An often-quoted psychological convention is that the brain is incapable of hearing the word “don’t.” For instance, suppose you’re playing a golf hole with a lot of water—maybe even an island green if such a hole even existed. If you tell yourself, “Don’t hit it in the water,” the thinking goes, it would actually be an invitation to do the opposite.
This is a compelling theory, even if it’s largely rooted in fiction.
“It’s false,” says sports psychologist Dr. Bhrett McCabe, who works with a number of tour players. “That’s a made-up convention that probably first appeared in some self-hypnosis pamphlet.”
Especially at the Players, which for more than three decades has carved out an identity on late-round meltdowns, there remains the question of how one should contemplate danger. Is it better to ignore the water hazards that line the final three holes at TPC Sawgrass and pretend they’re not there? In fact, experts like McCabe say these avoidance tactics do more harm than good.
“What happens is the brain has to resolve conflict, so if you don’t fully process stuff, it takes over your attention,” McCabe said. “What’s the ultimate purpose of the brain? It’s to avoid threats. So it’s actually better for players to take all [the trouble] in, because when you really take it all in, you can start thinking about what you want to do. But if we’re fighting the conflict, we can’t fully invest in what we’re trying to do.”
McCabe likens this dynamic to driving for the first time on a two-lane road, when cars are rushing past the other way, and you’re consumed with not crashing into one head-on. It’s unrealistic to expect to ignore those cars altogether, so better to acknowledge their presence, perhaps favor the shoulder to start, and then get more comfortable with the experience over time. Similarly, there is virtually no chance a player at TPC Sawgrass can avoid thinking about the water on holes 16-18, so it’s better to calibrate your intentions accordingly.
“You put it out of your mind all day, and when you get to the middle of the 16th fairway, it's sitting right there, you cannot not look,” said Adam Scott, who won the Players in 2004. “You've got to have a look.”
This thinking applies just as much to golfers competing at home. If you hope to avoid a line of trees to the right, the objective shouldn’t be to pretend they’re not there. It should be to take stock of the full picture and then choose a line that will avoid them.
Jack Nicklaus has stressed the same approach. He has espoused on the value of confidence before, but Nicklaus clarified to us that being confident over a shot doesn’t mean you’re oblivious to what can go wrong. At 17, that would mean recognizing just where the trouble lies so you can commit to a safer target instead. If there’s a reason beyond intimidation that players still bungle a relatively short 137-yard hole—the 69 balls in the water in 2017 were the second-most in tournament history—it might be because they’re not paying it enough respect.
"The realm of hitting a golf shot to me is, to be able to stand up knowing the shot I want to hit and knowing the problems I've had so I can then be positive about playing that shot,” Nicklaus said. "I want to know all the factors. I want to know all the negatives so I can create a positive."