How to Be Clutch

How to Be Clutch

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Leibel, left, and Herman suit up. (Note: No golfers were harmed during this experiment.)
Lissa Gotwals

Whether you’re scratch or a 22-handicapper, golf can make your hands tremble, knees wobble and another part of your anatomy feel a little tight. Fear not — you’re about to become oblivious to pressure, make money putts and be known to friends and foes as the guy they just can’t beat.

We found three players just like you, monitored their brainwaves and let them battle it out for $500. Here’s what you can learn from our experiment.

THE LAB RATS

KEVIN LEIBEL


HANDICAP: 25 AGE: 44

BIGGEST FEAR: FIRST-TEE JITTERS

GABRIEL
SZULIK


HANDICAP: 9 AGE: 40

BIGGEST FEAR: BUNKER SHOTS

STEVE
HENRY
HERMAN


HANDICAP: 12 AGE: 59

BIGGEST FEAR: BUNKER SHOTS

THE EXPERIMENT

Observe players as
they compete during
a round and a $500
putting contest while
wearing heart-rate
monitors and EEG
sensors (which
measure your brain’s
electrical activity) to
determine how golf-related
stress affects
your mind and body.

THE LABORATORY

DUKE UNIVERSITY GOLF CLUB

DURHAM, N.C.

THE HEADMASTER

Dr. Richard Keefe,
associate professor of
sports medicine at
Duke, a 6 handicap
and author of the
mental-game manual
On the Sweet Spot.

CASE 1

FEAR OF THE FIRST TEE

“My problem is that I can’t not think about the trouble,”
Kevin Leibel said on the first tee. “That, and I tense up
when I play with better golfers. I feel I don’t belong. But
today, I feel good.” A glance at the digital wristwatch
monitor revealed his heart rate: 89 beats per minute. He’s
cooler than Fonzie until he’s reminded that 6 million
readers are, in essence, about to watch him tee off. “Hey,
thanks.” He looked again at his wrist. “Wow, 93.”
Awkward laugh. “Now 99, 103, 107. I better swing
before I pass out.” The result: a frail push-slice. Heart rate:
122. Minutes later, after his partners split the fairway,
Leibel found his tee shot, then topped two straight. His
heart neared 130. “I hate messing up in front of better
players,” Leibel said. “Now I’m flustered.”

Later, on the tee of the par-4 13th, Leibel’s pulse
tumbled from 120 to 94 after the other two unleashed
wild tee shots; he then coolly launched his best drive, a
230-yard missile. “I hate saying this,” Leibel admitted,
“but when other guys mess up, it relaxes me. I think, ‘OK,
I’m one of them. I belong.’ I have to remind myself that
they don’t care what I shoot. And I have to stop letting
every little thought enter my mind on the tee.”

How to conquer the first tee

By Bob Rotella, author of The Golfer’s Mind

“My advice to anyone suffering from
first-tee jitters is to develop a pre-shot
routine and stick with it. Look at Tom
Watson today and 25 years ago. Same
routine. Two waggles and go, whether
it’s a major or a pro-am. A good preshot
routine is like being in a quiet
room, where pressure can’t get you.
Make it simple: Pick your target, see the
shot and swing. Do your routine on the
range before hitting your last 10
practice balls. Then take that same
routine to the tee. Then the first tee
won’t own you — you’ll own the tee.”

CASE 2

FEAR OF SAND

“No, stay up, ball! Stay up!” Gabriel Szulik barked after
pulling his tee shot on the 167-yard par-3 12th, all carry over
water to a peninsula green. (“This hole is heart-attack city,”
a fellow guinea pig said.) But Szulik wasn’t worried about the
lake. “I just wanted to stay out of the left bunker,” he
admitted. “I hate bunkers. I’d rather rinse it than go in the
sand.” The pounding muscle in his chest agrees: his heart rate
rocketed 19 ticks to 111 beats per minute.

While he’d rather step in a bear trap than a bunker, trouble
found Szulik on 18 when his ball trickled into a yawning crater
some 50 yards from the flag. “Oh, boy,” Szulik said with a
laugh. “The hardest shot in golf. Here goes nothing.” He dug
his cleats into the sand and then a funny thing happened. He
grew icily detached, and his pulse dropped: 105, 99, 94.
Then — thump! He caught a perfect wedge, cleared 30 yards
of sand, and parked it five feet from the flag. “Unbelievable!
For some reason, I felt no pressure,” Szulik said. “I just saw
it and hit it.”

Dr. Keefe’s take: “You were so convinced you’d butcher the
shot,” he told Szulik, “that you were completely relaxed and
unattached to the outcome. You had no fear because you had
no expectation, and you just hit the shot of the day.”

