The 106th United States Open is in the history books and Winged Foot has, as always, provided a stern test for the games greatest players. When one looks at a course like Winged Foot, it is easy to stand in awe of the narrow fairways, punishing greens, and formidable sand traps. For the average golfer, however, its very difficult sometimes to see how the lessons of the U.S. Open can apply to them.
However, I believe that there is a lot for the average golfer to learn from major championships, particularly our Open. This is because every player, regardless of his or her ability, faces their own equivalent of the pressure of a national championship. The player who is on the verge of breaking 100, 90, 80, or 70 for the first time has a taste of that pressure. So, too, does the player who is contending for that first club championship.
Every golfer who faces a milestone event can learn some psychological lessons from a formula that the best players in the game use without having to be humbled by a course like Winged Foot. This formula for success in golf can be summarized in 3 Ps: Planning, Practice, and Patience.
1. PLANNING. In the press conference immediately following his Open victory, Geoff Ogilvy made the comment that Winged Foot absolutely required the golfer to plan his round from the green back to the tee. This is probably one of the most vital pieces of advice that could be given to any player.
Sometime, in the quiet of your home, think about your home course. Picture each hole in your mind and plan a specific strategy for that hole working from the green back to the tee. Write your strategy down, how you would play the hole in ideal conditions. Questions a player could ask are, What is the shape of the green? What challenges does the bunkering present? Is there water on any side of the green? Are there any unusual breaks?
From questions such as these, the player might then want to ask what type of approach shot they would want to hit into the hole. My grandfather, Bobby Jones, used to be quite comfortable with clubs that today would be the equivalent of a 7- or 8-iron and would often play his tee shots to leave him with that type of shot into the green. You may have a different favorite club, but if you play to your strengths you will have a better chance of success in your round of golf.
One other aspect of planning is worth mentioning: From this type of study of your course, you can then make a reasonable guess of what you might expect to shoot for a round. Jack Nicklaus used to be asked what score he would have to post in order to win a tournament. Interestingly, Jack would always respond with a specific number. Well, to win this tournament, Jack might say, Ill have to shoot a 67 tomorrow. He wasnt just pulling a number out of thin air. He was giving a realistic assessment of a score based on his understanding of the course and his own game.
2. PRACTICE. Most people think of practice as going to the driving range and pounding out a bucket of balls. However, the kind of practice that Im talking about is much more focused and is guided by the planning that you have done. Based on the analysis that you have carried out, you should have some idea of the types of shots and situations that will confront you in your round. Those are the shots that should guide your practice. For example, I would imagine that most of the competitors at Winged Foot probably spent a good deal of time practicing shots from the rough and honing their bunker skills.
You might say, Thats all fine and good, Doc, but I work for a living and dont have time to bang out ball after ball. It is true that the average player has to balance work and family obligations with golf, but there are other ways to practice besides hitting balls.
For example, do you have time to swing a club in your yard while visualizing the shot you want to hit? Do you have time to quiet yourself and mentally visualize yourself playing your ideal round? By visualizing, Im talking about using every piece of sensory data that you can while you picture yourself making a shot. People who are adept at visual imagery can hear the birds in the trees, feel the grass under their shoes, and feel the motion of their swing. Theres a lot of psychological evidence that visualization combined with actual practice can improve performance more than either method alone.
But, if you need more concrete proof, just ask Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, or Tiger Woods. All of them used the techniques, and between them have amassed a fairly impressive major championship total.
3. PATIENCE. Patience is a word that does not describe a lot of golfers. They seem to think that they can bull their way through a round, forcing the result that they desire. Most of the time, they are mistaken.
But, the typical player will object, look at Tiger at the Open at Pebble a couple of years ago. He made birdies at will. That type of thinking, however, is an illusion. Tigers performance at Pebble Beach in 2000 was the result of incredibly efficient planning, and a level of practice that reduced his margin of error on his shots to an unbelievably low level. This type of patience was described by my grandfather in this way in Bobby Jones on Golf:
'I think it was J.H. Taylor who made the statement that all the great golfers he had known had been possessed of a quality which his chose to call 'courageous timidity,' a most happy phrase, for it expresses exactly the quality which a golfer, expert or not, must have to get the most from whatever mechanical ability he may have.
''Courageous' to keep trying in the face of ill-luck or disappointment, and 'timidity' to appreciate and appraise the dangers of each stroke and curb the desire to take chances beyond a reasonable hope of success. There can be no doubt that such a combination in itself embraces and makes possible all the other qualities which we acclaim as part of the ideal golfing temperament for the championship contender as well as the average golfer. When we have pronounced Taylors phrase we have said it all.'
In this passage, my grandfather was describing the role that patience plays in golf. Patience is the ability to play within yourself, taking the breaks (both good and bad) in stride, and waiting for the opportunities that will normally present themselves in the course of any round.
For Tiger in 2000, the opportunities were plentiful and he took full advantage This past weekend, the entire golf world was treated to an exhibition of patience by Geoff Ogilvy. No matter what happened, he pressed on, sticking to his plan as best he could. Now he is the 2006 United States Open champion.
You might not battle for an Open title. But in your own golf challenges, you can use the same three Ps of planning, practice, and patience, as elite golfers such as Jones, Nicklaus, Woods, and - now - Ogilvy.
Copyright (c) 2006. Robert T. Jones IV, Psy.D. All rights reserved.