U.S. Open

Pinehurst Resort & Country Club (Course No. 2)

Low Net

Dumb golf myth: The key to overcoming nerves is to not care



I have a problem with nerves. Under duress I revert to familiar habits—too quick at the top, too steep on the way down, jerky with the putter as if I’m swatting away a bug.

If the symptoms are easy to identify, so is the cause: I care too much. My golf obsession, and my determination to get better has the inverse effect when the moment “matters,” which might be a pathetic way to describe playing for $10. Maybe if I played and practiced less, I would be better off.

This is not entirely a joke. A few years ago I had a tournament match scheduled for a weekday afternoon. I had a Little League game to coach that evening and a story deadline approaching. When I showed up at the first tee without a warmup, I told my opponent I was likely to have to withdraw at any moment depending on an assortment of variables. I spent the front nine checking my phone between every shot, but ended up playing my best golf of the summer. I closed the guy out on the 12th hole.

The episode reminded me of the best-seller by Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck. It’s not a golf book, but some of the chapter names—Don’t Try, The Value of Suffering, Failure Is The Way Forward —feel like worthwhile maxims for a mid-handicapper. The reason I played well that day is in part because the segment of my brain that I usually devote to stressing about a 175-yard carry over water was occupied. I didn’t care, or at least not as much, and thus the game was blessedly simple.

I’ve often wondered if the key to playing my best golf is to care less — to not give a f*ck — before recognizing an inherent problem. The only way to care less is to ACTUALLY CARE LESS, when really, my version of wanting to care less stems from actually caring a lot.

If this sort of mental gymnastics makes me sound crazy, I’m actually not alone. How often in major championships do we hear golfers try to convince themselves that “it’s just another week”? Or when golfers have a chance of winning, they say they’re not thinking about what it will mean? This is another example of golfers trying to deceive themselves, very often unsuccessfully.

“We're achievement-based individuals. At the end of the day, we all have our goals that we want to achieve,” said Dr. Bhrett McCabe, a sports psychologist who works with a number of elite golfers. “To act like it's not there is like standing on the edge of a cliff and saying, ‘Don't look at the 5,000 foot drop’ as if it's really not there.’ Hell yeah, it's there.”

A more effective approach was McCabe’s counsel to Alabama’s Nick Dunlap as Dunlap progressed through the bracket of the U.S. Amateur en route to the title. The deeper Dunlap advanced, the more likely he was to think about what was at stake. As with the 5,000-foot drop, it was foolish to pretend otherwise.

“I’ve talked to Bhrett a lot,” Dunlap said after his win. “I don't think you can tell yourself not to think about it. I think it's there. I think all you can do is really embrace it and embrace what it stands for, embrace the people. What's happening, the pressure, it's the United States Amateur, most pressure I've ever been under. Take it for what it's worth and enjoy it.”

In McCabe’s view, rather than suppress thoughts in such moments, it’s better to focus on thoughts that will help. This is consistent with Manson’s advice in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which doesn’t actually advocate against caring as much as it suggests focusing on the things within your control.

“We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond,” author Manson writes.

So what does this mean for golfers? It means recognizing golf, and especially competition in golf, always presents the risk of disappointment, but that some outcomes are better than others.

An example: There is a hole on my course with water down the left side. There are times when I’ve stood on that tee and nervously tried to steer the ball away from the trouble, and hit it in the water. And there are times I’ve swung with conviction and done the same. Neither outcome feels great, but I at least know when I swing freely, I give myself a better chance of a good shot. When I miss, I’m not saddled with the same regret.

“It’s OK to say you want something, but can you deal with not getting it?” McCabe asks. “That’s a very important piece. Because if you know you can deal with not getting it, then I’m going to be OK. Failure must always be an option for competition to be successful.”

When nerves take over, it’s inevitable for me to think about various worst case scenarios: losing, collapsing, pulled tee shots into water. One way to take the sting out of those thoughts is to recognize they’ve happened before, and that I’ve survived every time. If the only way to avoid being nervous is to really not care, that actually sounds pretty lame.