Jack Nicklaus was on to something when he discovered a truth about himself as a very young golfer – and used this fundamental knowledge his entire career.
Jack was known as a powerful golfer. A big, strong, somewhat thick, burly guy who could pummel the ball in ways unlike anyone in the game was doing when he arrived on the tour in the early 1960s.
But his mental discipline was thought to be one of the most important aspects of his game. Hale Irwin said recently: “ He (Jack) had a capacity to stay in the game all the time. He didn’t ever beat himself.”
Ultimately, a combination of superb shot-making skills and a highly-developed mental game on the course allowed him to amass the incredible record he owns in tournament play. ( 18 amateur wins, 18 major wins, Runner-Up in 19 majors, Top 5 in 56 majors, 73 PGA Tour wins, 117 wins total…etc. It’s an unbelievable resume!)
I think one of the keys to his mental game success can be found in a very innocuous quote from Jack himself that I heard him say in a documentary I saw last year: “ I learned when I was a young kid that if I got excited, I couldn’t play.”
Nicklaus learned how to calm himself– to tap into an inner calm and inner peace so that he could stay in the game – neither too excited nor too upset/frustrated. He taught himself to – as Moe Norman might have said it – take an alert attitude of indifference into his play. And this made a tremendous difference in allowing him to play so well in clutch moments.
(The one-iron on 17 at Pebble Beach in the 1972 US Open. The 40-foot putt on 16 at the 1975 Masters. The tee shot to three feet on the 16that Augusta in 1986. The putt on 17 at Augusta in 1986. Or Jack’s favorite example of clutch play under pressure: the par, par, par finish to win his first Open Championship in 1966 at Scotland’s Muirfield Golf Links.)
In the 1963 Masters it poured rain during the Saturday round…to the point where it was very close to being cancelled. But Jack made a decision that he would not let the weather conditions bother him. He shot one of the best rounds of the day…then went on to win his first of five green jackets. He learned how to re-frame his experiences so that he could operate at a high level no matter what was happening. He would say after he retired that : “Pressure affected me in a positive way.”
Clearly his shot-making abilities were incredible. ( Great skills are a non-negotiable…so keep working on the model!) But his commitment to staying calm was also a HUGE part of his success.
His mental game success formula was so simple. So accessible to everyone. Not that hard. It just takes some awareness, intentionality and commitment in order to see your world in more productive way and to interpreting the events that occur in your environment – more objectively.
You may not be able to bomb it down the fairway like Jack Nicklaus did. (Or today’s equivalent – Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Xander Schauffele…etc) But you CAN achieve the same level of calmness and mental skill that Jack realized… with some practice and attention.
- Tuning in to your own confidence level in any moment.
- Recognizing that your feelings – fear, anxiousness, nervousness – are products of your THINKING.
- Anchoring to more objective views of reality. (Ones not overly-laden with judgment.)
- Remembering that – as Todd (Graves) likes to say: “Stuff happens. The rest is just story.”
Keep this in mind as you work on your game this winter. The most important opportunity in your game right now might not involve picking up your clubs, but rather, learning to cultivate a productive level of calm and inner-peace that you can take to the course.
Paul Monahan, PCC is a Peak-Performance coach, member of the International Coach Federation and a certified COR.E Performance Dynamicsä Specialist. He resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife Paula and is the proud dad to three young men.