How to be the man from the sand

By Gio Valiante, who has taught Jack Nicklaus and Chris DiMarco

“Gabriel was clutch on the shot he
fears most — the 50-yard bunker shot —
because he was utterly relaxed and
had no expectations. However, I don’t
suggest the ‘here goes nothing’
approach. Instead, take these two
steps when facing the shot that
scares you most. First, squeeze a golf
ball hard several times. Chris
DiMarco does this — it gets blood
pumping, improves feel and relieves
tension. Second, reframe the
question. Instead of saying ‘What if I
miss?’ ask, ‘What’s my target?’ Ask a
positive question and you cannot ask
a negative one. Together these two
actions — one of body, one of mind —
will reap good results.” (For more
mental-game advice from Valiante,
go to fearlessgolf.net

CASE 3

FEAR OF SHORT PUTTS

After finishing on the 18th, the moment of neuron-firing truth
was at hand: a nine-hole putting contest for a cool $500, with
putts ranging from three feet to 10 feet. But first, two Duke
lab technicians affixed 15 EEG sensors to each golfer to
measure electrical activity in the brain and muscle movement
in the face. Resembling escaped electroshock patients who’d
just looted an Edwin Watts, the players formed two two-man
teams (a local ringer filled out the foursome) and went at it.

And then another funny thing happened: Herman, The Man
Who Couldn’t Putt Straight, was a rock with cash on the line,
making putts from three, four and five feet to propel his team
to a two-hole lead after six holes. “Normally I have one
negative thought that ties me up,” Herman explained. “But
there were so many distractions — the wires, the money, the
photographer — that I couldn’t focus on one thing. It forced
me to say, ‘Just make a good stroke.'” (See tip below)

The most telling EEG readings belonged to
Leibel, who faced a three-footer on Hole 7 to extend the
match — and left it short. Match over. The data indicated
massive voltage firing both in his face muscles and frontal
lobe — the cognitive quadrant of your brain that weighs risk
and reward. “His brain was very active, and it caused a lot of
tension in his face and head,” Keefe said. On Leibel’s made
putts, though, his frontal lobe was quiet as snowfall.

“On those,” Leibel said, “I remember thinking, ‘Step up and
make something happen — don’t depend on your partner.’ It’s
pretty amazing to know that you can quiet your mind and
have a direct impact on the way you putt. The heck with golf
schools. All I need is a lobotomy!”

How to be fearless on short putts

By Richard Coop, Ph.D., our mentalgame consultant

“Herman putted well because there
was so much distraction — from the
wager to the gallery to the electrodes —
that he couldn’t focus on one negative.
Instead, he focused on a positive. And
he was clutch. Here’s a positive
thought you can try: Instead of seeing a
narrow line from your ball to the hole,
which calls for a perfect stroke,
imagine a yellow four-inch-wide path
stretching from your putterhead to
the hole. Now, putt the ball on that
path. The wider ‘road’ reduces tension
and gives you a positive thought: Just
follow the yellow brick road.”

How to turn knee-knockers into tap-ins

Dr. Joe Parent has the best putting drill you’ve never heard of — and it works!

“What if you could be as automatic on four-footers as on
tap-ins? You can — if you master a simple drill that turned a
yippy college player into a clutch putter. He came to me
because he couldn’t make a four-footer under the gun. He
placed so much pressure on himself that he’d guide his
putter toward the hole, instead of freely swinging. The
solution was simple: Hit knee-knockers with a tap-in
stroke. Your stroke is smooth. Your face is square. You
can’t miss. Here’s the trick.”

1. Place two tees in the ground about four inches apart, marking
the edges of an imaginary hole. Hit a few putts to the “hole” from
nine inches away using your tap-in stroke. You’ll be surprised to
see how far the ball rolls past the tees — usually about four feet.

2. Move the two tees to a spot about three feet in front of a real
hole, and again tap-in toward the imaginary hole. Because your
mind and body are relaxed over a mere nine-inch putt, ball upon
ball will fall into the real hole.

3. Now remove the tees and set up to your four-footer, but putt
with your tap-in stroke to an imaginary hole nine inches in front of
you. Soon you’ll be pouring ’em in.

How to get ready for your big match

By Richard Coop, Ph.D., our mental-game consultant.

‘PLAY’ THE FIRST THREE HOLES

It takes about three holes to get into
a match, so visualize and practice
“playing” the first three holes on the
range. Then, on the big day, you can
say, “Been here, done that.”

HONE YOUR GO-TO SHOT

Decide what shot you’fll need early
and often.knockdown, half-wedge,
whatever.and practice it in gamelike
conditions on the range.

BE AN ‘OOM-PAH’ LOOMPA

Use a two-syllable verbal cue during
your swing to release tension. I like
“oom-pah” — that’s “oom” in the
backswing and “pah” to start the
downswing. It’ll simplify your swing.