WHAT IF EVERYTHING YOU’VE BEEN TOLD TO THINK IS WRONG?
most golfers have selective memories. Ask us to recount our best shots, and we can tell you the club we hit, where we hit it, and whatever it was we just had for lunch. It’s everything else that tends to be a blur. The implication of needing just one great shot to “bring you back” is that you’re choosing to repress all the mediocre shots that came before and after. Even the best in the world can filter the game this way. Consider the eventful September that Billy Horschel had in 2014, when he won the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship, which also meant the FedEx Cup and its $10-million bonus. A lucrative hot streak made all the more impressive considering what had immediately preceded: The week before the BMW, at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Horschel hit one of the worst shots imaginable under pressure when he chunked a 6-iron into a hazard on the final hole and lost by two. to his theory. “People will say skill is most important, but I know plenty of guys on the range who have skill and who don’t believe, and I know guys who don’t have as much skill but who believe. I know who I’m taking on tournament day.”
Here’s an often-quoted maxim from golf’s greatest champion, Jack Nicklaus: “Confidence is the most important single factor in this game.” But even Nicklaus says confidence has minimal value if it means suppressing the most valuable information.
“Somebody saying you’ve got to always be positive and eliminate all the other things in your mind and then hit a shot sounds good, but it isn’t an ideal approach,” Nicklaus says. “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. I want to know all the factors. I want to know
When it came time to make sense of what happened, Horschel’s strategy was to dismiss it as mostly rotten luck. He knew he played well, had put himself in contention, and says the sidehill lie was tricky enough that he caught more turf than he anticipated. It happens in golf, and he didn’t see the point in dwelling. That he won twice in the next two weeks suggests he was right. “Just a really bad swing at the wrong time,” Horschel says.
Fast-forward to November 2016, though, and Horschel committed another tournament- ending blunder when he missed a two-foot putt to remain in a playoff in the RSM Classic. This time there was no redemptive follow-up, but here, too, Horschel says he profited from the experience. Revisiting the sequence, he recognised he had rushed through his routine, and that a weak left hand on the putter kept the clubface open at impact. It was a crucial mistake, but at least he understood why.
“It’s a tough way to learn something, but I learned it,” he said days later.
Horschel’s two high-profile tournament losses represent distinct case studies of how people handle losing effectively—one where they graze lightly over their worst moments, another in which they look more carefully. More than most golfers, Horschel has embraced how to benefit from losing. I wrote a
book about this concept, Win At Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead To Our Great
est Gains, which explores the various ways losing and failure are often the most fertile opportunities for growth. In everything from sports to business to politics, my argument is that within our biggest mistakes are the lessons for how to be better.
On an abstract level, it’s a principle most can embrace, but where golf presents a unique counter is when considering our often-fragile psyches. The last thing any of us wants standing over the ball is a catalog of our worst swings swirling in our heads.
Dr. Bob Rotella argues that rather than contemplate all the ways a golf shot can go wrong, we need to channel our energy to what we want to see happen. “No one wins if they don’t believe it,” says Rotella, whose book, Golf Is A Game Of Confidence, speaks all the negatives so I can create a positive.”
What Nicklaus describes is what Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, a sport psychologist and mentalskills coach, calls “healthy self- doubt,” in which we’re aware of our limitations and can construct a game plan to counter them. In the same way Billy Horschel learned the hard way what happens when he rushes his putting routine, there is value in knowing what precisely holds us back.
“Confidence is a garbage term in that it induces illusions of competence,” Pirozzolo says. “What you really need is a passion to work hard to get the best answers about why things happen the way they do.”
Even at the game’s highest rung, this is a tough place to go. Of 200 players or so on tour, Horschel estimates maybe only 30 are willing to spend time truly digging into the deficiencies that cost them. “Everyone else is scared to look in the mirror,” he says. “They shield themselves from it. That’s what makes guys like Rory and Spieth so great. They never shy away from their mistakes.”
Whether you’re chunking a 6-iron with $1 million on the line or blowing a 3-up lead in a $5 nassau, golf’s relationship with failure is complicated. There’s the belief we needn’t breathe life into our mistakes for fear they will fester. On the other hand, it might be better to tackle problems surgically and strategically. When PGA Tour win-
‘ CONFIDENCE IS A GARBAGE TERM IN THAT IT INDUCES ILLUSIONS OF COMPETENCE.’
Photograph by First Lastname month 2017 Illustrations golfdigest.by com Eddie Guy