Monday, June 20, 2011

McIlroy Dominates U.S. Open - Difference-Maker Is His Mental Game

2009 photo by Colinda van Eekeren
I watched 22-year-old Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland win the 2011 U.S. Open, one of golf's four "major" tournaments. He won it by the largest margin and the lowest score in the 111-year history of the tournament. It was a remarkable, even historic achievement. The announcers talked a lot about his talent, which was obvious. But he couldn't have done it without being strong as a person.

I was an enthusiastic player when I was younger, but never at a highly competitive level. Still, I know enough about the game to understand that the difference-maker is the mental game - what's going on between the ears of the golfer. The clubhead speed can reach about 100 miles per hour, and if it's only 1 thousandth of an inch off square when it strikes the ball, the ball will probably not land in the fairway. It's an amazingly hard game to master. Perhaps no one ever has.

At the U.S. Open, the competition is so intense, the stakes are so high, and the course conditions are so challenging that the pressure on the players is enormous.

Sounds a little like running a small business, doesn't it? The competition is so intense, the stakes are so high, and the market conditions are so challenging that the pressure on the owner is enormous.

This is where the mental game comes in. To handle these pressures through 72 holes of golf, a player has to engage several specific aspects of personal strength. As I watched McIlroy walk the course, I could see he was bringing his best mental game to each shot.

Composure - I have seen great players crumble under the pressure. McIlroy himself let his nerves get the better of him in his previous major tournament. He had a four-shot lead going into the final day of the Masters, but he "got the yips" during the final nine holes and shot an 80. It's important to shut out all negative emotions during competition, or they'll make it impossible for you to concentrate on the shot.

Perseverance - Even a top player will make a mistake, such as rushing a shot or taking an unnecessary risk. The player might hit the ball into the water and make a double-bogey. It's important to forget this bad outcome and continue playing your best. A player who gives up on himself can't continue bringing his best game.

Focus - At a golf tournament, there's a lot more going on than the game. There's the weather, TV cameras, officials and the crowd. If a player can't block out all these distractions and focus awareness only on the shot, he's finished.

Self-confidence - Most of the shots the players have to make are so hard that if they thought for one second that they might not be able to pull it off, they would not be able to do what they have to do. This confidence comes from already having made the shot well countless times in practice, and then believing in themselves. 

Thoroughness - A player has to take every possible factor into account: changes in the wind; the slope of the ground; the wetness and texture of the sand or grass; the distance to the hole; hazards such as rough, sand traps, trees and water; the size, shape and slope of the green. The failure to notice and understand the impact of any these factors will affect the shot.

Acceptance - When a shot is less than perfect, the player can't spend even a minute feeling bad about it. He has to accept it and move on to the next shot. A player can't get angry about any aspect of course conditions. He has to accept all of it as the challenge he's facing that day. If he shoots a bad round, he has to accept that as something that can't be changed, so he can look ahead to what can be controlled - the remaining holes to be played.

Courage - Some golf holes and some hitting situations are so intimidating that a golfer might feel reluctant to take the shot he needs to take. What if his effort doesn't work? A player has to be judicious, weighing whether a shot is too risky. But he needs to be bold enough to stand up to the ball and attempt a difficult shot.

Other personal strengths come into play - fairness, for example, but these six stand out. A player has to have physical strength, and a player has to have "game." But personal strength is as important as everything else. 

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Use of photo complies with terms of Wikimedia Commons)


Meredith Bell said...

The mental game is what sets any high achiever, including athletes, apart from others who may have great skills, knowledge or experience. It will be interesting to watch this young man develop, to see if he maintains the remarkable edge that he demonstrated in this tournament.

Craig Kelley said...

Complete opposite from last year. Definitely mentally prepared this time.