Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Mind games: How to avoid a major championship choke

By Chris Murphy, CNN
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu August 8, 2013
Dr. Bob Rotella (left) has worked with some of golf's biggest names on the mental side of what can be a very lonely pursuit. His prowess has helped plenty of players realize their dreams, like three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland (center). Dr. Bob Rotella (left) has worked with some of golf's biggest names on the mental side of what can be a very lonely pursuit. His prowess has helped plenty of players realize their dreams, like three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland (center).
HIDE CAPTION
Mind over matter
One that Scott away
McIlroy's meltdown
Kim crisis
Clarke's Claret Jug
Troubled waters
Palmer's peril
Bradley's breakthrough
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Work on mental preparation has become a vital part of golf in recent times
  • Dr. Bob Rotella has coached some of the game's biggest stars
  • Rotella's mantra to his players is "You're unstoppable if you're unflappable"
  • He has worked with major champions Rory McIlroy and Keegan Bradley

Living Golf is CNN's monthly golf show. Click here for videos, news and features.

(CNN) -- You are only a short putt away from a major championship and golfing immortality.

You can already taste the acclaim, hear the roars from the gallery crowded round the 18th green and smell the bundles of cash heading your way.

But then an image of Rory McIlroy slumped over his driver at Augusta in 2011 flashes through your mind, Adam Scott sinking to the turf at the British Open a year later after throwing away a four-shot lead.

Before you know it, you're having dark visions of Jean Van de Velde wading through the Barry Burn at Carnoustie during his own British Open meltdown in 1999.

Final Golf Major up for grabs!
Mickelson revels in British Open win
Stacy Lewis wins Women's British Open

Suddenly that putt looks a lot longer than it did a moment ago and you start wondering, "What if I miss?"

Read: time for McIlroy to see golf's mind doctor?

You may also start questioning why you didn't pay a pre-tournament visit to golf's premier mind doctor, whose job it is to instil a watertight frame of mind that can deal with a career-defining putt.

"Players will tell you, you can get teary-eyed thinking what this could mean to your mum and dad, your wife, your children, for your name in history," Dr. Bob Rotella told CNN ahead of this week's PGA Championship in Rochester, New York.

It is the final major of the golf season -- where McIlroy will defend his title, and world No. 1 Tiger Woods will seek to end a five-year wait for the 15th of his career.

"You could start adding up how many dollars you're going to make. It is like, 'Can we just take care of this putt right now?' You need the ability to get lost in the present where nothing else in the moment exists," Rotella added.

"This putt is something you've done a million times both in your mind and on the practice putting green and on the golf course.

Read: PGA Championship leaderboard

"Now you've got to let yourself do it in this important situation but in order to do it you better not be reminding yourself how big this is or important this is.

"Most guys are trying to treat it like just another putt. But it's difficult because your hands are shaking a bit, your arms are shaking a bit, your heart is beating like crazy, you can't get any moisture in your mouth."

How Justin Rose shines under pressure
Jackson: No filming without golf
Women golfers face off at Solheim Cup

Golf is a cruel and unforgiving pursuit in which the word "choke" seems to reappear more than any other.

Often, a major meltdown can be more memorable than the eventual winner.

Just ask McIlroy about Augusta, veteran Tom Watson about losing a playoff at the British Open in 2009 or consult Greg Norman on his capitulation to let Nick Faldo win the 1996 Masters.

Interactive: What do major winners earn?

That knowledge surely only adds fuel to the fire when a player is in a trough that must feel like it is squeezing the life out of his game.

Though there is a caddy by your side, only one person can extricate you from this mess.

No wonder then that training the brain has become as pivotal a part of a modern player's preparation as the hours spent honing their swing on the range.

Rotella has worked with some of the game's biggest stars, major champions like McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Keegan Bradley and Darren Clarke, who are all keen to tap into his well of knowledge.

With a myriad of professionals capable of winning major honors and the intensity of competition rising all the time, players are increasingly obsessed with squeezing every last drop out of their potential.

Even the very best players aren't impervious to pressure, so Rotella's work acts to soothe increasingly frazzled brains so they can plot a path to glory.

What, then, does he tell players about that moment, when one shot can make or break their careers?

