124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

The Loop

Taking a scientific look at Ryder Cup pressure

September 30, 2010

NEWPORT, Wales -- The mental challenge for players in the Ryder Cup has long been one of golf's most interesting topics, whether those competing for pride and country succumb to the moment or rise to it.

Tom Watson, despite everything he accomplished on his own, says he was always more nervous at a Ryder Cup. To former player and captain Tony Jacklin, a golfer is "totally exposed" in the team competition.

The topic has even reached the scientific community. In the October issue of The Psychologist, the journal of the British Psychological Society, authors Marc Jones of Staffordshire University and David Lavallee of Aberystwyth University address the psychology of the Ryder Cup in "A Good Walk Worth Watching."

One of the article's interesting points is about the effect of a home gallery on the outcome, which is salient this weekend with huge pro-European crowds expected at Celtic Manor.

"Teams perform better at home for a number of reasons (see Carron et al., 2005, for a review), but of particular relevance to golf may be familiarty with the playing conditions, increased confidence and expectations of success by players, and a perceived benefit from a supportive and vociferous audience," Jones and Lavallee write. "There is emphasis on perceived benefit because, while performers perceive that a supportive audience helps performance, in laboratory-based studies it either has no effect (Law et al., 2003) or performance is actually worse (Butler & Baumeister, 1998). Thus, while the data from the Ryder Cup supports a home advantage this may not be the result of a supportive audience."

To Jones and Lavallee, a golfer's performances has a lot to do with "the theory of challenge and threat states in athletes." They write: "According to the theory, a golfers will experience a challenge state with high self-efficacy, a perception of control and a focus on approach goals. By perceiving the competition as a challenge rather than a threat, the golfer will have less cause to regulate their responses. In short, prevention, in terms of perceiving the event positively so there is less cause to regulate unwanted psychological responses, may be better than cure."

In other words, as Jimmy Demaret liked to put it, butterflies are OK, as long as they're flying in formation.

-- Bill Fields