Colum­nists

Even the best play­ers strug­gle to deal with their own in­ner demons on the golf course

Today's Golfer (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Nick Dougherty and An­drew Cot­ter on chok­ing and pod­casts.

When peo­ple ask me why I haven’t con­sid­ered com­ing out of re­tire­ment, I only have to look at re­cent events on Tour to present my case. Some peo­ple seem to think that pros are like ro­bots on the golf course and don’t feel any­thing, least of all nerves or anx­i­ety. But if you watched the Turk­ish Open, you would have seen two pros buck­ling un­der pres­sure and trad­ing bo­geys for fun.

As much as I was will­ing Justin Rose to win and re­turn to World No.1, it was hard to watch Hao­tong Li try­ing to keep his emo­tions in check af­ter what hap­pened on the first ex­tra hole. A part of me ex­pected him to miss the 15-foot putt for the win, such was the topsy-turvy na­ture of their bat­tle, but I don’t think any­one would have bet on him block­ing his re­turn putt straight right like a 28 hand­i­cap­per.

The only com­fort Li can take is that there isn’t a player alive who hasn’t choked, and blown an op­por­tu­nity to win a tour­na­ment. Tiger Woods did it at Bay Hill this year, when he had a chance to win and then hit his tee shot out of bounds on the 16th. The re­al­ity is that no one is per­fect and we all make mis­takes. Iron­i­cally, Rose made just as many er­rors as Li did com­ing down the stretch, but the dif­fer­ence was that he got away with them.

Had Li holed that 20-footer on the first ex­tra hole, we might have been re­flect­ing on Rose’s bo­gey on the 17th, or the missed putt from four feet on the 18th to avoid a play-off al­to­gether. It just goes to show how cruel golf can be, and how suc­cess brings its own men­tal chal­lenges. When Li won in Dubai, I don’t think any­one ex­pected it to take an­other 10 months for him to fin­ish in the top 10 again. But that kind of thing hap­pens in golf and the longer a streak like that goes on, the more you think about it and the worse you play. Danny Wil­lett is an ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple. When he won the Masters, ev­ery­one was ex­pect­ing him to push on and make a name for him­self. In­stead, the pres­sure and ex­pec­ta­tion got too much, and sent him tum­bling down the rank­ings.

Thank­fully, he’s now on the up again – and de­servedly so know­ing how hard he works – but his story should serve as a re­minder to ev­ery­one of how de­bil­i­tat­ing stress and anx­i­ety can be. I know from ex­pe­ri­ence what that feels like, and I still think about the time I led the 2007 Ital­ian Open by three shots, stand­ing on the 10th tee dur­ing the third round. The tour­na­ment had al­ready been short­ened to 54 holes and in that mo­ment, I felt un­touch­able. I then com­mit­ted the car­di­nal sin of con­vinc­ing my­self that the ti­tle was al­ready won. On the next hole,

I hit my first bad shot and ev­ery­thing snow­balled from there. Neg­a­tive thoughts started creep­ing in, I went on the de­fen­sive and then fell to pieces. Blow­ing it like that re­ally hurt, but what helped was hav­ing a good sup­port team around me, and be­ing able to talk through the mis­takes I made so they didn’t hap­pen again. When I was in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion at the Dun­hill Links Cham­pi­onship later that year, I made a point of stay­ing in that mo­ment and stick­ing to my game­plan. Any nerves quickly dis­si­pated and I won by two.

The good news for Li is that he ap­pears to have found some form again, but be­ing able to main­tain that may de­pend on his abil­ity to fo­cus on the pos­i­tives, not the neg­a­tives, from Turkey. It sounds easy enough, but any psy­chol­o­gist will tell you that it re­quires a cer­tain per­son­al­ity trait to be able to con­trol your in­se­cu­ri­ties and shrug off any is­sue as a mi­nor road block.

For some peo­ple, the re­cov­ery pe­riod lasts a few days; for oth­ers it can take months, some­times years. The dan­ger for Li is that the Euro­pean Tour sched­ule of­fers no let up, which means he’s got to work through his prob­lems on the course. I was faced with some­thing sim­i­lar when my mum died, and I started tak­ing my grief to work with me. Sud­denly, the world felt like a place where only bad things hap­pened and it didn’t take long for that mind­set to af­fect my golf game. As I lost all self-be­lief, I be­gan psy­cho-analysing ev­ery­thing and asked ev­ery­one who would lis­ten for help. Armed with bad ad­vice, I made the wrong choices and ended up ru­in­ing my ca­reer.

Luck­ily, the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of golfers seem much smarter and are blessed with an en­tourage who are there to pro­tect them and pro­vide emo­tional sup­port. It may seem slightly ex­ces­sive, but it stops peo­ple prey­ing on play­ers who are go­ing through a tough time. It even hap­pened to me once in 2011, the same year I lost my card. A coach came up to me, and said, “I pre­dicted your demise, and I can fix it for you.” I was get­ting ready to swing for them when my cad­die stepped in and pulled me away. I was frag­ile at the time, and that nearly tipped me over the edge.

Look­ing back now, my one sav­ing grace was that so­cial me­dia was nowhere near as big as it is now, so any judge­ment was usu­ally con­fined to the play­ers, coaches and cad­dies on Tour. Sadly, that’s no longer the case, and it pains me to hear about play­ers be­ing trolled on­line. Sam Horsfield seems to be a pop­u­lar tar­get at the mo­ment for the amount of time he spends over the ball, de­spite the fact he’s ad­mit­ted it’s a men­tal prob­lem. There’s no doubt he needs to speed up, but what he also needs is sup­port, not crit­i­cism. We’re slowly break­ing the taboo around men­tal health, and it’s about time that changed on the golf course and we re­spect those who have fought or are fight­ing their in­ner demons.

Put your­self in Horsfield, Wil­lett or Li’s shoes and I’d like to think you would agree.

‘THERE ISN’T A PLAYER ALIVE WHO HASN’T CHOKED, AND BLOWN AN OP­POR­TU­NITY TO WIN’

The worst thing Hao­tong Li can do is dwell on his mis­takes. De­spite the re­sult, he still played in­cred­i­bly well in Turkey.

Nick Dougherty is a three-time Euro­pean Tour win­ner and now a pre­sen­ter on Sky Sports’ golf cov­er­age. Fol­low him on Twitter @Nick­dougherty5 and In­sta­gram @nick­dougherty5

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