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PGA National (Champion Course)

The Loop

Dr. Bob Rotella and the mental game that is the Masters

April 03, 2012

Since the Masters is the only men's major championship that doesn't move house each year, familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt, but it sure can foster consternation.

Elite players who have earned their way down Magnolia Lane aren't much different from golf fans who watch the tournament every spring: Not only are there recollections of roars for great shots but also visions of ripples in a creek for costly ones. When you're the one who has struck them, not a spectator at Augusta National or one watching on television, they linger all the more.

"It's unique because it is played the same place every year," says sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella. "Everyone has great memories of great shots -- of eagles and birdies, great up-and-downs and putts, but they also have some memories of some bad things."

Rotella, a pioneering golf psychologist whose clients have won 74 major championships on various tours since 1984, believes the Masters presents unique hurdles among the four major championships. "Mentally and emotionally," he says, "for a lot of players it may be the most difficult to believe that you can win. There is the fact that it's on TV, the way it's presented on TV, the fact that you've watched it for years on the same course, that you get to go back to this beautiful place that you've been dreaming about since you were a little kid."

A green jacket can weigh much more than the garment's fabric, thread and buttons.

"First and foremost," says Rotella, "you want to win it because you basically get to play there for the rest of your life if you do. Not only you, but family and friends want it badly. You have a chance to be in that major, every year, for a long, long time. Most players are also so into being eager to win the first major of the year, that there is a real urge to try too hard and get too perfectionistic. Everything about the place makes you want to do that."

Rotella begins his latest mental-game primer written with Bob Cullen, The Unstoppable Golfer: Trusting Your Mind & Your Short Game to Achieve Greatness (Free Press, $24.99) with a reference to the year's first major. "Unstoppable golf and a great short game are inseparable," Rotella writes. "If I didn't already know this, I could learn it every April at the Masters."

As Arnold Haultain, one of the first to explore the inner game, wrote in The Mystery Of Golf in 1908, "You may have the strength of an ox; but unless you have also the agility of a cat it will avail you little. ... the real and most effective combination is that of immense power with extreme delicacy."

At the Masters, on the tightly cut grass and heaving slopes of Augusta National, Rotella is very aware from decades of coaching golfers there that "extreme delicacy" is the most challenging part of the equation. "These conditions," Rotella writes, "expose a lot of doubt and fear" even for the best players in the world. So much so, he recalls, contestants have approached him early in Masters Week and told him, "No way am I getting in the hunt this week, Doc. I am not going to pitch the ball from around these greens on national television.' "

When Augusta National's greens used to be a lot faster than what tour pros saw week to week, putting could freak them out. With green speeds quicker at regular tournaments, that isn't so much the case.

"I think today you see way more people being challenged by the pitching game at Augusta than by the putter," Rotella said in a phone interview en route to the Final Four, where he would be working with the Kentucky team. "You can get some tough putts and you have to trust your putter and not guide and steer it. But with your wedge game, you either trust it or you hit it fat or thin or, as I talk in the book, you just don't allow yourself to even try shot that you might in other conditions -- opening the face up and throwing the ball up in the air to get it close. It's real easy to say, 'Let's just put it over there 15 or 20 feet.' "

A foundation of Rotella's coaching is trust, of letting one's talent show through without being tight. That, he says, is paramount on and around Augusta National's putting surfaces.

"The guys who do well at the Masters get there and realize, 'These greens are perfect, I've got to free it up on these greens,' " Rotella says. "If you see the greens as perfect and you start guiding and steering and over controlling it, they'll eat your lunch."

Whether it's elite basketball players, major league baseball pitchers or professional golfers, the most successful will allow their skills to shine through under pressure. As Rotella says, "Letting yourself turn it loose when you want it that badly."

In The Unstoppable Golfer, Rotella describes a revelatory scene he witnessed years ago: the outwardly casual operating-room atmosphere as heart surgeons at the University of Virginia did a quadruple bypass. "While performing the very fine, precise motor skills involved in surgery, the surgeons had to avoid getting too careful and trying too hard," Rotella writes. "... In English, one is either trying hard or slacking off. We don't have verbs to describe the sort of unconscious effort that produces the best surgical results -- and the best results on the golf course."

Come the back nine on Sunday at the Masters, which is about as serious as golf can get, there will be no question why certain names are populating the large scoreboards that tell the plot.

"Playing one shot at a time and trusting yourself, it's a darn hard challenge, even for tour players," Rotella says. "It's a small number of guys who are going to go to Augusta totally committed to winning and at no time during the week let their mind wander off to, 'Let's play decent,' or 'Let's not embarrass ourselves' or 'Let's not have to go home early.' It's fascinating."

-- Bill Fields

(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)