'You've got to get a little bit more of a Tom Watson attitude, where he just sees it and hits it and accepts it wherever it goes.' —Darren Clarke
*Excerpted with permission from *The Unstoppable Golfer: Trusting Your Mind & Your Short Game to Achieve Greatness, by Dr. Bob Rotella with Bob Cullen. Copyright ©2012 by Robert J. Rotella, published by Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster), 214 pages, $24.99.
The day before the 2011 British Open, I saw Darren Clarke on the putting green at Royal St. George's and said hello.
"Man, we really need to talk," he said.
Darren, I would learn, was feeling bad about his short game, specifically his putting. His frustration with it was spilling over into his attitude toward his game in general.
I had known Darren for many years, and we'd worked together before.
We walked off the putting green to an enclosure reserved for Royal St. George's members, next to the clubhouse.
"I'm nice to everyone else," he said after signing several autographs with a smile, "but I'm miserable to myself and with myself. Right now, I feel like I hate the game."
That was not what I like to hear a player saying on the eve of a major championship. Darren was 42. Once he'd been the bright young hope of Irish golf, but by the summer of 2011, there were golf writers who thought his time had passed.
He'd seen some recent positive changes in his life. He'd moved his two boys, Tyrone and Conor, from London back to Northern Ireland, and they were playing a lot of golf together at his home course, Royal Portrush. He'd become engaged (now married) after the death of his wife, Heather, in 2006. And he'd won a European Tour event in May. It had been his first win since 2008, so I'd expected that Darren would be happy and optimistic at Royal St. George's. "Instead of milking my win, I've screwed everything up," he said. "I'm trying to make everything perfect."
You might think that when a player wins a tournament, he would react by thinking, Finally, I've got my swing and my putting stroke so good that I can stop worrying about them, go unconscious, and keep winning. Instead, what many players think is, Wow! Winning means I'm exempt from having to qualify for two years. I'll use that time to reconstruct my swing and my stroke and make them perfect. But that effort can wreak havoc with a player's game and confidence. It had with Darren.
Darren thought that if he and I could repair his attitude toward putting, it would take the pressure off his ball-striking and his short game.
"I'm really OK on my three- to four-foot putts," he said, "but I don't make any 10- to 15-foot putts. And my speed control is terrible on longer ones. I feel like I never find the middle of my putterface, and I can't get the ball started on line or find the right speed."
I said, "Darren, all I know is you were a helluva putter as a teenager. That means you already know how to putt. If you stopped pretending you don't know how to putt, you'd stop trying to do it 'correctly,' and you'd just do it your way."
"I don't even know what my way is anymore. I've tried so many things," Darren said.
"You've got to stop trying so hard to do it 'correctly' and trying so hard to make it that you're forcing it and gunning your putts way past the hole," I said. "Then on the next one you give up on it and leave it a mile short because you're worried about running it way past. You've got to get a little bit more of a Tom Watson attitude, where he just sees it and hits it and accepts it wherever it goes. Stop trying to be so darn perfect."
I suggested to Darren that he needed to get all the technical and mechanical ideas out of his mind as he putted and just unconsciously react to his target.
"Oh, Doc, I'd love to go unconscious. I love the idea of going unconscious, but at the same time it scares the heck out of me. I've been so conscious for so long."
"If you believed you knew how to putt, you would go unconscious and let it go," I said. "If you were convinced you didn't know how to putt and have never known how to putt, then you would need to turn on your conscious brain and try to control it."
REGAINING FEEL BY TRUSTING YOURSELF
I stood up and asked Darren to take a golf ball and throw it to me. I held up my hand. He hit my hand. I said, "Good. Do it some more." He tossed a few more to me as I moved forward and back. All of his tosses, of course, came right to my hand, softly enough that I caught them easily.
"You just looked at my hand, and you threw it," I said. "Did you ever think of aiming the palm of your hand when you threw the ball to me?"
"No," Darren said.
"Did you ever look at your hand to see if it was aimed correctly?"
"Did you ever tell yourself how hard to throw it, or how far to take your arm back, or how to stand or where your weight was?"
"Yet you got the ball right to my hand every time, with just the right speed. With throwing a ball, you totally trust yourself."
I asked him to think back on what had happened when we'd first come into the members' enclosure and began to talk. "Every time you signed an autograph for someone, you didn't even look at what you were signing. You were looking at me and talking to me. And yet every time, your name came out, and the people were happy. While we were sitting there talking, you drank that coffee one of the members got for you. It was amazing. You were looking at me, you were talking about golf, and yet you didn't spill anything on your pants. How the hell did you know where your mouth was?"
I reminded Darren that we had talked a lot during his career about being his own best friend and trying less. "You've been trying too hard, Darren, and that's not trying your best."
I introduced Darren to the name Vince Lombardi, the great American football coach, and his maxim that fatigue makes cowards of us all. "You have to be rested or you won't be able to handle all the things this tournament is going to throw at you. You don't need to spend every daylight hour here trying to find your game. It's already inside you."
At that point, Darren pulled out his phone and said, "Repeat that, please. I want to make a note for myself. I like that, because, man, I have been so tired. Even when I'm practicing, I'm exhausted."
At the putting green, I told Darren to casually look at the target and hit his putts. If the target was two inches right of the cup, I wanted him to casually look out to the right and not to stare at a spot exactly two inches away. Then I wanted him to let whatever happened happen.
