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Fear Is the Enemy
Jack Nicklaus once wrote that "fear of any kind is the number one enemy of all golfers, regardless of ball-striking and shot-making capabilities. [Fear] happened to me before my early success enabled me to control my fear."
Nicklaus knew fear can take hold of even the most skilled golfers, leaving them not only unable to function to the best of their physical abilities but also dumbstruck by the basic mental mechanics of the game. Nicklaus knew the power of fear from personal experience. It was the 1960 U.S. Open that taught the young Nicklaus the power of fear and the power of focus. He finished second in the U.S. Open that year, a championship many observers believed he might have won. Even Nicklaus admitted he had a chance, until fear got in the way. Leading the tournament by a shot late in the final round, Nicklaus found himself distracted by the moment. On the sixteenth hole, he struck a short birdie putt too boldly after thinking how hard it would be for others to catch him with a two-shot lead. But it got worse for the young champion. Staring at a short par putt with his fellow competitor Ben Hogan standing by, Nicklaus noticed a poorly repaired pitch mark in the line of his putt. He wasn't sure he could repair it under the rules, though he in fact could. In his book My Most Memorable Shots in the Majors, Nicklaus wrote:
Excited, anxious and under as much pressure as I've ever known, I can't focus my mind clearly on whether the rules allow me to repair the ball mark. Also, I'm too shy or embarrassed to admit this in front of Hogan or to hold up play by asking an official. So I go ahead and stroke the putt. The mark deflects the ball just enough to spin it out. I bogey, then three-putt the next green.
Of course, Arnold Palmer won that championship by two shots over Nicklaus, whose fear of the moment shut down his ability to think clearly and act decisively. Fear is a powerful force. It can be destructive, but it can also teach us. As Nicklaus later remarked, "There are three lessons here, which have stuck with me ever since. First: Repair ball marks as you'd like the others to repair them for you. Second: Know the rules. Third: If in doubt, ask."
Now, not many of us have the "early success" of a Jack Nicklaus to help us do battle with the demon of fear on the golf course. But it should be at least slightly comforting that even the most accomplished major champion in the history of the game had at times his own struggles with fear. That is a sure illustration of just how destructive and pervasive fear can be.
In the context of golf, fear is a misplaced and wasted mind activity, but as worthless as it may be, left unchecked it will be crippling to your chances at success. Fear is a termite or a bark beetle or an ascaris worm. It lives inside the host, devouring it from the inside by living on what the host provides. Gruesome, insidious, perhaps, but it's a very effective means of shutting down a system and making it incapable of functioning. That's what happens to the golfer affected by fear. His whole process for shot-making can be turned on its head.
Try this thought experiment: Picture yourself standing on the tee box of a demanding golf hole. Let it be a hole you know well with a water hazard to carry and another down the right side of the fairway. In your mind, picture yourself addressing the ball and looking down the fairway. Visualize the sights, smells, and feel of the moment. Go through your whole preshot routine and setup. Then, just as you are at address and about to hit the ball, ask yourself the following question: "What if I slice?"
What happened? How did you feel the moment after asking yourself that question? Chances are, if you were deeply immersed in this little experiment, and if you are like most golfers, you felt a bolt of anxiety or fear shoot down your spine and maybe even into your stomach and hands. Chances are that you pictured the ball sailing off-line, and your mind filled with dreadful thoughts. In an instant, by asking yourself the simple question, "What if I slice?" you triggered your own anxiety and created your own fear. Excellence in golf requires that you make fearless swings at precise targets. Saying "What if I slice?" does not increase the likely success rate. By asking a bad question, you succumb to fear and put yourself at a disadvantage even before you've taken the club back.
As I've interviewed more and more golfers over the years, I've found that golfers go through a round of golf deep in a conversation with themselves. Sometimes this ongoing dialogue is about swing mechanics (we all remember watching the greats like Nick Faldo or Tiger Woods walking down the fairway making a practice swing trying to isolate a particular move in the downswing). Sometimes the internal conversation is about the golf course and its relative fairness. Sometimes the chatter is about the outcome of the next shot or the way the previous hole finished. The common thread that holds all these topics together is that golfers continually ask questions like these and that these bad questions can be a very destructive influence on the way you score. The fear-filled golfer asks the wrong questions. They are the wrong questions because they elicit a negative emotional reaction. They stall the process of moving toward success, and at their most detrimental actually move the golfer away from success.
Here's a quick lesson in who or what you're playing against: It was the most perfect spring day in a part of the world known for perfect spring days. It was Sunday at the 2002 Heritage of Golf Classic at Harbour Town Golf Links on the beautiful island of Hilton Head, South Carolina. The temperature was a comfortable eighty degrees, there was a soft breeze coming off Calibogue Sound, the fragrant cherry blossoms were in bloom, and golf fans came out by the thousands in their customary southern attire to watch and cheer for the best golfers in the world.
But the poetry and pageantry of the day were lost on the golfers themselves, particularly those in contention to win. For those golfers in the final groups, there was the prospect of a penalizing golf course to deal with. The same Calibogue breezes that were a blessing to the admiring spectators could gust at any moment and send a golf ball flying into the surrounding rough, bunkers, or salt marshes overgrown with sea oats. Standing between each man and victory was a supremely talented group of competitors, each of whom sought his own glory. On this gentle spring day, there were victories to be had, careers to be made, and for those who had left a bit of their soul at Augusta the week before, ghosts to be quieted.
