Joe Parent, PhD., is the author of Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game. He is a leading sport psychologist who works with players on both tours, including Cristie Kerr. He wrote this piece exclusively for GolfDigest.com with Roger Schiffman.
It’s always sad to see the wheels come off, but we must be grateful for Jordan Spieth’s transparency an openness, and how upfront he was in explaining what he felt happened after his mental and consequently physical meltdown as he started the back nine of last Sunday’s Masters Tournament.
What pulled the first thread that started the unraveling into a tangle of mental mistakes? Jordan told us it was the thought that crept into his mind as he headed to the 10th tee: “I knew I had a five-shot lead, and that if I parred in it would be good enough to win.”
In the aftermath, he explained what that thought did: “I knew par was good enough and maybe that was what hurt me, just wasn't quite aggressive at the ball with my 3 wood, 6 iron on 10. And then the drive on 11. Just a lapse of concentration on 12 and it cost me.”
Stick to your game plan Jordan changed his game plan from trying to shoot the lowest score he could (an attitude that had just netted him four consecutive birdies), to a “protect the score” prevent defense approach of just trying to par in. As he said, this caused him to not be as aggressive through the ball. And when pros make tentative swings, they usually push the ball to the right. It showed up in a weak push on 10 tee, followed by a weak iron into the green. He did the same on 11 tee, and on 12 tee as well.
Jordan will be better served in the future if he takes a page out of Tiger’s playbook: if you have a five-shot lead, ask “What do I need to do to get a six-shot lead?” When you get the six-shot lead, try to make it a seven-shot lead. Repeat until you’re out of holes on the golf course and you’re wearing another green jacket… Whatever level of golfer you are, when you have a good round going and you’re playing well, keep doing what got you playing well—don’t switch your playing style from trying to hit good shots into one of trying not to make a mistake. A prevent defense often just prevents you from winning.
Don’t get ahead of yourself Thinking about the outcome of the 18th hole while he was on the 10th tee was getting ahead of himself. And saying, in essence, “not much more to do, just coast and we win” created a bit of a letdown, like taking your foot off the gas pedal and relaxing too soon before the finish line, just as he entered the most dangerous stretch of holes. Interestingly, when he faced a tough recovery shot after his drive on 11, he woke up, got very focused and made a great punch shot through the trees, almost saving par.
For any golfer, if your mind drifts to the past or the future, you’re not fully there with the shot you’re playing. There’s only one hole that you should be thinking about, and that’s the one you’re playing now.
A perfect mental storm Jordan told his caddie “It seems like we’re collapsing” in the middle of Amen Corner, a particularly challenging stretch of holes. The holes at that point in the round at any course, not just Augusta National, have the conditions that create a perfect mental storm.
At Amen Corner you’re tired and probably a bit dehydrated. Fatigue and dehydration undermine your ability to focus and think clearly. You’re far enough along to see the finish line, but not quite close enough for that closing kick of adrenaline to get you there. So it’s easy to get ahead of yourself. There aren’t enough holes left to make up for a big mistake. So it’s easy to shift your attitude toward avoiding mistakes.
Emotions are heightened. So it’s easy to make choices that aren’t the most logical.
By the time he got to Amen Corner on Sunday, Jordan was bound to be pretty tired because he had been playing incredibly challenging conditions, fighting with his swing all week, and dealing with the enormous weight of expectation on him
When all these factors—fatigue, emotion, pressure—of a perfect mental storm are present, it leads you into mistaken thinking and a lack of concentration.
Jordan told us that on 12 he thought, “Why don’t I fade this one in?” Even though he knew that playing that shot put the ball in the water two years ago, you never, ever aim for that pin on that hole and his miss all week with that shot was a weak flare to the right.
The urgency to get to the finish can make you forget your routine and rush the shot.
As Jordan said, “I didn't take that extra-deep breath and really focus on my line on 12. Instead I went up and I just put a quick swing on it.”
Every round contains your own “Amen Corner” somewhere between holes 10 and 15, where all the factors that affected Jordan show up. Forewarned is forearmed, so be prepared to drink enough water from the start of your round, bring your mind back to the hole you’re playing if your thinking gets ahead of yourself, choose the shot you’re most comfortable playing and the target that gives you the most room for error, take the little extra time you need to focus and get a good picture and take a deep breath and get yourself settled.
Stick to your to your routine and you have a better chance of making it through your own Amen Corner unscathed.
Choose the right shot Jordan said, “I remember getting over the ball thinking I'm going to go ahead and hit a little cut to the hole, and that's what I did in 2014 and it cost me the tournament then, too. That was the right club, just the wrong shot.” He went on to say he should have hit the shot that was most familiar and most comfortable for him, a little draw. And he should have played it over the bunker.
When pros (right-handed ones) pull their shots, the ball usually goes long. When they hit a push, it usually ends up short. The one place Jordan couldn’t afford to miss was short and right, so he needed to pick a target for which his landing area, no matter what shape shot, whether pulled or pushed, would be in an area long and left of the hole, even if it meant going in the back-left bunker.
Especially in pressure situations, your default mode should be to play the shot you’re most comfortable playing. Choose a target that allows either a long pull, or a short push, and still leaves you safe. Trying to force a shot to a tight target can make you tighten up. Give yourself plenty of room and you’ll make a freer swing.
Think Out-On-Close “I wasn't exactly sure what to do there. It went in so far to the right that if I could go behind the drop zone I could have gotten to a number that I liked, similar to 2014, where I ended up saving bogey. I didn't want to drop it at 65 yards off the downslope into that green. That's just a number where you can't get the full spin. I wanted to get it to a number where I could have it end up where it landed. It would take a skip and come back. So I wanted 80 yards. So I tried to get 80 yards. I'm not really sure what happened on the next shot. I just hit it fat.”
Jordan later talked about getting it to stop, so he was trying to hit it close enough to the hole to get out with bogey. The sequence I teach in planning for trouble shots is “Out-On-Close.” Your first priority is to get Out of trouble. Your second priority is to get On the surface, whether it’s the green or the fairway. Your third priority is to get Close to the hole. If you focus on the third priority, without paying attention to the first two, you can get “cute” and make the kind of swing that will dump it in the water short.
We couldn’t really tell, but at that point Jordan was probably a bit in shock and his mind was racing. When you’re in shock, you go numb and mentally check out, and numb means you have no feel. Because of that, he needed to get himself settled and do his full routine. That extra-deep breath, before the pitch shot, the shot that he is so used to producing with his full routine, wasn’t there, and what showed up was a rough, out-of-sequence, tentative, fat shot.
When the wheels start coming off, recognize the symptoms of shock. You have lost your feel, and your mind is racing. That’s when it’s easy to make bad choices, and to forget your routine. Take a little extra time to breathe. It will slow your mind down and get your body settled, in rhythm, and ready to swing. When you’re ready to plan and play the shot, follow the Out-On-Close sequence. Don’t try to get too much out of the shot when you are getting out of trouble. Focus on getting out of trouble.
So Jordan, we feel for you. And Jordan, we thank you for your generosity in sharing the lessons you’re sure to have learned.
Lest we forget—Jordan had a similar lapse in the 2014 Masters, and came back to win the next year in record fashion. And Rory McIlroy blew a similar lead starting the back nine in the 2011 Masters, and came back to win the next major, the U.S. Open at Congressional, in record fashion.
Jordan, we look forward to your performance at Oakmont.