As I’m writing this I have just finished watching the American Express PGA Tour event where Andrew Landry narrowly escaped being overtaken by Abraham Ancer and Scottie Scheffler. He looked like he was going to run away with it at one point during the final round, but then made three bogeys on the back 9, setting himself up for basically needing to birdie the final two holes — and he did! It was an awesome, gutsy performance to earn the win.
But I'd like to know if Andrew Landry was paying attention to the leaderboard. We see this so often (and so many of us have experienced this so often) of playing well only to realize how well you're playing and suddenly lose the great feeling you once had JUST EARLIER THAT ROUND! So why do we not question when this happens? Why do we just buy into the story that "it's hard to close a out a win" or "it's hard to finish a good round with more good golf"?
Ok, so yes. I know I'm taking a very real, highly difficult task and saying you could make all the concerns disappear with 'one simple trick'. I am not and will never be one to give you a quick fix to all your problems, but I will always present helpful and healthy mental exercises and practices that I have learned over the years.
This one comes by way of Baylor Head Coach Mike McGraw. Coach McGraw and I had a conversation a while back on the podcast (he's an awesome, wise, super smart guy with decades of high level experience so you should quit reading what I have to say and go listen to him), and after we were done recording he asked for my address and he sent me the book that he wrote. It's called Better Than I Found It and it's about his journey through coaching and what he's learned about what has and hasn't worked with his players. It's an easy read with a multitude of quotable moments and wall-to-wall great information (again, go read and listen to what he has to say. He's been coaching for longer than I've been alive).
He recounts the time when he first took over as head coach of the Baylor men's team, and before the first tournament he made his mind up that he was going to swim against a very strong stream. I'll paraphrase, but he told his players that they weren't allowed to take their computers to the tournament, and they will have to turn in their cell phones before the first round and will get them back after the final round. And keep in mind, this was in 2014, and taking away your cell phone is like chopping off your left arm. He said that no one, coaches included, will be looking at the leaderboard. Ultimately, it pays off and they won the event by 16 shots.
You can't control your body's reaction to the knowledge of the leaderboard.
This is an extreme example, of course. But the principle is very important. You can't control your body's reaction to the knowledge of the leaderboard. What you learn when you see your own score or the scores of those around you is taken in to your body and you can't help but react. Whether you react with relief or adrenaline or stress or confusion or nervousness. You will react. And this will inevitably cause you to treat a particular shot with more or less importance than another. This is perhaps the largest reason it's hard to "close out" a golf tournament. Because you know that every shot you hit has a lot of consequence, and each shot feels so much more important than a random shot you hit in the first round.
One of the constants that I always hold true is anything that causes one shot to hold more importance than another needs to be eliminated. And learning that you need to make par on this final hole in order to win (or break 80 or make the cut or qualify) will inevitably cause a shot to be more important.
Now you say “But if you’re on the last hole and if you can make a par and win then isn’t it valuable to know that information? You can change your strategy and play smart and win the event.” And to that I respond with of course it’s good to know that you can make a par. But also you could par any random hole without much thought. So why introduce the stress? You would never consider changing your game plan in the middle of the second round in order to make a par. No, you would always try to make the lowest score possible. And in order to do that you must give every shot equal importance and therefore equal attention.
I believe in this experiment. In taking away as many stress inputs as possible in order to focus in on the one thing that matters: hitting the next shot. As Coach McGraw says, “Teaching players to think only of what they want to do on a particular shot is the important thing.“
Let’s try this. Let’s play at least one round where we don’t look at our score or the scores of our competitors. Sit in the feelings that it causes. The anxiety of having less control. But eventually these feeling will fade and you’ll be left with just you and your ball and the course. The only things that matter.