certain level, you’re expecting something of yourself because you’re competitive. You want to play at a certain level. So, it’s ridiculous to expect people to be Zen monks out there and not react to a bad shot. We need to let go of that stuff.

But what great players are able to do is they rein it in really quickly. They let it go. And then what do they do? They come back into their process. And it’s different for all golfers. But I’ll tell you, when Tiger was going through that experience on the 12th at Augusta, after every shot, he would probably feel something. In his younger days, it may have been a club thump, but then he would just go, “Okay, now what’s the next puzzle to solve. What’s the next thing that I need to do.” And so much of what Tiger exhibited there was just this focusing on the task at hand and not allowing his thoughts to go to, “Oh, I’m the great and mighty Tiger Woods. I’m not supposed to do this. Or I look foolish.” He has the mental discipline that he just won’t go there. Or if he does, he quickly reins it back. His identity doesn’t fluctuate.

I read somewhere that when Tiger hits a bad shot, he mentally draws a line 10 yards in front of the tee box for instance, and allows himself to be angry behind that line. But once he crosses that line, it’s behind him. And then he’s focused on the next shot.

Absolutely.

It’s a great way to be, but how do you do it? I can say, “Oh yeah, there’s a line out there. I’m not going to be angry after I cross it.” But when I get to my ball and I’m hitting out of the bush or taking a drop from the water hazard, I’m probably still angry. I’m still thinking about it. How do I get that out of my mind?

You have to set up strategies or process. Nothing happens if you won’t change patterns that you’re in. You’ve got to put something in place and get your reps in. So, one of those things that I help people with is, you hear people talk about pre-shot routine. I don’t really like the word routine because a routine is something you go through without thinking. Pre-shot process might be a better phrase, but you also need a post-shot process. And a post-shot process, that’s what Tiger does when he has that line. He’s been doing that for probably years and years. I wasn’t aware of that particular process for Tiger, but what a post-shot process does, it allows you to hit your shot and let’s say you don’t like it, maybe you do a little rehearsal swing or something. But then you have a signal. It might be taking off your glove or it could be when the club goes into the bag and you say to yourself, “That’s it. I’m done with that shot. It’s over.” And you walk and maybe you look around, you engage with your partners, you talk, or whatever it is.

That allows you to let go of the frustration. You’ve let that go and now you can drop into that process to get ready for that next shot. But unless you work at that, you’re going to fall back to your regular way of being, which is, something bad happens, we get frustrated, we run this emotional roller coaster. We tromp down the fairway going, “You idiot. Oh God, this round’s going into the dumper. Here you go. All this practice you put in, you’re still leaving it out to the right or something.”

If you’re still riding that wave of things, you’re not going to be able to allow yourself to get to that level of where you need to be to start the process of getting ready for your next shot. So that’s the thing. A post-shot process is a great way to disconnect from your last shot and get ready for the next one. It may sound like a cliche, but cliches are cliches because there’s wisdom in them. And so it’s always about the next shot.

When we were talking earlier, you used the word resilience to describe part of what Tour players are able to use to overcome bad outcomes.

Yeah. Absolutely. I think resilience is a key part of what we’re talking about. And that’s that ability to bounce back if you will, to face adversity and to come back. You hear about it from teams all the time. Let’s say a team gets to the Stanley Cup playoffs and they win their first series, sweep it four nothing. And then they get to the next series and they’re down two nothing. And people say, “Well, they haven’t faced any adversity yet.” And you need that. You need to build, you need to know that you can come back from adversity and play well. What happens for a lot of golfers is that they’ll want to get off to a good start but instead they go bogey-bogey to start. Or they’re four over after three holes or something.

Well, you need to be resilient. You need to be able to have the ability to let go of what happened and just deal with what’s in front of you for the next shot. You give your best effort. You do your best. And then the next shot and the next shot. You said earlier that the average golfer, if he made a quad, would mail it in. Really high performers are able to be resilient. Things happen. Bad shit’s going to happen to everybody. I don’t care who you are. It’s your ability to go, “That happened. Now, I’m going forward to this. Now I’m going forward in dealing with this, shot after shot.”

And the other thing too, and Tiger exemplified it, is that we know bad things are going to happen in life, in a round of golf, whatever, this stuff’s going to happen. But can you stay engaged? Because it never stops. A round of golf is not just a round of golf. It carries on into the next round, the same way, whatever happens in our life affects our next day or next week.

And if you’re creating all these big stories that all of this always happens to me, or this round’s gone into the dumper, or there I go again, you’re getting connected to a story and delusion and fantasy and getting basically disconnected from reality. And reality is you have this golf ball. It has no idea what the score is, and your job is to just do your best, react to what’s out there and hit it, then go find it and hit it again. It sounds trite in a way that golf has to be played one shot at a time, but at the end of the day, you really don’t have any choice if you want to play it at an elite level.

The key thing I think for someone like Tiger is that he doesn’t live and die with every shot. That’s not the case with the average amateur. As my podcast partner Howard says, “They’re two swings away from a complete meltdown.” And if that happens to you, well, good luck. I mean, you can go out and have some fun with your buddies or whatever, but if your idea’s to shoot lower scores, you can’t ride that emotional rollercoaster and you can’t live and die with every shot because you can’t control it. You can influence what happens, but you can never control it. So why would you invest yourself in something that you can’t really control?

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

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