Darren did that for a while, and he said, "That feels pretty good. It feels like I'm hitting the ball right in the middle of my putterface."
"Darren, let's hit some now, and I don't want you to even try to do a routine."
His ears perked up. He knew that I'd always stressed the importance of a routine. "If all you did was casually look out there and then unconsciously let whatever happened happen, everyone watching you would say you had a great routine on every putt. But I don't want you to try to do a routine. Just see it and roll it, and you'll be amazed at how your speed and line will get better."
Darren rolled in a few that way and remarked again how it felt like he was finally making contact with the ball in the middle of his putterblade. I didn't want him to care about where the blade met the ball. So I asked him to putt a few using the toe of the putter. He made four or five in a row. Then I asked him to use the heel of the putter, and he rolled some in that way, too. Then I had him twist the putter 90 degrees and make them with the point of the putter. He did that.
"Putters today are so well made the whole face is pretty damn solid," I said. "You've got to understand that solid contact will happen if you stop trying to hit it in the middle of the putterface. And the more you don't care about hitting it in the middle of the face, the easier it is to hit it in the middle of the face."
Darren putted beautifully on Thursday, shooting a 68, three strokes off the pace. The next day, on the practice green, he told me that he had watched himself putt on the evening television recap of the day's play. He said he was amazed by the disparity between the way his stroke looked on TV and the way it had felt on the course. On tape, he saw quiet hands--no wristiness, no flipping. He'd loved the way his stroke looked. That wasn't how it had felt on the course.
The change in Darren's putting was apparent in his scores. He shot a 68 the second day and tied for the lead with Lucas Glover.
I saw Darren again on Saturday before he teed off. At this stage in an event, I can't really teach a player too much. I try to give players a few thoughts that they can carry around the golf course.
"You're unstoppable if you're unflappable," I told Darren. "Surrender to your talent. Ride your talent. It's there. It's inside you."
On Saturday, Darren shot a 69 and took the lead by a stroke over Dustin Johnson. On Sunday, Darren would be one of the last players to finish warming up on the range and come over to hit some practice putts before his round. I wondered what his demeanor would be. When I caught sight of him, I was thrilled because he had a broad grin on his face. He was unhurried, like a man who owned Royal St. George's rather than a man with a looming tee time for the most important round of his career.
Darren said, "You know, Doc, I'm going to forget about scoreboards and the other players. I'm going to just love being in my own little world, chatting with my caddie and Dustin and his caddie. I'm just going to have a ball. I'm going to enjoy the day."
I liked hearing that.
Darren pulled his phone out of his pocket. "I want to show you something, Doc," he said. It was a text message from Tiger Woods, who'd missed the British Open because of his injured leg. Tiger and Darren had a long competitive history and a strong friendship. I was impressed that Tiger would reach out to him. It meant a lot to Darren to have Tiger's support.
Darren said he wasn't certain he should let me read the text. "It sounds a lot like what we've been talking about," Darren said, paraphrasing for me. "Tiger says, 'It's a process. Go out there and believe in yourself. Make some early birdies, then stay in the present and play one shot at a time. You know how to do this. Go out there and get it done. Enjoy your day. I'll be rooting for you.' "
Darren had good wishes, too, from his fellow Northern Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy. Rory had sent him a text that mirrored one that Darren had sent Rory on the night before the final round of the 2011 U.S. Open. Like Tiger's, it said, "Go out there and get it done."
"You know, Darren," I said, "you've always believed in your friends. They obviously believe in you. Now it's time for you to believe in Darren. ... Let winning fall in your lap."
We walked toward the first tee. The applause was thunderous. I loved how he looked at the crowd and acknowledged their applause, how he shook hands with all the people who would be part of his group. Darren was being Darren. He made a good 12-foot putt for par on the first hole. Then he made a few five-footers, and I knew he was off and running.
Though Darren didn't want to look at leader boards, there was nothing to stop me from doing so. I could see that Phil Mickelson had played the first 10 holes in six under par, and Dustin Johnson was in contention. But then Darren made a bomb to eagle the seventh and go to seven under par for the tournament. I was walking along, cheering for Darren to stay out of his own way. As soon as Darren made that eagle, Phil missed a couple of short putts. Dustin hit a ball out-of-bounds on the 14th. Winning was indeed falling into Darren's lap.
The party on Sunday night after the tournament was at a house rented by Darren's management company. I talked to Darren's mother and father and to his fiancee, Alison. (Darren and Alison were married in April 2012.) They told me they couldn't get over how relaxed Darren had been throughout the tournament. I smiled.
"I can't tell you how glad I am to have won a major," Darren said, "but I think it's fair to say that I'm even happier that I got out of my way for all four days in a major championship."
APPLYING THE LESSONS
You might never be able to hit the ball as powerfully as Darren, but you can think the way a great pro does. You can go unconscious on your putts and pitches and bunker shots. In doing so, you can take your game from good to great, however you define greatness.
The question is, will you stop yourself, or will you let yourself go unconscious? Will you apply your free will to your golf game? Will you think like a champion? I can't guarantee that if you do, you'll be the winner at your next important competition. But I can guarantee that you'll walk off the course at the end of the competition proud and happy with the way you played. You will have stacked the deck in your favor.
You'll be a winner.