Mind Game

For many professional golfers, emotion is a fatal distraction. A tour pro can't let himself go the way a linebacker or a pitcher can. The price for taking it out on the ball, an opponent, or an official can be a snap hook, a fine, or a lawsuit. So a stolid game face is often as important a part of a professional golfer's wardrobe as a billboard visor.

On the other hand, there are golfers who are well-known for expressing their feelings -- and, more importantly, know how to use emotion at crucial times. Feelings that would lead some golfers straight into the rough or the lake allow others to hit longer drives or better putts.


The question is not whether emotion is good or bad: like everything else in tournament golf, it comes down to a how a player can handle a competitive situation. He must know when to key himself up, and he has to know when to take his emotions out of play.

But it's hard for most pros to define something as intangible and changeable as emotion. Emotion can be cause or effect: it can pump up a player to hit a 320-yard drive on the last hole of a tournament, or bring tears to the victor's eyes after the winning putt. And until a player has a good deal of experience under big-time pressure, he doesn't really know what emotion can do.

"The first time you're leading going into the last round, and you're in that last group, your emotions can get out of hand," says Steve Elkington. "You start thinking about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with your game." Elkington remembers all too well the first time he had a final-round lead. It was in San Diego in 1987. He shot 77 in the last round and lost.

"It's kind of like a tennis player when he goes into the last few rounds at Wimbledon for the first time, wondering when he's going to lose," Elkington says. Having experienced the pressure once, Elkington was able to stay calm the next time around, and now he has come to relish the feeling that comes when things are going well. "You feel very calm out there," he says. "It's weird. It's an eerie feeling, a feeling that good things are going to happen."

But not all golfers are able to turn emotion to their advantage in this way. Take Raymond Floyd, another golfer with a calm exterior. To hear Floyd talk, you'd think "emotion" was a dirty word. "No, I am not an emotional player," said Floyd, with some heat in his voice. "That's one of the keys of the game for me. I try to be where I don't play emotionally. In fact, it's something that I've worked on as a goal.

"If you look at me, it doesn't matter if I'm on the fifth fairway or the 16th -- you can't tell if I'm eight over or eight under," declared a pokerfaced Floyd.

Or maybe it's just Floyd's definition of emotion that's different. "Ray says he's not emotional?," laughs one veteran pro. "He's very emotional. And he'll let you know about it. He's a battler. When he's playing well, he's as emotional as anybody else."

Some golfers apparently don't think about emotion at all. Steady Fred Couples, one of the most easygoing players on the tour, seems a bit perplexed by the topic. "Emotional? No, not really," he says. "I just try to stay at the same pace. I'm more concerned with confidence -- if my swing's going bad, I work on it. I'm not a fiery type person, someone like Hale Irwin. I guess every player is different -- I mean, I don't know what the other guys feel emotionally, and frankly, I don't want to know."

Then there are the players who just plain lie. "I don't have any emotions," deadpans Wayne Grady. Then he lets loose a grin. "Actually, when things are going poorly, I get mad at myself -- for two reasons: One, that's how I am, and two, you have to get it out of your system, and feeling that anger is one way." Or as Sam Snead put it in his book The Education of a Golfer: "Show me the fellow who walks calmly after topping a drive or missing a kick-in putt, showing the world he's under perfect control, yet burning up inside, and I'll show you one who's going to lose. This boy is a fake. His nervous system won't take what he's handing it. If you bottle up anger entirely, it poisons your control centers."

So apparently you can't be too pent-up -- but anger by itself, of course, solves nothing. "What happens with some guys," says Tom Purtzer, "is they tend to get tired because they've been out there too many weeks in a row, and when you're tired, things that shouldn't bother you, do -- say, if you're driving to the tournament and someone cuts you off. Or letting noise bother you while you're playing. If you get wound up it's easy to start to feel that nothing's going your way, that everything's against you, and once you get that attitude you're lost.

Paul Azinger has an easy remedy. "If I start getting really mad," he says, I take off."

The key, whether you use emotions or banish them, is control. Craig Stadler, once famous for his on-course tantrums, now talks about emotions with the serenity of a reformed golf-club abuser. "I was a complete bleepbleep for three or four years there, back in the late '70s. I knew it, everyone knew it. Then I realized that I wasn't doing anyone any good, and I was just hurting myself. I didn't change overnight, but my game didn't really improve till I stopped doing all that nonsense. I'm still an emotional player, but I have it under control -- I hope." (Sam Snead again: "Mad golfers keep their blood boiling and agitated all the time for a reason. Deep down, they look forward to tearing their hair. Without knowing it, they get to hoping they'll butcher a shot. We're all show-offs at heart, and guys who break up locker rooms enjoy every minute of it.")

So is remaining calm the secret? Steve Elkington thinks so. "I've always been pretty calm. I don't jump up and down when I make a birdie, and I don't throw clubs when I screw up. Of course, inside it's a different story.

"Your game is a beast, and either you can control the beast, or the beast can control you. As you get more experience competing, you develop better ways of coping with your feelings."

Seve Ballesteros uses a similar image. Ballesteros, who describes himself as "very emotional, sometimes too emotional," says that his emotions "are like a horse I'm riding -- I have to stay on top, to pull back when I need to and let go when I need to." How does he do that? "Breathing," replies Ballesteros. "If I'm a little too charged up, I take a long, deep breath."


When Tour pros talk about emotions, one name comes up more than any other: Hale Irwin, who didn't become famous for being emotional until his impromptu victory lap at the 1990 U.S. Open -- though he insists that, "I haven't changed a thing since day one." To Irwin, emotionalism is the sine qua non of greatness: "The best players I've seen have been emotional. I'm not talking about just a Tour winner, I mean somebody that's achieved something. They're turned on by the big events. In the major tournaments, if your blood doesn't quicken, if you're heartbeat doesn't pick up just a little bit -- if you're out there saying 'Oh, ho-hum, -- this is pretty normal,' -- then you're not going to win."

Irwin's slogan could be "know thyself." "I've understood myself for a long time," he says. "And I know what turns me on, what turns me off, what gets me angry, what pleases me. So I know my emotional side, and I know my limitations, mentally and physically. And if there's any greater strength to my golf game than that understanding of myself, I don't know what it is. Anyone that has achieved any measurable degree of success over a number of years has probably understood himself. You've got to be comfortable with yourself.

Irwin recalls his storied finish on the last day of regulation play in the 1990 Open at Medinah. "From the 11th fairway on into the clubhouse, I knew I had to play one or two strokes under par. So I sort of channeled my energies and thoughts away from what had happened, what was going wrong. I just sort of compartmentalized my thoughts, made them simple, and gave myself something to get comfortable in." From the 11th fairway, Irwin birdied four holes.

"I try to be aware of why I feel the way I am at a given moment," he says. "It's strange -- and this is hard to talk about, and it might sound foolish -- but I try to take those conscious feelings, the ones from my outer self, and make them unconscious. Because you can't be thinking consciously all the time.

"Sometimes you just have to react. And your reactions sometimes come from uncontrolled thoughts -- your conscious thought pattern is not necessarily the primary stimulus there. And the more good thoughts you've internalized, the better your chances.

"When you get tight or you get apprehensive or the anxiety factor increases, you'll always go back to instinct. Instinct is always comfortable. It's like when people consciously try, and try, and try -- until they finally say, 'Oh the hell with it!' And all of a sudden they start doing better, because they put it in neutral, and kind of quit thinking about it so much, and they just start playing well.

"Somewhere along the line, somewhere inside, I've learned, or something inside of me, has learned somehow to make it happen. So maybe you shouldn't be too stoic. Inside, I think your heart has to be racing."