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Commentary: Lessons from the Open Championship

By STEPHEN MOSKAL, PGA   |   Aug. 7, 2012 at 5:54 PM   |   Comments

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Most sports involve two teams or two people playing for a win. In golf, however, 155 players start out the week, but by the weekend there are about a dozen viable candidates.

In this sense, golf is much more like a race than anything else – a four-day marathon where winning and losing is determined by one's ability to maintain one's pace without trying too hard, all the while having enough reserve to accelerate as needed.

A golfer has to know when to take chances and press forward, and when to hold back and play safe – or to know how to simply mend an open wound in mid-course.

The 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham St. Anne embodied the essence of championship golf and gave us so much to think about and to absorb.

Pressures of championship golf

Ultimately, no action of one player on the course can influence another player, in the physical sense, but mental pressure is a major part of golf.

Champion golfers past and present have found ways to cope with the pressure.

Traditionally, golfers have two major strategies to deal with pressure: 1) try to ignore others and stick to your game-plan, 2) embrace the challenge directly and react.

By far the most popular strategy among today's sports psychologists is the former. The idea is to forget the people around you and to stick to your game plan.

Many sports psychologists teach golfers to establish routines that help "forget" pressure by filling the player's mind with constructive thoughts, leaving no room for other thoughts that can have a negative effect--thoughts that can be identified as pressure-related.

The player to embody the first strategy the most would be Ben Hogan. Hogan decided his strategy before the round, down to the most minute details, and established a target score to shoot.

More often than not, he would shoot his target score. Very often that target score would be good enough to win. Regardless of the outcome, his goal was to stick to his game-plan and shoot his score. Recent major champions that demonstrate this strategy are Luis Oosthuizen, Padraig Harrington and Jim Furyk.

The second strategy appeals to a certain number of players on the more artistic end of the spectrum. Players like Seve, Mickelson and Bubba come to mind. They basically play the shots they see at any given moment.

They feed off the excitement of pressure-packed situations and often react with amazing shots in seemingly impossible situations.

When these players are on, they seem invincible. They can also be prone to make what appear to be silly mistakes, mistakes that often turn out to be very costly. The key to survival for this kind of players is to live with "no regret."

Some players use a mix of both strategies. Nicklaus is a prime example. He was great at sticking to a game plan. He rarely made mistakes early in a tournament that would take him out of it.

A great strategist, he was almost always in a position to win during the Open Championship weekend. Nicklaus was always aware of what was going around him, ready to respond.

In an interview at the Masters in 2011, Nicklaus said, "Once you play a tournament, you're playing against the golf course, you're playing against yourself and trying to do the best you can. Now at a certain point in the tournament, it becomes a match play event and becomes a match play event against who is on the leaderboard, so you have to know who is there to do what you're going to try to do."

Basically, plot your way into contention and then its game on! This is by far the most complex way of dealing with pressure. You need the discipline to be patient and to be able to stick to a game plan for several days and then have the confidence in oneself to react to situations that might take you out of your comfort zone.

Tiger Woods shows this type of strategy as well. He even took a great deal of criticism this past week for so strictly adhering to a conservative strategy.

It is true that "in the past," Tiger would have tried something spectacular to add pressure. He did not do that at Royal Lytham.

He clearly played thinking that Adam was going to come back to the field some and that no-one within 5 shots was going to make a big move. He probably figured if he could play 1 under or so and finish at -7, he would be looking good. All in all, his strategy wasn't the problem. His game was the problem. Simply his game was not where it needed to be to execute his plan.

'Know thyself'

When trying to understand which strategy is the best, we must look back to antiquity for the answer. Not all strategies work for all people. Plato taught the principle "know thyself" as one of the fundamental principles to good living.

This truth is nowhere more evident than in championship golf. To play championship golf, one must play in accordance with one's own fundamental nature, one's own personality. Seve would not have played better if he tried to be more of a strategist like Nicklaus. Bubba will not win more majors by forcing himself to be more conservative.

In order to play championship golf, you must know yourself, know your game and believe in yourself.

In this sense, golf is a game of self-discovery. Most champion golfers learn to trust themselves at a young age. They have a very strong sense of who they are and of what they are capable.

On the other hand, there are a vast number of tour players who have a tremendous amount of talent but lack the ultimate conviction of who they are. It often takes players many years to be able to trust themselves.

I believe this is what we saw with Adam Scott in the Open.

His decision to change his game plan on 18 illustrates a desire to want to directly confront the challenges of pressure situations, but the fact that he took 3 wood and did not go straight to the driver indicates a lack of conviction in the choice to change. I don't think Adam knows exactly who he is and thus does not know exactly how to react in such situations.

We saw similar play from him in the 2011 Masters. His approach to 15 that year showed that he wanted to attack, but his bail out to the right indicates the same lack of conviction as we saw at Lytham. It's not that he doesn't have the talent. It's that he lacks the confidence to trust his talent.

Hopefully for Adam, this year's Open Championship is one big step in his journey to self-knowledge and self trust. However, the longer the journey takes, the destination can move farther and farther away.

PGA Championship and Ryder Cup

There is one remaining major coming up this week and then perhaps the biggest pressure-packed tournament of all in September--The Ryder Cup.

For the PGA Championship played at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, we can look to see more of the same that we have seen in the other majors. The Ocean Course is known for being very long and very difficult.

It will play very similarly to Whistling Straights a few years ago. Very difficult course and conditions coupled with the pressures of major championship golf is the perfect formula for having players lose focus and make poor decisions.

We all remember Dustin Johnson grounding his club in the bunker at Whistling Straights. One of the effects of pressure is lack of judgement. We are sure to see players making similar mistakes at Kiawah this year.

The format of the Ryder Cup has a way of spurring creativity and a sense of daring that allows these players that have so much talent to let loose and make incredible, often miraculous, shots. The level of play that is produced comes from forcing players to tap into potential that they generally ignore while competing in a normal 72-hole stroke play championship.

We often see "conservative" players make the most daring and remarkable shots. It is the very unique format of the matches that allows for this to happen.

With so many young players (especially on the American side) participating this year, the Ryder Cup could prove to be a breakthrough event for someone who needs just a little push to dig deep to find himself.

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Stephen Moskal is currently the Director of Instruction for Golf Swing Exchange, an innovative on-line coaching platform whose goal is to revolutionize the ability for people to learn golf. A former professional golfer in Europe, Moskal turned pro in 1993 as a member of the French National Circuit and also spent time on the United Kingdom Mastercard Tour and the European Challenge Tour. Following a seven-year professional career, Moskal turned to teaching full-time in 1999. A 1990 graduate of Furman University with a degree in philosophy, Moskal was a four year letter winner with the Paladins and was a member of the academic honor roll. Most recently, Stephen studied under Top 100 instructor Mitchell Spearman, best known for working with major champions Nick Faldo and Ian Baker Finch. Stephen is also the Head Golf Coach at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.

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(United Press International's Commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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