Instruction

Mental Game: How to think like a champion

Photo: Jesse Lenz

How to think like a champion.

STEEL WORKER: Try these pressure-packed games before your next round and watch your on-course nerves fade away.

ADVERSITY
Against a friend or in two-man teams, play three "holes" from just off the practice green. Start with your ball behind an unusual obstacle, like a beer cooler or golf cart. Lowest score wins.
THE BENEFIT: Fannin says it trains you to not only accept adversity, which is part of golf, but to see it as an "opportunity for heroism."

GRAND SLAM
On the practice green, try to make four straight five-footers, each on a different hole; as you go, imagine that each putt is to win the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA. If you fail to "win" the British, back to Augusta you go. Play until you win the Slam.
THE BENEFIT: "This taps into what's called 'situational imagery,'" Fannin says. "Champions visualize doing great things before doing them."

MOMENT OF TRUTH
On the range, give yourself a clear task -- say, hitting drives between two flags, or landing wedge shots on a green. If you hit your target, that's a "birdie" (1-under); if you miss, it's a bogey (1-over). Play until you win (reach 5-under) or lose (5-over).
THE BENEFIT: This gets you aiming at targets, not hazards, Fannin says, and calibrates your mind to deliver in the clutch. "Stress can either choke you to death or lift you up. This game turns you into a pressure player."

HOW MENTALLY TOUGH ARE YOU?
When the pressure's on, are you a mental master (think Tiger in 2000) or a fragile flower (think Tiger today)? Take our quiz to find out.

QUIZ
1. On your opening drive, your swing thought is:

a. "Don't top it!" (-20)
b. "Just find fairway." (0)
c. "Swing thoughts are for sissies." (+20)

2. Before a crucial four-footer, you envision:
a. The ball dropping dead-center (+15)
b. The 3-footer you'll have coming back (-10)
c. Hurling your putter toward that elm (-25)

3. The last time you threw a club was:
a. Never (+15)
b. While playing poker (0)
c. While dislodging your putter from an elm (-30)

4. Your No. 1 shirt color is:
a. Sunday red (+10)
b. Neutral gray (+3)
c. Submission pink (-10)

5. After a double-bogey, you tell yourself:
a. "I hate golf." (-10)
b. "It's in the past." (+15)
c. "Maybe I'll take up scrapbooking." (-20)

6. The head cover animal you most identify with is:
a. Deer in headlights (-10)
b. Lion on prowl (+20)
c. Lamb before slaughter (-20)

7. When others watch you, you think:
a. "No! A gallery." (-10)
b. "Good. A gallery!" (+5)
c. "What gallery? It's just me and my ball." (+20)

8. When you mis-hit a shot, you:
a. Blame the wind (-10)
b. Blame your caddie (-20)
c. Laugh it off. (+15)

9. The big-screen golfer whose temperament is most like yours is:
a. Happy Gilmore (-5)
b. Ty Webb (+20)
c. Judge Smails (-20)

10. A $5 Nassau:
a. Gets your blood pumping (+5)
b. Stops your heart from beating (-10)
c. Hell, let's make it $50 (+20)

ANSWER KEY: WHICH GOLFER ARE YOU?
More than 100 points: You join Hogan, Nicklaus and vintage Tiger on the Mt. Olympus of mental giants.

50-99: Like Phil and Arnie, you could blow away your rivals -- or blow a huge lead.

0-49: You're a Dustin Johnson. The more the pressure builds, the tighter you get. Negative score: You make Van de Velde look like Bobby Jones.

"I REFUSED TO FAIL"
Three major champions recall the mental processes they went through as they pulled off the greatest pressure shots of their career.

WHAT'S THE BEST SWING YOU EVER MADE UNDER PRESSURE IN A MAJOR?
ARNOLD PALMER: "The 3-wood I hit out of the rough on the final hole of the 1968 PGA Championship. It was beastly hot -- July in San Antonio. Doc [Giffin, Palmer's assistant] couldn't believe it when I pulled the club. I knew I needed a birdie to beat Julius Boros, who led by a shot. I knocked it onto the green, eight feet from the cup."

GARY PLAYER: "Arnold Palmer and I were neck-and- neck on the back nine of the 1961 Masters. I was nervous coming to the 18th tee. One mistake would cost me the Masters. I flew my second shot into the back bunker -- the one mistake I told myself not to make. Then I hit a wonderful shot that landed a few feet from the pin and made par. Arnold made a double. I was the first international player to win the Masters. Fantastic!"

FUZZY ZOELLER: "In the playoff with Greg [Norman] at the 1984 U.S. Open, I made a 60- foot putt that I was just trying to lag up close, on the second hole. It was one of those freaky putts you aren't supposed to make. And I made it."

WHAT WAS YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS?
ARNOLD PALMER: "I felt confident. I figured I could pull off that shot, even though the rough was thick. I also thought, ‘Here's a chance for me to finally win a PGA Championship.' But it didn't happen. I missed the putt, and Julius got up and down from in front of the green for the win."

GARY PLAYER: "The key to pulling off pressure shots is believing in success. As I settled into the bunker, I thought of the thousands of shots I'd practiced. I told myself, ‘I know how to hit sand shots, so let's get up and down.' Belief in the positive is one of the most important factors in success, on and off the course. It's an essential part of a happy life. When you think negatively, you will fail. I refused to fail."

FUZZY ZOELLER: "I never worried about pressure. I focused on the little picture -- the shot in front of me -- rather than, ‘Wow, I'm in the U.S. Open playoff.' So I was thinking, ‘Let's knock this close.' I played aggressively. An answer to pressure is being aggressive. Don't be defensive and worry what might go wrong; take the initiative and play to win."

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