Many of you will have watched, fascinated, as Jordan Spieth’s golf fluctuated wildly on the final day of the 2017 Open Championship. In the end, he made the winning of his third major look almost comfortable, but for much of the final round it had been anything but! Unusually, this had very little to do with the performance of his competitors. Matt Kuchar was steady, but never threatened to pull away. Li Haotong put in a superb final round of 63, but he began it 12 behind Spieth, so any pressure he could apply was fairly minimal. No-one else was really able to make a move on Sunday. It is probably fair to say that what we were watching was Spieth grappling with his own self-doubt. The entertainment was not provided by a classic duel between two great players, as in 2016 when Stenson and Mickelson went head to head and produced a barrage of birdies. Instead it was basically Spieth versus Spieth, with the rest of the field simply looking on and hoping.
Spieth started the final round at Birkdale on 11 under par, three clear of Kuchar, and six ahead of the rest of the field. Matt Kuchar is the most successful (in terms of earnings) active player never to have won a major, and at 39 he must be starting to wonder if he will ever win one. Kuchar was therefore not a player whom Spieth will have been particularly intimidated to see as his closest challenger. Many will have expected the final day to take on the air of a procession, but such opinions needed to be quickly revised when Spieth bogeyed three of his first four holes. At this stage, his long game was unreliable and even his putting was not up to its usual high standard. Kuchar was not looking that threatening, but suddenly he was in a tie for the lead.
Whilst we cannot know exactly what was going through Spieth’s mind early in his final round, it might help to remember what happened at Augusta in 2016. Early in the final round, Spieth was relishing leading the Masters for the 7th successive round. He was playing well and had a 5 shot lead over Danny Willett. Bogeys at 10 and 11 saw his lead reduced, but still no-one can have expected what happened at the 12th. Two visits to the water later, a quadruple-bogey had pretty much destroyed his chances. This was a tough experience for a 22 year-old who had known little but success in his short career- especially in view of the number of times he must have subsequently been asked to talk about it by the media. There is no doubt that this experience was playing on Spieth’s mind during the early stages of the final round at Birkdale. He admitted that he was thinking about the 2016 Masters before the round started, and putting himself under pressure. This type of thought process can often lead to what is generally known as ‘choking’. Typically, choking happens when a player starts thinking too much about the mechanics of what they are doing, instead of relaxing and letting the shots, which they know they can execute, happen. Essentially, they are trying to force themselves to play well, in order to avoid a feared negative outcome (losing!) instead of relying on the many hours of practice they have put in.
There is little doubt that Spieth was exhibiting most of the signs of choking in the first 13 holes of his final round at Birkdale. He 3-putted 3 times in the first 9 holes, which is very rare for a man known as a great putter, and he looked uncertain, which clearly suggests he was over-analysing. When he teed off at the 13th, he was 3 over par for the day, and he hit as poor a drive as he had hit all week. As the ball veered wildly off line, his expression was easy to read: ‘Why can’t I execute the basic shots? What is going wrong?’. As we now know, everything was about to change. The drive was in an unplayable lie, but he and his caddie, Michael Greller, worked out that the best thing to do was to take a drop further away from the hole, as this would allow a drop on the nearby practice ground. Eventually, after a substantial delay, Spieth was able to hole an 8 foot putt for bogey. He must initially have feared a real catastrophe like that at the 2016 Masters, so when Greller suggested that this was a real momentum shift, Spieth was all too ready to believe him. A good tee shot at the par three 14th led to a birdie, and when he holed a 55 foot putt at the 15th for eagle you could almost see any remaining self-doubt leave his body. Birdies at 16 and 17 followed, and a steady par at 18 gave him victory. Over this spell, Spieth was playing the kind of solid golf which had put him in the lead in the first place, and it seemed that he knew exactly how to strike the putts. He was ‘in the zone’ rather than overthinking.
So, how did Spieth overcome what could have been another costly choke? Essentially, it seems that, encouraged by Michael Greller, he recognised that something hugely positive had happened on the 13th. Although he had lost his lead, he left the hole at least 2 shots better than he might have done. Instead of worrying about losing, he started to trust his game again and just focused on playing. This change to a positive mindset, and a determination to stay in the moment rather than looking back or too far ahead, led to his getting into the zone again, and consigning the early dramas to history. This is something that can be applied to many sports: a player whose mind is cluttered with worry, self-doubt, fear, or other negative feelings, will not be free to play the sport to the best of their ability. Spieth’s experience suggests that one way out of this is to find something positive to latch on to, and to tell yourself that the game starts here- from now on, you will simply play your sport the way you know you can without being hindered by unhelpful thoughts. This may be easier said than done at times, but mental skills training can help with the necessary control of your thought processes.Embed from Getty Images