By Alex Nicolson PGA
At the 2011 Masters tournament Rory McIlroy threw away a 4 shot lead in the last round, crumbling to an 80. His subsequent victory in the 2014 British Open underlined how much he has developed. Despite several challengers playing aggressively and threatening his lead, he held firm, finishing at 17 under par. What struck me was his calm demeanour throughout.
At the beginning of The Open week he told the press he had two secret keys that were underpinning his game, and that he would reveal all after the final round. He joked that the secret would be a big letdown as the keys were so simple - they were two words: ‘Process’ and ‘Spot’.
He explained: “With my long shots I just wanted to stick to my process and stick to making good decisions, making good swings.”
“And ‘spot’ was for my putting. I was just picking a spot on the green and then trying to roll it over my spot every time. I wasn’t thinking about holing it. I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean or how many further clear it would get me. I just wanted to roll that ball over that spot.”
Perhaps people were expecting/hoping for some fantastic swing thought to hit the ball 330 yards. However, Rory's clearly successful strategy is the tip of the iceberg of a subject that is fundamental to playing under pressure for golfers of all abilities.
The perils of outcome focus
The purpose of Rory's keys was to avoid focusing on the outcome of a shot or round. Thoughts like “Please go in”, “If I can just hit the fairway”, “Two more pars will do it”, “What if my opponent makes birdie?” are all about outcomes, consequences, but not about the task at hand. This kind of time travel is a frequent destroyer of scorecards. Why? When your mind races ahead to the future it is no longer where it needs to be to play good golf - the present.
Why is the present so important?
When presented with a complex task to perform, such as a 25 foot breaking putt, your brain needs data to solve the problem. The ball, the hole, the slopes in between - there is a lot to absorb if you are to come up with the right aim and stroke to get the job done. It’s all stuff that is right there in front of you, happening in that moment. Any thoughts about the consequences of holing or missing the putt are simply irrelevant data and only likely to trigger unhelpful responses like tension and fear.
When you are truly engaged in the process, the brain simply absorbs relevant data that aids completion of the task at hand. Focusing on a spot over which to roll the ball is one of many ways to direct your attention effectively.
A stage further - detachment from outcome
When on the verge of winning the open think how tempting it would have been for Rory to think ahead to the winner's speech, or the fear of facing the press if he lost. Even Peter Alliss was telling us how much each putt “meant”.
When golfers attach meaning to the success or failure of a shot before they even play it, they give away some of their precious attention on the task at hand - diluting or corrupting the data they require to execute it effectively.
Rory’s comments about putting were especially pertinent: “I wasn’t thinking about holing it, I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean.” He was so involved in the process, in this case rolling it over a spot, that he detached himself from the outcome. The resulting calmness was a significant contributing factor to his success under pressure.
His smart focus is a valuable lesson to us all to stay in the present, with our brain engaged with the task at hand (and not on how we are going to spend our millions!).