Mental Masters

Over at Golf magazine the assembled panelists try to assess this past week’s Masters’ tournament, and there seems to be a pretty wide agreement that as a Masters’ tournament it ranks third, behind Jack Nicklaus’ 1986 win and Tiger Woods’ 1997 coronation, the order depending on the generation of the speaker. This is a lot of nonsense, which the panel half-admits when they concede that it is “social significance” that factors into their thinking. In terms of the sheer quality of the shots, this tournament was probably the best golf tournament that ever was: even Jack’s second nine score of 30 on Sunday in ’86 is overshadowed by a three-hole stretch of Phil Mickelson’s round—on Saturday.

Tiger’s win in ’97 did open up an entirely new vista about how to play golf—the game we see today was pretty much invented by Woods—but as an athletic competition it was kind of boring, what with him winning by 12 and such. Phil Mickelson’s win over the weekend, on the other hand, was exciting throughout. Phil’s weekend, in fact, puts in question some of the ideas that I’ve been fiddling with in this blog: the twin notions that golf is a game of avoiding bogies, not making birdies, and the idea that golf is a “mental game,” unlike more purely physical sports.

I’ve dealt with the first idea at some length elsewhere, but my prior post on the “mental game” business I don’t think really addressed the point squarely. My analogy in making the comment is from the arguments over the existence of “clutch hitting” in baseball, or the “hot hand” in basketball. Rob Neyer on ESPN.com cited a 1977 Baseball Research Journal article against the latter idea, and statisticians have demonstrated again and again that the idea that a shooter can get “hot” is just as much an illusion. Some players are better than others, and given enough opportunity runs of “luck” are likely, not unusual.

It turns out that the tower of academic excellence that is the University of North Texas has already published an article, “An Examination of the ‘Hot Hand’ in Professional Golfers,” that’s examined the topic. Turns out, it seems, that professional golfers “were just as likely to score a birdie or better following a par or worse hole as make a birdie or better following a birdie or better hole.”

Another study by the same author—R.D. Clark—found that while golfers tended to be “streaky,” which is to say that their under-par rounds tended to cluster together (as did their over-par rounds), this had more to do with the difficulty of the golf courses than anything else. “Clutch shots” in golf, in other words, are just as much of a statistical illusion as clutch hitting in baseball.

That isn’t though what most people tend to mean when they talk about golf as a mental game. What people tend to mean is something like what drives teaching pros these days to focus so much on “pre-shot routine,” and the golf press to spend so much time lauding Tiger Woods’ “inner focus.” As it happens, academics have found that having a pre-shot routine—a set pattern, or ritual, that is done before every shot—does tend to improve performance.

What isn’t clear is why—and really, that’s the important part. It might be because it helps improve focus—the contention of the “golf is mental” crowd. Or it might be because it allows “an automatic execution of technique,” as J. Hellstrom of Orebro University (it’s in Sweden, and surely as respected as the University of North Texas) puts it. But saying “golf is unconscious” doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Phil’s shot on 13 in the final day, not to mention his hole-out on 14 the day before, puts both of those ideas in question. Here was Phil, perhaps the streakiest big-time player ever, hitting go-for-broke shots in the clutch. What better demonstration that making birdies matters, and what better affirmation of the idea that “golf is mental” could there be?

Dr. Alan Reifman has already jumped all over this in his blog “The Hot Hand in Sports,” a website for “the Study of Sport Streakiness.” Dr. Reifman points out that since the Masters began in 1934, there’s been innumerable rounds played by some of the world’s best golfers—the presumption being that, given so many rounds, it would be harder to explain why there hadn’t been two back-to-back birdies by the same player than explaining why there had. Phil’s performance wasn’t due to luck, in short, but just because he is tremendously skilled.

The idea that “golf is mental” is, I think, primarily a way for amateurs to excuse their lack of skill: presumably, pro golfers are that skilled because of their possession of some magical “mental power” that enables them to transcend the abilities of mere mortals. Since the amateur doesn’t possess this magic, he’s off the hook. But while that might be comforting in some odd way, the reality is that professional golfers are better not because of magic, but because they’ve hit a lot more golf balls, and hit them better. I don’t think of this as at all disheartening; most of us, I think, wouldn’t trade our lives for the grind of hitting golf balls every day for years on end, which is what every professional golfer has done with his or her life. And it also offers a path to get better: practice. But maybe avoiding that word is why the “golf is mental” idea was invented in the first place.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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