"Don't be long on your approach," my partner in the Tom Tait Invitational says to me. I've already hit my drive on the dogleg 15th hole of the Orchards golf course in western Massachusetts. Now my ball is sitting in the middle of the fairway, a pretty place for it, but I'm still about 195 yards from the green. A soft 3-wood seems the smart shot, until my partner cautions me about the trouble at lies beyond the green. "Better to be short," he warns.
"Damn!" I mutter to myself a minute later. The 4-wood I've just hit -- instead of the 3-wood -- has indeed left my ball short, but in a sand bunker to the left of the inclined green, well below the hole. Now I've got to loft it out of the bunker. I fear this shot more than any other in golf.
Can Butch help me pull it off?
If you could ask just one person for advice on enduring the emotional gauntlet of performing under pressure, chances are you'd pick master teaching pro Claude "Butch" Harmon, Jr., guru to golf's legend-in-the-making, Tiger Woods.
I first met Harmon at a tournament when I was researching my book, Stalking the Shark: Pressure and Passion on the Pro Golf Tour. The tournament was the Shark Shootout, an unofficial event hosted by the man who was then Harmon's prize pupil, Greg Norman. I fell into step with Harmon midway through the front nine.
Many of the people that I met on the tour were suspicious when I told them I was writing a book, but not Harmon. "Is that right," he remarked. "I'm writing one myself."
Harmon is a straight-ahead guy, completely unpretentious, the sort of teacher who can bond with his students. He also has a sense of humor -- a prerequisite for success in a profession defined by large but fragile egos. He conveys a sense of being both a friend and a protector, combining the role of a corner man in boxing with that of a mentor.
Harmon invited me to visit him if I were ever in Houston, where he is director of golf at the exclusive Lochinvar Golf Club. A few weeks before my tournament at the Orchards, after a round at my home course when I hit my opening drive out of bounds and another when I took a humbling score of 10 on one hole, I decided it was past time to accept his invitation. I wanted to get a one-on-one lesson from Harmon and talk with him about the hardest part of golf, and for that matter, of business: how to toughen up your mental game and win under pressure. Perhaps a conversation with a pro to the pros would help me get to the next level.
We met in Harmon's cozy clubhouse office, where one wall is lined with videotapes of his sessions with Norman, Woods, and some names I recognized from other sports, including Michael Jordan -- a passionate golfer when he isn't playing basketball.
Golf, like business, pits people in head-to-head matchups where your mental fitness is just as important as your talent and skill. What's the one thing that separates winners from losers?
It all comes down to focus -- the ability to concentrate completely on the shot you're playing now, in the present. Tiger Woods is the most focused young guy I've ever met. At the Mercedes Championships, when Tiger squared off against Tom Lehman in a one-hole playoff, all I said to him was, "Just relax and let it happen -- Lehman's yours." And Tiger said, "Oh yeah, I got it."
There are pros who get the lead and panic: "Oh god, I'm leading, what am I going to do now?" And there are others who get the lead and say, "Yeah, this is where I belong." Tiger is one of those "this is where I belong" guys. He thrives on competition. All you have to do is challenge him -- I've never seen him fail.
Whether it's business or golf, it's awfully hard to stay focused when the losses start piling up. What will you say to Tiger Woods when he hits a slump?
It's going to be interesting to see how Tiger handles a slump, because you're right -- he'll hit one. And when he does, we'll go right back to working on the basics that we've always worked on.
When you're stuck in a slump, most of the time it's a confidence thing more than a physical thing. So you have to draw on the good times, the times you've played really well. Think about all the good shots you've hit, understand that they're still in your body, and realize that you can tap into them again.
Remember that in golf you fail many more times than you succeed. If there are 144 players in a pro tournament, 143 will lose. There's only 1 winner. So most of the time you're going to lose. But as long as you go out and try as hard as you can, you won't have anything to be embarrassed about. That holds true for every level of golf, amateurs as well as pros.
Isn't there a difference between losing well and losing badly? Did Greg Norman "lose well" when he blew six-stroke lead in the final round of the Masters last year and he said he wasn't ashamed of what happened -- that's golf?
