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

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

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."

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.