The leaderboard consisted of golf's premier players, including Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Billy Andrade, and Heath Slocum. Young Justin Leonard led by three. On the practice range minutes before they were to tee off, Davis Love was committed to catching Justin Leonard: "I'm going to make a run at you!" he joked to his friend Justin. Having never played before a crowd that large, tour rookie Heath Slocum's mind was distracted by the large galleries, and the prospect of playing with the world's number two-ranked player, Phil Mickelson. Justin Leonard accepted the challenge of protecting the three-shot lead he'd built with the help of a blinding 64 on the second day of the tournament.
On the practice range minutes before he teed off, I put this question to Heath: "If the field is thinking about Justin, and Justin is thinking about his lead, and you are thinking about Phil, who do you suppose is thinking about the golf course?" Heath, whose success on tour was due as much to his quick mind as to his innate talent, immediately understood the point I was trying to make: You cannot play your best golf if your mind is preoccupied with thinking about other golfers. To play your best golf, your mind has to be focused exclusively on hitting shots at precise targets. So, on that glorious day in the spring of 2002, while a handful of golfers on the PGA Tour battled each other, Heath Slocum battled the golf course. And although his run at victory fell a stroke short, of all those in contention on Sunday, he shot the lowest final round score.
A rather unexpected but interesting pattern that emerged from my studies of golfers over the years had to do with the questions of mastery versus ego that golfers asked themselves; different questions that began a mental cycle leading either to fear or fearlessness. Understanding the import of this requires a short lesson on the workings of the mind, beginning with a thought experiment. For this experiment, take a moment and ask yourself four questions. Repeat these questions word for word to yourself and, after each one, pause a moment before moving on to the next:
1.What is the color of my car?
2.What animal produces milk?
3.Who is the best golfer in the world?
4.What are the colors of the American flag?
After reading each question, you no doubt pictured your car, you saw a cow, you pictured Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, and you saw an image of an American flag. In other words, asking yourself questions immediately and powerfully triggered images in your mind. Though simple, this exercise illustrates three foundational mechanisms of human thinking. First, the mind automatically responds to the questions we ask ourselves. Second, the questions we ask ourselves determine where we focus our attention in the sense that, while you were asking those four questions, you were not thinking about politics, the Easter Bunny, or whether your garbage will be picked up on time. And third, the answers to the questions we ask ourselves often come back in visual form. I'd like you to hold on to those key points for the remainder of this chapter.
Certainly, we have all seen how fear makes cowards of us all, as the old expression goes. We all know that fear of public speaking is a tremendously common fear. Poor questions are often responsible for the cold feet that the betrothed feel on their wedding day. A client recently told me of her internal conversation on the morning of her wedding, when unlike anything she had ever done or thought before, she repeatedly asked poor questions of herself like, "What if he stops loving me?" She visualized future misery, and rather than concentrating on the beauty and joy of her wedding day, she was mired in a grip of panic and fear, barely making it through, let alone enjoying, her special day. Surely, we've all experienced a degree of fear of flying. Even though we know that statistically flying is safer than driving, we often can't help but ask ourselves, "What if the plane crashes?" Again, it is not a productive way of thinking. Much like if the mountain climber were suddenly to ask himself, "What if I fall?" Immediately, he is focused on not falling, instead of climbing and enjoying the challenge and the scenery. Self-induced anxiety and fear inhibits positive action.
Fear has its foundation in a focus on the future uncertainties of a particular moment, regardless of how absurd they might be. When you stand on the tee of a tight driving hole and immediately begin to think of a slice or a hook into trouble, why is that any different or more logical than wondering if your plane might crash or if your betrothed will stop loving you or if you will be unable to utter a sound when you have to give that presentation to all the department heads this afternoon? There isn't logic to it, especially if you let yourself fall victim to the cycle of unproductive self-questioning.
Fear begins and gets its fuel from the uncertainty of self-questioning. Most fear-inducing questions boil down to the same theme: What if I am faced with something terrible that I am not prepared for? But go deeper and it is just as easy to realize that this fear can fall away once we are willing to hear an answer to one of these moderately absurd questions. In nearly every case, the answer to a question of uncertainty is a simple, strong, positive question of its own: "What am I going to do about it?" When we ask ourselves "What if the plane crashes?" and we respond with "What am I going to do about it?" we are telling ourselves to look objectively at our particular uncertainty and deal with it thoroughly. In the case of fear of flying, for example, maybe it means reminding ourselves of the safety record of air travel, or even more simply, finding a way to deal with that uncomfortable moment of a flight (takeoff, let's say) by focusing on a process (reading a book, listening to music, closing your eyes and meditating) that takes our mind away from an absurd fear. You will see how that same sort of directed focus can make your next round of golf better, too.
words of a champion: tom kite, u.s. open 1992
Throughout his PGA Tour career, Tom Kite made himself into one of the most consistent performers the game has ever known. He once had twenty-one top tens in a season, and despite having only moderate physical gifts, he rose to number one on the all-time PGA Tour money list in the early 1990s. Kite did it with dedication and an indefatigable desire for improvement. For all that his career encompassed, his resume lacked that one crucial notation: a major championship. Kite shook loose that burden with a gritty performance on one of the toughest days in U.S. Open history. With winds whipping hard around Stillwater Cove and the tiny greens at Pebble Beach the consistency of a parking lot, Kite negotiated his way through 18 tough holes, the forty-mile-per-hour winds, and all the lingering doubters to win his first major title. After lifting the trophy, he said, "From tee to green, it was not even close to one of the best tournaments I've ever had. But as far as hanging in there and doing the things that were required on a very difficult golf course, this may have been the best."
Later, Kite told Golf Digest in an extended interview that there's a difference between recognizing fear and being afraid. The nerves will come out, he says, but that's what makes the moment supreme.
The thing that is difficult for people to appreciate is a lot of times when you see a guy that is coming down the stretch trying to win a golf tournament, he looks so calm and so collected and looks like he has everything under control.