Playing Not to Lose

GGA Mental Game Coach.

The French have a lot to celebrate this week as their soccer team Les Bleus have won their first World Cup championship in twenty years.

With the golf world turning its attention this week to the famed Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, I am reminded of a time about nineteen years ago this week when French sports fans experienced the agony of defeat after their own Jean Van De Velde let the Claret Jug slip his grasp at 1999 Open at Carnoustie.

Known in sports lore as “Carnage at Carnoustie,” Van De Velde’s crushing defeat might have been one of the most painful sports moments I’ve ever watched on TV. (Except, maybe for the Bill Buckner missed ground ball during the 1986 World Series. Ouch!)

With a three-shot lead and one hole to play, Vand De Velde’s world seemed to unravel right before our eyes. In a slow-motion crash that has been replayed over and over since then, Van De Velde made triple-bogey on 18 to squeak into a playoff, only to watch Paul Lawrie

Getty Images Ross Kinnaird

go on to win in stunning fashion.As a mental game coach, I am always interested in how these kind of epic failures take place. What happened? Did he succumb to the pressure? Did he meltdown on the 18thhole because of the mental stress? Did he choke?

Well, it turns out that what happened to Jean Van De Velde is a little more complex than I once thought. Thanks to a documentary airing this week on The Golf Channel called “Go Down Swinging,” we have a little more insight into what was going on for him.

My big takeaways:

Van De Velde played (and put) incredibly for three straight days.

To me, I interpret this as a golfer who was playing freely. By this, I mean that he was unencumbered by negative thinking, and he allowed himself to PLAY, be creative with his shots and GO FOR the shots he KNEW he could make. (This is how you should play golf ALWAYS.)

In fact, Van De Velde reported that while other participants that week decided in many cases to hit irons off most tees, he felt like he had been hitting his driver well…and so that’s the club he went with off the tee. And with great success.

Also, NOBODY was making the long putts like Van De Velde was making the first three days. Forty, fifty and even sixty-footers. The guy had things DIALED-IN! He was playing great and truly enjoying himself.

He did not have his “A” game on Sunday. Not nearly.

This is super-important. We all remember what happened on the 18th hole. (The “carnage”) It would be easy to say that he LOST it at the 18th. But I believe that many of the things that occurred PRIOR to the last hole sealed his fate.

Here’s what I mean. From the first few holes on Sunday, he struggled to hit clean golf shots. And his putting was off as well. He didn’t have his “A” game. But why not?

Did he FORGET how to hit a golf ball straight, or FORGET how to putt? No. I believe that the brain was cluttered with the idea of potential loss.

Even though he may not have been aware of it at the time, I believe that Van De Velde was playing to Not Lose.

He had NEVER been close to a position like this…leading the championship after 54 holes. My guess is that he was in unchartered territory and his brain’s survival mechanisms kicked in.

There is a funny thing that happens in our brain when we get into these situations. The primitive part of our brain that is designed to keep us alive gets to work. It looks for any threats to survival and works to keep us safe from those threats. The problem is that is cannot distinguish losing a three-shot lead at The Open from a truly mortal threat.

Van De Velde’s struggle on Sunday was a function of his primitive survival brain getting in his way. And all his capabilities that produced terrific results on Thursday through Saturday were inaccessible because of it.

Paul Lawrie made an incredible comeback.

Frankly, one of the most under-reported stories of the 199 Open was that Paul Lawrie began the day TEN SHOTS off the lead. (Did you even remember that Paul Laurie was the eventual winner?) He shot a 67 on a day when the AVERAGE score was ten shots higher than that… that’s right. The average score on Sunday was 77!

What allowed him to thrive on a day when so many others struggled?

First, he began the day with nothing to lose. Yes, he was attempting to shoot a low score so that he could punch a ticket to the 2000 Masters at Augusta, but it was a very different kind of goal than Van De Velde had when starting the day.

Second, he was playing a course he was VERY familiar with. He lived about 45 minutes from Carnoustie at the time…and stayed in his own bed each night during the 1999 Open. This confidence allowed him to tap into all capabilities…and this is what produced such a great shot-making for him that day.

The lesson for all of us is this: When we operate from an ABUNDANCE mentality, rather than a SCARCITY mentality, this game we love so much is WAY easier to play.

If you want to learn more about:

  • How an Abundance Mentality can impact your results on the golf course
  • How you can tap into your best golf more often and play the game more freely
  • Your own mental and emotional dynamics and Performance Energy that can lead to better scores

…then join me at Prairie Landings Golf Course in Chicago on August 31stfor a very special 2-day playing school. Click here for more information: 2-Day Mental Game School

Paul Monahan, PCC is a Peak-Performance coach, single-plane-swing golfer, member of the International Coach Federation and a certified COR.E Performance Dynamics Specialist. He resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife Paula and is the proud dad to three young men. He works with elite-level performers and leaders, helping them to expand their awareness so that they perform at their best more consistently.

He can be reached at

Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan is an International Coach Federation (ICF) - credentialed coach working in the arena of human potential. Paul’s clients are leaders, executives, athletes and musicians who are serious about transforming how they perform in critical moments. His experiences in leadership and development over a highly-successful 25-year corporate career have created powerful context and understanding for the leaders and executives he coaches. Additionally, his passions and experiences in sports and music have uniquely positioned Paul to profoundly impact his clients in those areas as well.

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