The Masters Golf Tournament – Pushed to breaking point?

With no deliberate link, I am moving from discussing work with young athletes to this year’s Masters golf tournament.  The pre-event discussions seemed to be centering around the return of a certain Tiger Woods and asking the all-important question: would this be Tiger’s famous return?  He was certainly competitive and may have temporarily silenced the doubters so that makes for a great story.  But from a psychological perspective, you all know the story I want to talk about, and that is of course the unfortunate series of events that plagued that lovable Irish protegé; Rory McIlroy.

Rory McIlroy found himself in a dream position of being the clear leader after 3 rounds and probably the favourite to take home that coveted green jacket.  He had a margin for error, was going off last so could place himself tactically and had been in outlandishly good form around Augusta.  It is often said that in a championship event, every player has their ‘bad round’ but hopefully they can have it earlier rather than later in the tournament!  It’s now easy to say that Sunday was Mr McIlroy’s bad round but the question is how did he get from leading the Masters to visiting hitherto unexplored regions of Augusta’s lush landscape?

Let’s consider the psychological challenges of that ‘good walk spoiled’ which is the game of golf.  It is perhaps the most challenging of all sports in terms of mental control, with players needing to maintain concentration and attention whilst controlling anxiety and frustration for up to 5 hours at a time.  The golf swing itself has often been considered to be the most complex technical skill in sport and the slightest change can have huge impacts on the outcome of a shot.  Professional players make all of this look easy, but of course at the highest levels even the pros have those moments when it’s all too much.

So what happened to Rory?  The best analogy is to think of his mental control as being like a guitar string.  As he began to put together consistently strong rounds so the pressure from outside and within began to grow, and this was like tightening up the guitar string.  By the time he made it to the last round, this string was at breaking point and it would only take the slightest of overstrains to cause it to snap.  When he hit that tree off his tee shot on 10; that was the metaphorical snapping of the string.

The reaction to this moment has been overwhelmingly sympathetic and this is in some ways more interesting than the event itself.  One reason is that at just 21 years of age Rory McIlroy is very young to be even contemplating winning the Masters tournament.  Failure is such a better teacher than success and we all hope that he comes out of this experience a better person.  The other reason is that he is inherently likeable and the crowd’s greeting of him as he arrived at 18 was testament to this.  A great example of sportsmanship and a tremendous role model for any young person.

I think Jack Nicklaus had it right when he said that golf was a game of inches and the most important were the 7 between your ears!  If ever golf needed an endorsement of this fact, the 2011 Masters tournament provided it.

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