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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ryder Cup Lessons, Part 3c

It's time for the payoff! Let's take all the theory we've discussed the last couple of days and see how beliefs affected the outcome of both the 1999 and 2012 Ryder Cups.

Here's a quick reminder about what I call The Mechanics of Belief that you must know in order to understand what happened:
  • Every belief has an object of belief as its focus. That object may be a person, a fact, or just a theory. However, that object needs to actually be true and dependable. A belief is only as good as its object.
  • Beliefs are useless unless you act on them. It's not a question of how hard you believe, just whether you believe enough to act on your belief. And you can tell what a person believes simply by watching what they do because, no matter what they say, people act on what they actually believe, not just what they claim to believe.
Are we on the same page here? Good. Let's look at really happened last Sunday at Medinah.

We have to begin with a belief that was clearly wrong because its object was wrong... and this belief was most clearly articulated by the media! The belief was that a 10-6 deficit after team play is almost insurmountable. (I'm going to use that word insurmountable a lot because it was used a lot during the commentary.) This belief was not based in fact:
  • In 1999 the US Team came back from a 10-6 deficit after the team matches were over. I'll grant you that such a comeback is difficult, but it's hardly insurmountable. According to, insurmountable means something is too great to be overcome. But it's been done before, so a 10-6 deficit can be overcome. In fact, it's now been overcome in 2 of the last 7 Ryder Cups. Betting against odds like that would break a casino!
  • Let's look at pure facts. Just how big must a lead be to qualify as "insurmountable"? There actually is such a thing. The defending team needs 14 points to retain the Cup, and the challenging team needs 14.5 to win the Cup from them. So, if the defending team finishes the team sessions leading 14-2 or better, or if the challenging team finishes the team sessions leading 14.5-1.5 or better, that qualifies as an insurmountable lead. There simply aren't enough points left in the singles to get a win!
  • Perhaps the greatest example of this fuzzy logic was exemplified by the second-guessing of whether the US should have played the Mickelson-Bradley pairing in the last team session. It was stressed that the Euros didn't just come back from 10-6, but that they actually came from 10-4 (they won the last 2 team matches to reach 10-6, you'll remember). Yet it was immediately stated that an 11-5 lead after team play WOULD have been insurmountable. That makes no sense, folks! That would have required 9 points in singles; the Euros got 8 if you don't count Molinari's half-point when Woods bogeyed the last hole. You can argue that Tiger would have won his point if it meant anything; maybe he would. But according to the scorecard, Molinari bogeyed 4, 6, 12, 13, and 17. If he just pars 2 of those holes, this match never goes to 18! I don't think 2 strokes for pars constitutes "insurmountable." A win by Molinari would have given the Euros 9 points, enough for an 11-5 comeback. So 11-5 isn't insurmountable either.
I'm not saying that comebacks like this are a given, merely that they are possible... and it's clear no one really believed this one was possible, especially since it was on foreign soil. This one belief started a ripple effect of how players reacted to it, formed their own beliefs, and then acted on them.

Knowing that they needed only 4.5 points and certainly believing that those would be pretty easy to get -- a not-so-unreasonable belief, given the US's past performance in singles -- the US Team also appears to have believed all they needed to do was not lose. (It even sounds weird to phrase it that way, but that's essentially what happened.) Negative beliefs cause problems because... well, what's the natural way to NOT do something? Simple -- you DON'T do things! And that's what happened to the US Team. In an effort not to make mistakes -- did anyone stop to wonder how you don't make mistakes? -- they became tentative.

By contrast, the Euros decided they had nothing to lose and, as I said in yesterday's post, that tends to make you choose your best option and plan the best way to ACT on it. The Euros went out with a "do" mindset while the US went out with a "don't" mindset. And it showed up pretty quickly.

Of course, not all the US players were in neutral. Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson, and Jason Dufner won fairly decisively (and none of them ever trailed in their matches) and while Phil didn't win, he did post 5 birdies against 1 bogey and parred the final 3 holes -- better than most US players. Phil just got beat by a hot Justin Rose. But the majority of US players led early and fell away or never led at all. The last 2 holes destroyed the chances of several US players.

And as the matches turned, the US started to panic. Just as they hadn't planned to win -- winning was already a given, wasn't it? they had the best team on paper -- they hadn't planned how to deal with a reversal of fortunes. And that panic spread to the fans, who tried to encourage the team. But I heard one of the Euro players -- it may have been Westwood, I don't remember -- say that hearing the crowds only encouraged the Euros more. After all, it meant they were making ground and it reinforced their own beliefs.

Much will be made of the influence of Seve -- and I won't deny that extra emotional energy can boost performance, just as the emotional drain of losing ground can hurt performance -- but it was Seve's example, his never give up attitude, that made more of a difference. His example reinforced their belief that they could come back because he had done it so many times himself. The object of their faith was a proven commodity... and they acted on it.

Back in 1999 the US Team got the same boost from Ben Crenshaw. DL3 summed it up best when he told his reaction to the "good feeling" speech: "He really believes we can do this!" And because the US Team believed he knew what he was talking about, they bought into his belief as well... and acted on it.

There will be debates about what's wrong with the US Team. There will be "experts" who second-guess DL3's decisions. There will even be some who suggest that the Euros have some sort of mystical aura surrounding them that makes them unbeatable. But they'll all be wrong.

The reason Europe lost in 1999 and the US lost in 2012 was a faulty, unquestioned belief in an "insurmountable" lead. Beliefs lead to actions; in each case, neither team even considered a fallback plan in case they were wrong. And so, when the pressure finally hit, they were totally unprepared to respond. Tentative inactive teams found themselves facing determined active teams... and the active teams won. At least when it comes to golf, the best defense truly is a good offense.

So what does this mean to you? How does it help you play better under pressure?
  • Examine your beliefs about your game. Make sure you're being realistic. I don't care how much you believe in yourself, if you can't hit the ball 300 yards it's crazy to think you will just because you want it badly enough. That's not golf, that's magic.
  • Examine the strengths and weaknesses of your game. Most of us don't realize that strengths and weaknesses are just flip sides of the same coin. A lack of distance can be a weakness when driving but can enhance your accuracy in your short game. (It's easier to control your distance when you can't hit it as far because you have more control over the length of your swing.) You need to know where you're a threat so you can capitalize on those areas, and learn where you have to be careful. In those areas, decide on your best course of action beforehand so you can get back on the attack with as little penalty as possible.
  • Stay positive. I don't mean "be a Pollyanna." I mean to create action plans, not inaction plans. If you're going out with the idea of not making mistakes, you're setting yourself up to lose. It's really hard to make a plan that involves not doing something. Build your game around what you can do, not what you don't want to do.
If your game is built on solid beliefs about yourself and your game that you can act on, you'll be surprised how well you'll hold up under pressure. Your self-confidence on the course will improve as a result. And that's a pretty sure way to enjoy your golf.

At least, that's what I believe.

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