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

Jim Fannin, Jeff Sheridan
Ben Van Hook
RANGE ROVER: "Champions focus on process, not results," says Fannin (left), with Sheridan.

On Doral's driving range, Fannin is literally putting his students through the paces. In a drill designed to simulate the body's reaction to pressure, he has them hit a shot, power-walk 50 yards, then hit again -- so they'll get used to swinging with an accelerated heart rate. In another drill, to demonstrate how to focus on a tiny target surrounded by trouble, Fannin makes an "OK" gesture with his hand, pulls it close to his eye, and visually locks in on his target -- a distant yellow flag -- as though he were gazing through a telescope.

"This is great," says Sheridan, he of the first-tee jitters. "This focuses me on where I want to hit it, not the danger."

Fannin: "We're building a pathway to what you want, not what you don't want."

He reminds his charges to employ the 5-Second Rule and constantly reboot. "Champions have loose, relaxed jaws."

"My jaw's so loose, I'm drooling," Sheridan says.

Wood is far from loose later that afternoon on the practice putting green. The game is "Adversity" (see "Steel Workers"), in which players pitch over and around obstacles such as carts and beer coolers. Benner and Sheridan are enjoying the challenge, but Wood is an ulcer in golf cleats. His hands are shaking. He tries pitching over a flowerbed, but -- Clank! Clank! -- his ball hits a flagpole, then ricochets off a second pole. Three "hits" in one swing. T.C. Chen would applaud.

When Wood finds the green, he confronts his greatest golf fear: a five-footer. He stands over his ball. And stands. And stands. He can't take the putter back. "I'm a wreck," he tells Fannin. "I forgot how to putt. Everyone's watching. I feel on display." Wood's chest is heaving; he's nearly hyperventilating. His hands are trembling, and his forehead is a water hazard. Good thing he works in software -- you wouldn't want him removing your appendix.

"Listen," Fannin tells the slump-shouldered Wood. "There's something inside of you where results are everything. Forget results. Process is king. Your need for results is hijacking you. Keep rebooting. Make doing your routine your only goal."

It's almost time for dinner, but Fannin has more bamboo for Wood's fingernails. "Let's play a putting game," Fannin tells the trio. "Take turns hitting five-footers, but you can't eat until you've made 10 straight. Miss and go back to zero." After a few false starts, the three find a groove. Benner and Sheridan drain the eighth and ninth putts, respectively. It's up to Wood to bring them home. "Process," he whispers over the ball. While still jabby, his stroke is a bit smoother. He nervously curls it in.

"Thank god. I'm starving!" Benner says.

"That time I blocked everything out, just focusing on my stroke," says a relieved Wood. "I felt better. I felt at peace."

He'd better. The Blue Monster beckoned.

The next day, after a classroom session and some more range drills, it's high noon on the first tee at the Blue Monster. There, Fannin again stresses the importance of focusing on process, not results.

"That's the champion's mindset."

"Your minds are in chaos, which means your golf games are, too."

One last thing, Fannin says, holding a Doral golf ball bearing the Blue Monster's evil-eyed logo. "Look at these menacing monster's eyes. Looks like you could lose a limb out there. But there is no monster. It's all in your head. There's just a long, challenging course. You're here to relax and enjoy the process, not tame some monster. Now let's rock and roll." High-fives all around. Someone starts singing, "Kumbaya my lord, kumbaya..."

No course records are set this round, but each student has moments of thinking like a champion, if not scoring like one. Sheridan makes a smooth swing on the first tee. Right rough but playable. (Jitters? What jitters?) On No. 2, he muffs a greenside lob wedge. Instead of hanging his head, he counts to five and maintains his Couples-esque body language, then pitches his next one to 18 inches and saves bogey. "I am so Zen," he says.

A day after his practice-green meltdown, Wood is a new man. "Those drills were so stressful that [a round of golf] doesn't seem like much pressure," he says. "All I see today are targets, not trouble." On the famed 18th, Wood bravely sets up for his fade. Aiming toward the lake -- "hitting into the water never occurred to me" -- he slugs a 260-yard drive to the first cut. On the green he faces -- yep, you guessed it -- five feet, for par. Wood reboots with his jaw, does his routine, and brushes a lovely putt that lips out. A miss but a yip-free miss. "The Blue Monster says I'm not ready to par 18 yet," he says. "But that was fun. The weight of expectations has been lifted."

Benner's championship moment comes a few weeks later, playing with buddies in a money match. "The last time I went up against these guys, I folded so bad that I left after nine holes," Benner confesses. Not this time. He uses "every technique we learned" to survive 16 scrappy holes. Then something wonderful happened: He found the zone. He chipped in for birdie on 17 and reached the par-5 18th in two, two-putted for birdie, and pocketed $56.

"My buddies were blown away, because I never win the money," says Benner, who saw his handicap drop from 24 to 16 in the months following his boot camp. "This mental stuff? I'm a believer. It pays off. I mean, it actually pays off."

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.


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