By Jon Wortmann
Special to ARMCHAIR GOLF
Copyright © Jon Wortmann. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
MOST OF US DON’T REALIZE THAT WE have an alarm in our brain. Technically called the amygdala, when the alarm senses something could be wrong, it prepares the body for action by flooding our systems with adrenaline.
A little adrenaline on the course can be a good thing. It wakes you up. It makes sure you aren’t late for your tee time. It makes sure you focus on hitting the shots you know you can execute. Too much adrenaline, however, and we feel nervous. We tighten up. Tight golfers spray the ball everywhere and miss putts by a mile.
That’s exactly what happened to Rory McIlroy at the Masters in 2011. When he hooked his drive on the 10th hole, a drive so poor the commentators had never seen anyone’s ball land where his finished, it was because he didn’t know how to manage his brain. The pressure of Sunday at a major and his desire to do what no Irishman has done before caused him to completely melt down.
But a few months later at the U.S. Open, he won. What did he learn to do that every golfer must master to manage nerves on the course?
Managing the alarm in your brain during a round has three crucial steps that must be applied to every shot.
1. Do ALL your thinking behind the ball. We’ve been taught in golf not to think, but that’s entirely wrong. The place to think is with the ball in between you and the hole. Think about wind, lie, club, flight, your target and how far you want the ball to travel. Decide what shot you’re going to hit behind the ball.
2. Focus on one thought. Research has shown your brain can’t think about more than one thing or your alarm will fire. That’s fine behind the ball, but once you’ve thought through the situation and decided what shot you’re going to hit, chose one thought to focus on before beginning your ritual. Rory focused on humming at the U.S. Open. Once he’d chosen his shot, he’d walk to the ball humming, his tune at Congressional was Adele, and that allowed him to win instead of collapsing. Tiger and Freddy visualize the shot before beginning their ritual. Nick Price focuses entirely on a very specific target. Choose one thought that focuses your brain on what you can control.
3. Use a consistent ritual. Your pre-shot routine is the entire three-step process I’m describing. Your ritual is what you do once you’ve thought through a shot and focused on one thing. The ritual relaxes you because your brain knows your going through the same motions you’ve used thousands of times before to hit your best shots. Your ritual may be different for tee shots, fairway shots, chips and putts, but the key is to make sure it’s consistent and takes about the same amount of time. If it takes longer or changes, your alarm will fire thinking something is wrong.
Here’s what managing the brain’s alarm looks like in competition.
After a mediocre 75 in the second round at Kiawah during the 2012 PGA Championship, the next day Rory hit into a tree on the third hole. He had just birdied the first two holes to get back in contention when his drive on the short par four plugged. Not in soft fairway, not in the sand: in a dead tree branch and he had to take an unplayable lie.
His alarm had to be blaring. He hit a great drive down the middle. He was making a run at the lead. But instead of letting his alarm overwhelm his brain and body with adrenaline, he thought through the situation. He decided to take a drop to a comfortable wedge distance. With a pleasant tune in his head, he went through his ritual and knocked it stiff. He made the putt for par and went on to win his second major.
This is what the best golfers do tournament-by-tournament and hole-by-hole to harness the power of their brains. It was Rory’s alarm that stopped him from winning the Masters and his ability to think behind the ball, focus on one thought, and use a consistent ritual that let him win the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Learn to use your brain like Rory and you’ll have your best moments on the course, too.
Jon Wortmann is the co-author of the new book Hijacked by Your Brain: How to Free Yourself When Stress Takes Over.
3 thoughts on “Rory’s Secret Weapon (or How to Handle Nerves on the Golf Course)”
Nice post Neil,
I think the key one for me is to focus on only one thought at a time.
Most amateur golfers I believe have multiple thoughts running through their head over the ball. Things like move this, keep this still, don't dip etc.
It ends up becoming too much for your brain and the result is almost always bad.
I will certainly give this a try, just as soon as all the snow melts!
I've got to agree with Troy – one thought at a time lets you focus on the job at hand no matter what sport.
Brian – where is it you are based? We are in Spain, the weather has been perfect for golf, I hope you get some game time soon!