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Mental guru Jim Fannin trains three Average Joes to think like champs

Mental Golf Game
Illustration by Jesse Lenz
Illustration by Jesse Lenz

Can the man who helped Luke Donald reach No. 1 train three Average Joes to think like champs rather than chumps -- in one weekend? With the Blue Monster waiting to test their mental health, let the mind games begin.

In November 2003, Luke Donald visited the suburban Chicago home of mental-game coach Jim Fannin, whom Donald was considering hiring. Donald, then 25, had recently finished a winless season, with only two top 10s. The world's 130th-ranked player slid into a leather chair facing Fannin, who had been coaching baseball star Alex Rodriguez, as well as several professional golfers.

"In terms of golf, what do you want?" Fannin asked.

"Top 50 in the world," Donald said.

"Wow," Fannin replied. "Only top 50? Why not top 10? Or No. 1?" Donald confessed that he didn't know if he had the talent to reach such heights. "You won the NCAA Championship," Fannin reminded him. "You've won on Tour. You can be great. But abnormal goals -- like being No. 1 -- take abnormal thinking and sacrifice. Are you willing to make the sacrifice?"

They shook hands and began a partnership. Donald embraced Fannin's methods of positive visualization, "clean" thinking, and mind-strengthening practice drills. A year later, Donald's ranking had climbed to No. 26. Two years after that, in 2006, he cracked the top 10.

In 2011, he became world No. 1.

"Ten years ago," Fannin says, "No one believed Luke Donald would be No. 1 in the world -- except for Luke Donald and Jim Fannin."

Fannin is getting to know three new students over after-dinner beers at the Champions Sports Bar & Grill at Trump Doral Golf Resort, in Miami. The 63-year-old performance coach typically works with elite athletes in golf, tennis and baseball. But this weekend, he's giving a two-day mental-game boot camp to a trio of high-handicap everyday players who've gathered here in a quest to get their mental games together. His mission: Teach three Average Joes how to think like champions -- and fast. They have a tee time on the Blue Monster in 36 hours.

Fannin, whose black wardrobe sets off his glow-in-the-dark teeth, asks the group, "What do you want?"

"To get rid of the anxiety," says Jeff Wood, 40, a software engineer from Howell, N.J. The harder he works on the greens, he says, the worse he gets. Call him Joe Six-Putt. "My hands shake. I once putted my ball off the green. Golf used to be fun."

Nashville native Chris Benner, 42, wants to stop beating himself up when he plays poorly. "I get so down on myself after bad shots, calling myself an idiot," he says. "It's frustrating. I've spent thousands of dollars to buy a game: magazines, videos, a hitting net in my garage. But I'm a mess. Maybe the mental side is the missing piece."

Jeff Sheridan, a lanky 38-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., wants to banish opening-tee nerves. "My blood pressure gets so high that my vision darkens with each heart beat, and my neck muscles tighten," he says. "It feels like I have a vice on my head."

Phew! Three more Stellas, waitress. "Interesting," Fannin says, fiddling with his gold pinky ring. "I asked what you want, and you all told me what you don't want -- you don't want to miss short putts, or have first-tee jitters." There's a stigma associated with self-help, Fannin concedes. "I'm not here to sing 'Kumbaya.' I'm here to get you thinking like champions. I'll be blunt: Your minds are in chaos, which means your golf games are, too. The average person has more than 2,000 thoughts per day. Champions have half that. They focus on what they want, not their fears. I may not have you hitting it like Luke Donald in two days, but I'll have you thinking like him -- like a world No. 1.

"Now, go get some sleep. You'll need it."

It's 9 a.m. in a windowless conference room at Doral. Benner, Sheridan and Wood have notebooks open, pencils poised. Mental-game school is in session.

"Let's try something," Fannin says. He tells his three students to visualize their greatest golf fear -- say, yanking a two-footer, or chunking a wedge into water. They oblige. "Now, close your eyes, unhinge your jaw, lift your head to the ceiling and hold it there for 30 seconds." One, two, three... 30. "Open your eyes. What are you thinking?"

"Wow. Nothing," Sheridan says. "The negative thought is gone."

"You've just rebooted your brain," Fannin says. "Your mind is clear. Champions clear their minds and focus on the present. That's how you get in the zone, where you hit great shots without thinking. I also want you to use the 5-Second Rule. With every shot, no matter how good or bad, forget it after five seconds. Champions have short memories and visit the past only for learning and to plan tactics. You just shanked it? I don't give a damn. Bury the past like a carcass, and focus on your next target."

Next, Fannin explains the acronym, S.C.O.R.E., on which he bases his teachings: S is for self-discipline, C is for concentration, O is for optimism, R is for relaxation and E is for enjoyment. An observer asks if all this mental-game stuff isn't new-age nonsense. You can't simply think your way to lower scores, right?

"You can," Fannin says gently. "Your thoughts affect the chemicals in your brain, which affect your body, which affects your swing." Golf is largely about how you handle stress, he adds. "Today, my drills will stress you out. But stress is your friend. Stress introduces you to yourself and shows you what you're made of. Let's go see what you three are made of."

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