1. Watch other golfers
I have an understanding of who I am and what makes me tick. I am intrigued by watching other people and I think I have learnt a lot about what makes guys do well. I am fascinated by watching other people and wondering why a player can win one week, look like the best player in the world and six weeks later he’s back in oblivion. And also why guys have great years and then average years. My best trait is watching other golfers and establishing their strengths and weaknesses. I also watch myself like that and try to improve based on that. I enjoy it.
2. Anybody can win
I don’t believe that anybody hasn’t got “it”. The problem is getting “it” out when they need to. There are plenty of players capable of playing the golf necessary to win a major, the question is can they get out of their own way and let it happen. They obviously do manage it because they turn up at regular tournaments and win going away from the field and look like they are never going to stop winning. If they hit form like that in a major they will win. But I am watching how much they understand the processes needed to go through to play their best.
3. It’s all in the mind
I am totally aware of being in the zone. I’ve been getting that scary game face since I was 15 years old and many an amateur golfer will tell you that. What’s worse, and this is why I have an understanding of my mental side, is that when I got into that position it’s often led by someone else. I remember playing an inter-club match when I was a Walker Cup player, so one of the best in Britain and Ireland. He was a four-handicap player so really there should be no contest. I was 3-down with three to play when their captain told my captain, clearly within earshot of me, ‘this lad ain’t very good is he?’. Obviously that annoyed and upset me. I went birdie, birdie, birdie and then birdie the first play-off hole. Afterwards I thanked him for his motivation. It was an eye-opener that I perform better when pushed into a tough situation and when I’m afraid of losing a match. I’ve always been like that, sometimes I’d have to hype up my opponent. I’d always tell myself they were better than they were in order to make myself perform. The great thing is that after a while you figure out how to generate it yourself. It wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t get there, it was more encouraging myself to get in that position more.
4. Get ‘in the zone’
I read a lot of books and really believe in the great quote from Michael Jordan. He was always asked a lot about being in the zone and he said in actual fact he didn’t get in the zone that often, but he got close to it a lot and people couldn’t tell the difference. I believe that very much. A lot of times I am getting my focus right and getting into the position, but the actual days you get in the zone really are very special and you need the pressure of a Major. It just doesn’t happen on a normal day, a lot of things have to happen, it has to be on the line.
When I was 18 I played the Irish Youths, it was a big event for me. With four holes to go I was in the zone, I think I had made a birdie on the previous hole. Then somebody came out and told me I was two ahead and I bogeyed three of the last four holes to lose. The word choker was banded around a lot in the changing room afterwards by my fellow guys… young fellows don’t hold back do they? It was one of the few days when I went to the car park and kicked my golf bag. I was devastated that I thought I had choked and that was what made me go and see a sports psychologist.
But the great thing was that when we analysed it, I did the exact opposite of what I did at the US PGA. I went from being in the zone and being focussed to being relaxed and thinking I’d won it. Once I eased up, all the adrenaline and excitement went out of me and I couldn’t focus on the job in hand. It was the lack of pressure.
The reason I tell that story is that at the Open Championship at Carnoustie, on the third play-off hole, I’ve got a two-shot lead and a six-foot putt to go three ahead. And if you ever look at that putt you’ll see me hit a completely wishy-washy putt. It had no intensity at all and never had a chance of going in. It was a nothing two-putt.
The minute I picked my ball up and went to the next green, it hit me straight away. “Hang on a second, I know what this feeling is… it’s me thinking I’ve won the tournament. This is me thinking I have it in the bag.” Walking to the 18th tee, all I kept telling myself was that I could lose this. It’s not many golfers who walk up to the tee trying to put themselves under pressure. But I was trying to make it more intense. That putt made me realise there was work to do and not let myself get ahead of myself. The great thing for me is that they were all bitter lessons when I learnt them but they have served me well. I have talked to other sports people about this and have concluded that if I was a footballer I’d be very experienced, but I’d have retired by now.
6. Take responsibility
I didn’t on that third play-off hole at Carnoustie. I knew the situation. I knew what I have to do. You get chances in a Major tournament on the back nine, and you've got to take them. You’ve got to realize that, and I was in a situation that I got to take my chances. I knew I was playing catch-up somewhat, and those are the moments that change tournaments when you take shots on like that and they come off.
I'm a great believer in making it your own responsibility whether you win or you don't win. So that’s why I took it on. I realised it was the same 5-wood that I hit to the 17th at Birkdale. And so, yeah, it was one of those shots that you like to have that responsibility in the final round. It’s all about that in a Major. It's to get to the back nine in the last round and have the responsibility that it's on your head whether you win or you don't win. You take the shots and you take the responsibility.
