Armchair Golf Pro: Charl Schwartzel, The Masters, McIlroy

The Armchair Golf Pro writes about PGA Tour events. Like you he is watching TV from his comfy armchair, enjoying the competition and drama, but also observing lessons that can be used to play better golf.

2009 Masters Tournament

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AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 10:  Charl Schwartzel of S...

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It was a crazy 2011 Masters Tournament. There were so many stories it’s hard to pick a single headline: Charl Schwartzel wins the 2011 Masters. Rory McIlroy loses the 2011 Masters. Tiger’s heroic charge falls short at the Masters. Who’s going to win the Masters? (with 90 minutes to go you still couldn’t answer that question because five players were tied atop the leader board and five more were within two shots).

In the end Charl Schwartzel answered all questions by making birdie on the last four holes to win by two shots at 14-under par. The 26-year-old South African Schwartzel benefitted from flying under the radar, some great course navigation advice from Jack Nickluas, a little benevolence from the golf gods early in his round, and a closer’s instincts when it came time for the final push.

Schwartzel started the day like everybody else at least four shots behind young Irish phenom Rory McIlroy. But Schwartzel holed out an improbable 6-iron chip from off the green for birdie on the first hole, then spun a wedge back into the cup for an even more improbable eagle-2 on the par-4 third hole. Just like that he was tied for the lead.

What do you do when everything seems to be bouncing in your favor?

Roll with it, of course.

There’s a tremendous benefit that accrues through the power of positive thinking. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Once you get on a little roll it’s easy to believe you next shot will be good, as well as the one after that, and the one after that. Your confidence goes up, your tension goes down, and because you think you are going to play better, you do play better.

The flip side is that all too often the opposite happens: you get an unlucky bounce, you nick a tree branch, your putt goes astray, and suddenly the wheels feel like they are coming off. The challenge is that the same self-fulfilling prophesy action goes to work. Your confidence goes down, your tension increases, and because you think you aren’t going to play well, you don’t.

Rory McIlroy

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That certainly looked like the case with McIlroy. Rory started the final round with a four-shot lead, and even though he had done a masterful job keeping a present-centered focus during the first three rounds the pressure of taking the lead into the final round got to him. When just a little bit of tension crept into his swing his old tendency – a pull-hook – showed up and started giving him trouble. He looked like he was fighting his game the whole front nine, and eventually disaster struck when he carded a triple-bogey on the 10th hole, then followed that with a bogey on 11 and a double-bogey on the 12th hole. It was almost as if he knew he wasn’t going to play well, and then went out and found a way to prove it.

How do you get out of that downward spiral when the wheels are coming off?

The first step is identifying your thought patterns and recognizing when you are playing a negative-bias movie in your head, because it’s not your game that’s the issue.

Imagine the difference in mental perspective between Schwartzel and McIlroy at the end of the first nine. Schwartzel shoots 2-under and is feeling pretty good because he’s had a few things go his way. McIlroy shots 1-over, he’s feeling shaky, and his lead is evaporating.

The second step to getting the wheels back on is applying a re-focusing technique. That means finding something positive or using something to spur positive energy.

At the end of nine holes how might things have changed if McIlroy had been able to shift his focus away from what was going wrong and what he didn’t want to do, into what was positive? Remember that despite struggling, at the end of the first nine holes McIlroy still led the tournament by one shot!

In contrast Schwartzel used the surging play of everybody else to spur his own play late in the round. Rather than shrink from the challenge as everybody kept making birdies, he used the challenge to push himself to an even higher performance level.

This type of rise to competition doesn’t necessarily work for everybody, but the point is that he found something positive to hold onto and elevate his game. Everybody has a magic re-set button like this they can push. I’m going to be looking to rediscover mine when I start playing again in a few months. How about you?

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