Musing on The 2020 Masters: 3 Takeaways for Your Mental Game

Like everyone else in the golf world, I was thoroughly entertained this past weekend as I watched many of the world’s best players try their best to win a Green Jacket. While I keenly observed their prodigious swings and marveled at their short game prowess, part of me remained on the lookout for subtle clues about what was happening on the mental side of the game.

Of course, DJ played great. And the fact that he overcame the ghosts of poor performances in previous majors undoubtedly made the win even sweeter. But for me, three other things stood out as reminders of what to do and not do next time I have a chance to tee it up.

Here I should emphasize I’m not looking to discover a secret psychological technique that will enable me to win on the PGA Tour ... or even win another tournament at my club. I’m looking for insights to reinforce my fundamental purpose for being on the golf course — to enjoy playing, and play as well as I can, in that order.

With that filter in mind, let me share the three elements that leaped off my TV screen during the Master’s telecast:

Rory’s Self Commentary

I’ve got to admit; I’m feeling a bit sheepish writing these words ... I mean ... it’s Rory McIlroy for goodness sake, and if ever the golf gods crafted a swing on Mt. Olympus, it’s the affable Irishman’s. A relative hack like myself reflecting on what Rory should or shouldn’t do is a bit like making suggestions to Neil Armstrong about how he could’ve done a better job walking on the moon.

Nonetheless, I was taken aback when Rory dumped his tee shot on #16 into the adjacent pond, both by the shot itself and by his self-commentary, “that’s so bad.”

Now again, I’m looking at this from my perspective. I’m a club-level golfer, and I pay to play the game. And although I’m a mental coach, I don’t know Rory personally, so I can’t say whether his self-talk helped or hurt his cause this weekend. But I can say this with certainty ... a pattern of negative self-commentary will drastically diminish the average golfer’s fun-factor and often inflate his score.

The lesson: After a bad swing, just shut up. Telling yourself it was a bad shot, or acting like Sir Nick and describing the faulty blow for all to hear, “I hit it fat ... I hit it thin ... I didn’t keep my head down” embeds a negative belief in your mind. If that belief gets reinforced time and time again, it will prevent you from fully enjoying your round and possibly posting a great score.

Bryson’s Ongoing Frustration

I certainly can’t blame Bryson for feeling bummed out about how things unfolded at Augusta. The clubs he was hitting into greens during his practice rounds had the golf world abuzz, and you wouldn’t need to be Sigmund Freud to conclude that anyone bold enough to suggest his par was 67 wasn’t lacking confidence and fully expected to bludgeon Bobby Jones’ sacred track.

Given his expectations, when things started to go awry during his opening round, Bryson predictably began a post-shot pattern that included looking up and shaking his head in disbelief. Note ... Bryson barely verbalized his feelings ... but because his body language was speaking loudly for him (especially on Saturday), words weren’t necessary. His mind would clearly get the message that the Augusta National golf course was treating him unjustly.

It’s a common behavior. Admittedly, I’ve done it myself when the wheels fall off my golfing bus. Look ... I’m not saying responding to a missed three-footer with raised eyebrows is going to derail your round. But if you get into the habit of reacting to a missed putt or a bit of misfortune with negative body language, you’ll find it much harder to curtail negative self-talk, and the combination will make it very difficult to have fun ... or play well.

The lesson: Although not putting words to negative emotions is important (see Rory above) and your playing partners will be grateful for your silence, refraining from complaining out loud is only half the equation. If you want to make your mental game into a strength, you must also refrain from habitually expressing yourself with negative body language during a round.

(I should point out that after the 3rd round, Bryson revealed he was feeling light-headed, and the feeling continued on Sunday. Some of his non-verbal responses could be attributed to not feeling well, but again, this isn’t an attempt to diagnose Bryson’s mental state. It’s simply using what I observed on TV to cast a light on the mental game of average golfers like myself.)

Tiger’s Post Disaster Response

To say the amazing Eldrick has given us a few exceptional moments at the Masters would be quite an understatement. But I loved what he did on Sunday afternoon because it’s something I can emulate. Next time I’m coming off a disastrous hole — and there will be a next time — I hope to handle such mental challenges with the dignity and positive focus he displayed.

To recap ... there he was, the great man himself, in his element at Amen Corner, tapping in on the 12th hole for a ten! What a potentially embarrassing moment. What an inopportune time to card your highest score —ever — on the PGA Tour.

But what did Tiger do? Did he wallow in his misery, blame his caddy, the wind, or his back? No. He focused on the next shot, took one shot at a time, and recorded 5 birdies on his final six holes to finish in red figures. As he said afterward, “You're alone out there ... you have to figure it out ... you have to fight ... no one is going to pull you out.”

In other words, Tiger took responsibility, decided to move on, and did just that. He didn’t remain chained to #12 while he was playing the remaining holes. And although I’m not privy to his private conversations, I’ve got to assume he wasn’t lamenting to his caddy Joe Lacava about the tee shot he rinsed, the 3rd shot he rinsed again, or the 6th shot he hit from the bunker at the back of the green and rinsed once again, while he was waiting to hit his tee shot on #16. When it was over, it was over.

In the past, I’ve done the opposite. I’ve let bad holes keep me mired in disappointment or frustration ... and I often watch many of my playing partners do the same after a blow-up hole.

The lesson: Every golfer can have a disastrously bad hole at any time. The moment your putt drops and the hole from hell is finished, you’ve got to let it be finished ... because ... if you can truly leave it behind, you open yourself up to the possibility of experiencing another one of golf’s eternal truths — every golfer can have a great hole at any time.

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