I would've rather seen Greg get mad at himself instead of just saying, "I've got $40 million." That was almost like saying, "Oh, no big deal." It really irritated me. I don't know if he's masking his personal feelings, but I think sometimes you should just show people how pissed off you are. I would've loved to have seen him storm into the locker room, punch out a locker, and scream, "I can't believe I blew this!" Instead, he was very subdued. I was surprised.
Failure is a fact of life in golf and in business. What does it take to get better?
Improvement comes only with confidence, and confidence is something that has to be achieved. You gain confidence by making progress. And you make progress by practicing your weaknesses instead of your strengths, which golfers rarely do.
If a guy is a good driver and a lousy long-iron player, chances are you'll never see him practice his long-irons. He's always hitting drivers. That is, he's always practicing the thing he does best. The best tip I can give anyone is to work on your weaknesses. It's the fastest way to turn your weaknesses into strengths.
At the same time, you've also got to understand your capabilities. Don't try for shots that you can't hit consistently. If you've got 200 yards to carry a lake, and you've cleared that lake just once in your life, don't try to blast it across the water. Instead, lay it up short and hit the next shot on the green. Good players don't try for shots that will defeat them.
That sounds like the scene from the movie "Tin Cup," where Kevin Costner's character loses the Open because he refuses to lay up in front of a water hazard. Instead he misses something like 14 shots, but then he makes it. Didn't you respect him for being true to himself?
No, I didn't. He was just playing to his ego. And ego is a terrible thing in golf, especially in the average player. It keeps you from getting better.
Look at it this way. A scorecard just records the number that you made on the hole. There's no place on the card that shows whether you laid up or went for it, or whether you outdrove the three guys in your group. You just get the number. If a guy wastes 14 strokes because he refuses to play within his capabilities, who's the loser?
You're leading a major tournament in the final round. How do you stay ahead over 18 holes, and not succumb to the pressure of playing with big money on the line?
You let yourself win -- which is harder than it sounds. You've got to continue to think and react to situations the way you've been thinking and reacting all along. You can't create a winning round. You have to tap into all your hard work and let it happen.
Name a golfer who's got the mental game together.
Nick Faldo, when he hit that 2-iron on the 13th hole in the 4th round of the 1996 Masters. He took forever to set up the shot. It was a great display of inner strength. Nick can say to himself, "I'm not going to hit this shot until I'm ready, and it's going to be the exact shot I need to hit." He gave himself the chance to hit a great shot -- and that's what he did.
Even though Greg Norman had a six-stroke lead going into the last round, Nick just went out and did what he had to do. There was really no way he could catch Greg, but if Norman faltered, Faldo wanted to be in a position to take advantage of it. He played the smart shots. He didn't take great chances. And when Norman faltered, Faldo won the tournament.
In that situation, who was Faldo playing against? Norman? The course? Himself?
Golf is really a game against yourself. Each round is a challenge to do a better job of controlling your emotions, your focus, your mechanics. The ball doesn't move until you hit it. And it only goes in the direction that you hit it. When you play a great round, you've done it all yourself. No one has helped you. When you play a terrible round you're responsible for that, too. But that's the beauty of the game.
In golf, you are always trying to do better than your best score. So when you play your very best, remember this: the only thing you've really defeated is your own past.
So here I am in this sand bunker, with an 18-foot chip shot to the flag. I try to focus, just like Harmon told me. But my mind drifts back to something he said before I left Houston. We were standing on the putting green, and I asked him why he really thought that Greg Norman lost the 1996 Masters to Nick Faldo. After all, Harmon used to be Norman's coach. If anyone knew the answer, he would. But I was wrong.
"If I knew, he wouldn't have lost," Harmon replied. He was silent for a moment, as if he could suddenly feel the pain that Norman must have felt, when a six-stroke, final-round lead slipped away and Faldo won by five strokes.
"Whatever happens, you just have to keep going," Harmon continued. "Golf isn't a game like poker. You can't fold 'em in golf."
Time to focus. I set myself in the sand, stance open. I take the club back. In an instant the ball explodes out of the bunker, stopping six inches from the hole for an easy tap in. It's the finest bunker shot I've ever hit. Fair enough. I'm already thinking about the next hole.
Carl Vigeland is the author of "Stalking the Shark: Pressure and Passion on the Pro Golf Tour (W.W. Norton, 1996). the paperback is due to be published in June.
"Playing A Round"
"Your Pro to the Pros"