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Friday, August 21, 2009

Phil and Sergio: Different Mindsets

Mindset is something I write about frequently in this blog, simply because it never ceases to amaze me how easily our perceptions can be affected. Let me use Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia as examples.

If you asked most people to describe Phil and Sergio as putters, they would probably say that Phil is a good putter and Sergio isn’t. More interesting to me is the fact that, even if he hadn’t sunk a putt in months, they would continue to describe Phil as a good putter. By the same token, if Sergio went on a tear and started making everything in sight, it’s a safe bet you’d hear those same people explain it away. In fact, when Sergio began putting better last year and came close to winning the PGA, I heard commentators still bemoaning his poor putting and sadly saying they hoped it would last.

Of course, with Sergio’s struggles this year, those commentators probably feel justified. But they certainly didn’t help matters.

This mindset isn’t limited to TV personalities. In a recent Golf Channel viewer poll, 36% thought Sergio might win a major by age 40… and 44% thought he would never win one!

In the end, it’s the mindset of the player that makes the difference. Let’s not forget that, a mere five years ago, Mickelson was in the same situation that Garcia now finds himself. Phil eventually pulls out of putting slumps because he believes in his own abilities, and he went from being a player who “couldn’t close the deal” to a favorite at the majors for the same reason. When he was struggling, he faced all the hard questions with a smile; he admitted he was struggling but he never lost hope. And we found ourselves cutting him some extra slack because we began to believe in him too.

For Sergio, the problem is purely his mindset. After watching him for so long, I’m convinced that both his long game and his putting are every bit as good as Arnold Palmer’s were back when he won all his majors. But Sergio is in a bad place mentally. The unfulfilled expectations have become the most important thing in his life, and he said earlier this week that he just doesn’t enjoy playing right now.

What’s the solution?

Sergio needs to stop listening to the media. He needs to find a way to lighten up and rediscover the joy of just playing the game, without regard for the outcome. He is an incredibly talented player who is on the verge of breaking through, and he needs to learn to enjoy the journey.

Ironically, the best mental advice he could get probably won’t come from a sports psychologist, but from LPGA player Laura Davies. During a press conference at her 11th Solheim Cup on Wednesday, the 45 year old was asked how she had managed to play so well for so long. She smiled and said it was probably because she practiced so much less than most players! Laura said that while the other women were out “smashing golf balls” she was doing laundry, and she expected that this lack of hard practice would let her keep playing for another five or ten years. And then, as if to emphasize how little she obsessed over the game, her cell phone went off because she had received a text about the soccer (excuse me, ‘football’) game she was following. “That made my day,” she told the media with a smile.

Golf is part of life for Laura Davies, but only a part.

There’s a life outside golf, Sergio. You’re plenty good enough to win a lot of majors… if you just learn to enjoy the game again.

That’s a lesson most weekend golfers could benefit from as well.

(A note for Sergio followers: Thursday’s play was interrupted by thunderstorms and Sergio didn’t get to tee off until around 5pm. However, he finished 12 holes at 3 under par, tied for 18th and just 3 off the lead. Looking good, Sergio!)

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