Armchair Golf Pro: Shell Open, Mickelson, Mental Toughness

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.

Phil Mickelson at 2007 Barclays Singapore Open

Image via Wikipedia

Is Mickelson peaking at the right time for the Masters? Phil won the Shell Houston Open this weekend with a sparkling 20-under total to beat Chris Kirk and Scott Verplank by three shots. On each of the last two days he carded an amazing 9 birdies per round. He shot a 63 on Saturday and a 65 on Sunday.

Is he ready to repeat at the Masters this week? It would be hard to bet against him. Here’s why.

Winning the Masters takes a special kind of ability. It’s the first major of the year. The golf course gets tougher every year. The greens are so fast they can bring a man to his knees. And that’s just the physical aspect. Top it with the fact that just about everybody in the golf world is watching or paying attention and the psychological pressure is enormous.

So what’s the special ability needed to win at Augusta?

Mental Toughness.

Now I’ve heard the term bandied about quite a lot but haven’t really heard anybody, including all the golf talk “gurus”, define mental toughness in any way that makes it understandable. So here’s my definition:

Mental toughness is the ability to get yourself centered in the present moment, focused only on the task at hand, even in (or particularly in …) the face of adversity.

On the 15th hole at Redstone Golf Club Phil hit the par-5 in two shots. He had a one-shot lead over Verplank. An eagle would have cemented the win, and even a two-putt birdie would have given Phil a two-shot lead and made him extremely hard to catch.

But Mickelson 3-putted from 20 feet for a par.

It’s what he did on the next hole that showed his mental toughness.

Last week I wrote about the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Spencer Levin, a young player with lots of talent who also plays with lots of emotion. Spencer hasn’t yet learned to let go of his emotional reactions. After a bad shot part of his emotional and mental focus is still on that past shot even as he stands over his current shot.

One of the things we know about playing our best golf is that being “in the zone” means having total absorption in the task at hand. That means being totally in the present. You’ve probably experienced it yourself. When you are in the zone there is no sense of the past or the future. There is only the shot in front of you.

The inability to let go of the past means part of your attention and focus is somewhere else. The same is true when your attention is in the future, worrying about shots in the future and how you can shoot your best round if only you can par the last few holes. So almost by definition you aren’t going to play your best golf when you don’t have all of your attention in the present moment.

Mental toughness is being able to let all that baggage about the past or the future go. It’s about the ability to be present, especially when the past or future is clamoring loudest for your attention. It’s a really hard skill to learn.

2009 Masters Tournament

Image via Wikipedia

But mental toughness is a skill. And it can be learned.

When Phil missed the 4-footer coming back for the birdie on 15 he held onto his hat a moment, scratched his head, and had a few words with his caddy. Then he left the three-putt right there on the green and went on to his next shot.

On the 16th hole – a tough, 200+ yard par 3 – Phil showed his mental toughness. Somewhere on the walk from

the green to the next tee Phil got himself back to the present. You could tell he was focused on nothing but his target … the pin. He knocked his shot 6 feet from the hole and made his putt for birdie. He opened up a two-shot lead and never looked back.

Watch out for Phil at the Masters. He may have to, as Johnny Miller said, “Figure out the trick of putting the green jacket on himself.