Teenage golf star defies the odds
'Men only' policies OK at golf clubs?
Tiny island boasts golf legacy

"We're trying to get to the best state of mind and trying to catch it if we get half an inch away from that instead of waiting to get in a deep dark hole and having to dig yourself out," he said.

"We're talking about believing you're the best golfer in the world in a world that has a lot of really, good, talented and committed golfers.

"Everyone wasn't brought up thinking that way; a lot of people find it easy to respect other people or to believe in somebody else winning.

"Players have to learn as they develop skill that now you've developed this skill now you have to fall in love with your talent and your potential and ability if you're going to be the best golfer in the world."

It is no surprise many of Rotella's subjects have held it together right at the moment they needed to most.

Bradley won the first major he played in -- the 2011 U.S. PGA Championship -- surviving a nerve-jangling playoff against Jason Dufner.

He credited the work he did with Rotella in helping him to stay focused after a triple-bogey on the 15th hole in his final round looked to have ripped his dream to shreds.

After his triumph, Bradley said he actually felt energized after his mistake, such was the positive frame of mind Rotella had helped him download.

At the other end of the spectrum, Clarke was playing in his 46th major championship when he hit the front at the 2011 British Open.

Players will tell you, you can get teary-eyed thinking what this could mean for your name in history
Dr Bob Rotella

One of a rare crop to win his first major title over the age of 40, Clarke had Rotella on hand all week to keep him cool in the heat of battle at Royal St. George's on the southern coast of England.

But not before Rotella had to iron out a major putting wobble before the tournament even began.

"We spent a lot of time together during his Open win," Rotella said. "In Darren's case it started Wednesday and he was totally lost with his putter.

"He said to me, 'If we can get my head in the right place with my putter I think it'll take all the pressure off my ball striking and pitching and bunker play and I'll be fine.'

"Over the next few days we got his head where he wanted to with the putter, and magic happened. He started doing some great stuff and the ball started going in the hole and he won.

"I think the last step for Darren was to let himself go out on Sunday -- the phrase we kept saying was, 'You're unstoppable if you're unflappable.'

"I kept telling Darren you've got to be unflappable, you can't let a good shot that takes a bad bounce bother you or get you down or frustrated. You've got to stay in a good mood.

"For Darren, he had to be himself. When I think of Darren I think of really good-natured, happy guy. I said to him don't have the only place you're not happy be on a golf course."

Happy might not be a word most closely associated with the leader of the PGA Championship if he has a one-shot lead to protect down the final hole on Sunday but if he's spoken to Rotella, at least he'll be in the zone.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
CNN's Living Golf focuses on women's golf, charting the growth of the sport from royal pastime to multi-million dollar machine.
updated 4:46 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
"I don't know how to paint happy," says golf's poster girl Michelle Wie. "I think it releases a lot of the darker feelings in me."
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Phil Mickelson of the United States talks during a press conference after the United States were defeated by Europe after the Singles Matches of the 2014 Ryder Cup on the PGA Centenary course at the Gleneagles Hotel on September 28, 2014 in Auchterarder, Scotland.
If you're a U.S. golf fan, or Tom Watson, look away now.
updated 7:18 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
A ban on uploading social media pictures from the course at Gleneagles was dropped for the Ryder Cup.
updated 6:52 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
A spot of shopping, the odd spa day and some serious flag waving. Welcome to the life of a Ryder Cup WAG.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Tom Watson has learned plenty in the 21 years since he was last U.S. Ryder Cup captain, but social media is proving to be problematic.
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Patriotism will reach fever pitch when the USA and Europe collide in golf's Ryder Cup ... and it looks like Rickie Fowler has let it go to his head.
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Pressure is inescapable in the cauldron of Ryder Cup competition -- pressure and ping pong.
updated 7:50 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Millions of golf fans were watching on television with great anticipation. All Martin Kaymer could think about was getting his phone out.
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
She's just 19 but Hyo Joo Kim is already showing she's ready for the big time after recording the lowest ever round at a major championship.
updated 7:31 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
EVIAN-LES-BAINS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 15: A view of the 14th green during the third round of The Evian Championship at the Evian Resort Golf Club on September 15, 2013 in Evian-les-Bains, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
The world's top women golfers will be chasing a $3.25 million prize purse at one of the most stunning courses on the LPGA Tour.
ADVERTISEMENT