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Masters 2013: How Elite Golfers Stay Cool Under Major Pressure

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Masters 2013: How Elite Golfers Stay Cool Under Major Pressure
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Pressure is silent. In the game of golf, more than any other, the silence that surrounds the biggest moments comes with a two-sided payoff.

We know the cheers of the crowd after sinking the long putt, with Tiger Woods pumping his fist or Phil Mickelson tipping his cap.

We also know the groans when the ball goes in the water for Jean Van de Velde or that missed putt that keeps Tom Kite in second, yet again. Nowhere is that pressure, hidden at times by the wind through the pines or the call of a bird, more silent or more crushing than the Masters.

For four rounds at Augusta, golfers will be facing the pressure of trying to win a major on one of the most storied courses in the game. More and more, golfers are turning to performance coaches and sports psychologists as much as they are going to swing doctors and new clubs.

Rory McIlroy recently had a crisis of confidence that many think had to do with a change of clubs (the same Nikes with which Woods plays) and a change in his love life

Russell Carleton, a psychologist who has worked with professional athletes in the past and is currently a writer at Baseball Prospectus, says that athletes like routines. Even the endless waggling setup of Sergio Garcia can have a positive effect.

"Athletes are helped by a routine or a ritual. It takes them out of the mind that would say, 'Oh my god, this putt is for a million dollars,' and on to what I call autopilot," Carleton explained. "Even a superstition can be helpful if it gets them into a mindset where it's more likely that they will more easily repeat successful behaviors."

Perhaps it takes a baseball movie to provide the perfect quote for this phenomenon. In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner's wise-guy character, Crash Davis, told Tim Robbins' young phenom one simple phrase: "Don't think, meat. You'll only hurt the ballclub."

Golfers need to play, not think, to be successful on the biggest stage, relying on years of practice and experience rather than conscious thoughts that can end up being self-defeating.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

How key is psychology to top golfers?

Mickelson not only has a sports psychologist in his traveling entourage, but many forget that he has a psychology degree from Arizona State on his wall. Most other golfers at the top of the FedEx rankings also have at least a consulting relationship with a sports psychologist. 

Of course, the focus of much of the amateur psychology this week will be Tiger Woods. Woods, like most, has consulted with sports psychologists in the past, but changes in his life, the people around him and the pressure of looming paparazzi interrupted his routine. 

Dr. Patrick Cohn of PeakSports.com thinks that it can all come down to mental toughness and confidence—two vague but well-understood terms. Dr. Cohn told Yahoo! Sports that Woods was having a crisis of confidence:

Failing to play well under pressure, not being the closer he once was, missing five-foot putts what were once routine—all these things can cause him to question his game, and those question marks turn into doubt and indecision. Doubt and indecision does not help a golfer’s mental toughness.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

As Woods struggled through his tabloid tempest and fell from his perch atop the golf world, every pundit and psychoanalyst came out of the woodwork. Years removed from the scandal, though Tiger is seemingly back to his winning ways.

Some have credited his relationship with star skier Lindsey Vonn as the driving force.

"Based on our findings, being in a loving relationship is helpful to athletic performance," Dr. Kelly Chapman of Cal State told The Guardian.

It is often said that golf is a game played between the ears as much as it is on the course. As the world's best golfers tee it up in Augusta this week, that statement could never be more true. 

 

Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared on SI.com and ESPN.com. All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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