Some days, it won't go for you and you have to be prepared to handle that. But you got to be also prepared to take those shots on and take that responsibility and the consequences that go with it, whether you take it or not. But you've got to know, you've got to take them on on the back nine. You're not going to win any other way.
7. Judge the state of play
I’ve often seen a player hit down the right on the first, get a nice kick, land in the light rough, hit an OK shot out and hole the putt and think he’s playing great. He goes on and has a good week. The following week he hits the same tee shot he instead of a good kick he’s in the rough and has a go for the green but it’s in worse trouble, chips through the green and then makes a double bogey. He hasn’t played any different or swung different but one week he’s thinking this is my week to win, the next he can’t wait to get on the plane and go home after two days. The same swing caused both shots but you can’t legislate for that.
Nobody – maybe one person – can turn up and predict their results before hand, certainly not in the positive sense. I have hit great putts from 20 feet that have missed, and hit average ones that have gone in, but we all know that when the putts are dropping we think we are playing better tee to green. That’s the fascinating thing about golf. The broader your approach, the easier it is the manage and figure out. If you try to tackle 20 tournaments in a certain way, you’ll have a better chance of knowing what works than changing every week. There are so many things that can knock you off-kilter in the short term, but over the long term it’s better.
That’s why I said earlier that results are a nice positive affirmation of what you are doing but can’t be used as the yardstick. Nobody can turn around and say if I turn up this week and win or finish 50th that I am a better of worse player. And yet people want to judge on that result. Take a guy who is 50th on the Order of Merit. If he wins this week, he will be judged to be a better player because he is now 20th. But he is still the same player as he was last week. It’s an overall process but we all want to narrow it down. If that guys turns up and plays the same way every week he will have a number of wins, so you can’t just take one individual win.
8. Read this book
My favourite book is ‘Be Happy’ by Alan Matters. It’s general psychology, but it an entertaining read. I read it when I was 18 and it is very simple. A 10-year-old could read it. There are pictures and diagrams… you could read it in a couple of hours and not want to put it down. There is one particular image, of a tombstone, that says “here lies the man who was going to be happy tomorrow”. So many great things in it, but so simple. Everybody would get something out of it.
Padraig Harrington’s sports psychologist, Bob Rotella, on 10 positive thoughts you should take to the course this weekend:
1. Play to play great. Don't play not to play poorly
Players who play to play great understand that good can be the enemy of great. They know that if they get too concerned about not being bad, they might not free themselves up enough to be great. They don't care very much about making cuts or top-20 finishes. They play to win.
2. Love the challenge of the day, whatever it may be
If you truly love golf, you must love the fact that no one shoots 50, that golf is an inherently imperfect game. If you spend your time fighting the fact that golf is a game of mistakes and trying to make it a game of perfect shots, you're really saying that you don't like golf.
3. Get out of results and get into process
Give your inventory the form of a report card. If you're giving yourself Bs and As in most aspects of the game and Ds in one, you know how to allot your time and energy. Your inventory will guide you in setting the process goals that are correct for you.
4. Know that nothing will bother or upset you on the golf course, and you will be in a great state of mind for every shot
Padraig tells me that he's performed better since he made acceptance part of his preshot routine. As he prepares to hit a shot, Padraig reminds himself that whatever happens to it, he will accept it and go from there. This allows him to focus narrowly on his target and swing freely.
5. Playing with a feeling that the outcome doesn’t matter is always preferable to caring too much
Mastering this concept goes a long way in determining two critical outcomes. One is how good a player is going to get at golf. The second is how much fun the player will have along the way.
6. Believe fully in yourself so you can play freely
Confident golfers think about what they want to happen on the course. Golfers who lack confidence think about the things they don't want to happen. That's all confidence is. It's not arrogance. It's not experience. It's simply thinking about the things you want to happen on the golf course.
7. See where you want the ball to go before every shot
When players are properly into the target, it's as if there were a laser beam linking the mind and the spot where they want the ball to go. Nothing else exists for them. Hazards such as woods and water don't distract them. Once they have picked the target, they think only of the ball going there.
8. Be decisive, committed and clear
Trust is a must.
9. Be your own best friend
If you panic at the onset of butterflies, you can set off a very strong physical reaction in your body, the fight-or-flight response. It causes a gush of hormones that can turn the butterflies into demons and your body into a trembling mess. Learn to love the butterflies, or at least to handle them. Taking deep, slow breaths can be helpful. Visualizing what you want can be helpful. The calmer and clearer you can keep your mind, the more you can keep it focused on what you want, the more the butterflies will fade and fly in formation.
10. Love your wedge and your putter
Skill with the scoring clubs is the biggest difference between players who shoot in the 80s and those who shoot in the 70s. It's the biggest difference between pros and amateurs.