Mastering Golf Is A Game Of The Mind

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Whether you're a world class athlete, or someone who plays a sport for love of the game, sometimes your fiercest opponent is right between your ears. Because once you've gotten good enough, it's your brain that's the difference between an ace and a double fault — or between a clean free throw and a brick.


Now, whether you're a world-class athlete or just someone who bowls every now and then, your fiercest opponent is sometimes right between your ears. 'Cause once you've gotten good enough, it's your brain that's the difference between an ace or a double fault or between a clean free throw and a brick.

While every sport has its own particular challenges, there is one that inflicts its own particular form of mental anguish. Our Brigid McCarthy reports.

(Soundbite of club hitting golf ball)

BRIGID MCCARTHY: Kevin Korea(ph) is a high school senior and the number two player on his school golf team. He loves the game but it's turned him into a pessimist.

Mr. KEVIN KOREA: It's Murphy's Law on the golf course. Oh, baby…

MCCARTHY: In other words, anything that can go wrong will at some point. Kevin's dad, John, is also an avid golfer. They took up the game together about 10 years ago. They're playing nine holes on a public course outside Washington, D.C. John Korea says there's one thing that makes this game so hard.

Mr. JOHN KOREA: The golf swing doesn't stay like your motion - shooting foul shots or your jump shot or your forehand in tennis. It doesn't - it comes and goes. Even the top players in the game, it does.

Oh, hit the ground. You hear that? I chunked it.

MCCARTHY: They've agreed to let Sheila Rowney(ph) watch them play today. She runs the Sports Psychotherapy Center in Bethesda, Maryland. A clinical social worker, she ministers to the troubled psyches of amateur athletes.

Ms. SHEILA ROWNEY (Sports Psychotherapy Center): In golf, there is just a myriad of things that can affect the swing that have nothing to do with the mechanics and the technique of the swing. There's just so many mental things, probably more in golf than any other sport.

MCCARTHY: Rowney once worked with a golfer who'd competed in high school and college, then hit a slump and quit. After a while, he realized how much he missed the game.

Ms. ROWNEY: And he wanted to come back to competition. And when he came to see me, he said, I know this is about my father. And so we had to work on his relationship with his father.

(Soundbite of club hitting golf ball)

Mr. J. KOREA: Oh, nice, Kevin.

MCCARTHY: These two don't seem to need any therapy. Dad could use a little help with his game, though, but he's not interested. John Korea has his own ideas about free will and fate on the fairway.

Mr. J. KOREA: We often talk about the golf gods. And the golf gods will come and visit you and you'll play great for a couple of holes. It could be one shot, but their motive is to get you to come back.

Look at that puppy. Right down the middle.

Mr. K. KOREA: Nice shot, dad.

MCCARTHY: But the golf gods can be vindictive.

Mr. J. KOREA: They want golfers to be humble. Like, if you start going around and say, God, I'm playing great today, the next shot's going in the woods, guaranteed.

Get over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. K. KOREA: At least I didn't (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: I'll tell you that - you think the golfing gods aren't with him…

MCCARTHY: Golf fans around the world watch the deities unleash the full force of their fury on the French golfer John Vanderbilt. He had a three-shot lead going into the 18th tee of the British Open in 1999.

Unidentified Man: I think the only thing that can get him into any trouble is if he drives it in the (unintelligible)

MCCARTHY: Which he did - right into the water.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: This isn't happening. This is not happening.

MCCARTHY: Vanderbilt got a triple bogey and lost in the playoff.

Sheila Rowney has no patience for talk of golf gods. It's called choking, she says. You're thinking too much.

Mr. ROWNEY: But if you are a serious enough athlete that you have been practicing and working with a coach and honing your skills and your mechanics, there is a place in your brain that already has all that information about what do you do. So it's really about getting out of your own way.

Oh, nice drive.

MCCARTHY: It sounds simple but it's not, especially in golf, where it's just you and the ball - and lots of time to beat up on yourself.

Rowney says younger athletes tend to be less self-critical. Kevin Korea, age 18, has a strategy that works.

Mr. K. KOREA: The most important thing is really that you can't have any memory of your last shot, whether it was bad or good. Because a good shot can jack you up sort of and you can swing too hard, and then next comes a bad shot, and a bad shot you can't allow it to get to you.

Mr. J. KOREA: Sweet. Birdie. Hear that Tiger roar?

Mr. K. KOREA: Thank you.

MCCARTHY: But it's that tantalizing and unpredictable mix of success and failure that gives every game its special charm.

Mr. J. KOREA: Now, I had a round for the ages because of what it incorporated.

MCCARTHY: The agony and the ecstasy. For the first 14 holes, he made one horrendous shot after the next. At one point he swung and missed the ball completely. On the 15th hole, he drove it into a wildlife preserve.

Mr. J. KOREA: And I thought, oh, can it get any worse than this? Can it get any worse?

MCCARTHY: On the 16th, something shifted - he managed to par the hole.

Mr. J. KOREA: Then the 17th came up. It was a par five, traps, elevated green. Just ridiculously hard. I hit a Tigeresque five-iron into the green to a small target 12 feet from the hole. Made the putt, birdie. The 18th was a par four -175 from the hole. It landed about 15 feet from the cup. I drained the putt for a birdie.

Was I as high as a kite coming off of that? For three holes I was two under par. I was on the PGA tour for three holes.

(Soundbite of theme from "Rocky")

Mr. J. KOREA: It was one of the greatest feelings I had ever experienced in sports.

(Soundbite of theme from "Rocky")

MCCARTHY: And it's those occasional highs that feed the addiction and keep golfers coming back for more.

For NPR News, I'm Brigid McCarthy.

(Soundbite of theme from "Rocky")

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