Travelers Championship: Three U.S. Open Survivors Share Their Lessons

One of the good things that happens after a really big tournament is that climbing out of the cauldron provides you with perspective that you can’t access as easily when you’re in the belly of the beast.

Fortunately, the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Connecticut, has become such an attractive post-Open tournament, we have three guys from the Open who were all knocking on the door: Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler. And with a little probing from the media, they looked back on our behalf to share some of the lessons they learned and affirmations of lessons they had already filed away. 

Justin Rose shared his experience of a phenomenon that afflicts almost every beginning tournament player: you’re there and playing because you think you’re good enough, but you’re never really sure until you win one.

You never know if it’s going to happen for you.  You think you’re good enough, you can tell yourself you’re good enough, you can tell yourself you’re ready and you can believe you’re ready, but until it really happens, you just don’t know.  So now having had that experience and having had that confidence in myself, I feel like I can stand up, put one foot in front of another, make good swing after good swing in that environment.  That’s just something that I can sort of be proud of.

Here he distinguishes the different lessons that come out of a Ryder Cup versus a U.S. Open:

When I look back on my career, I can say I did that.  That’s a nice moment.  Ryder Cup, for example, might have been a stepping stone towards that.  I felt a very similar experience there, just the pressure that you face in that environment.  That, for me, was more about making putts under pressure, and that was sort of telling myself that I could do that.  And the U.S. Open was about, I guess, hitting golf shots under pressure.

Here he talks about how to get yourself up for the next tournament after the inevitable letdown of the emotional high of the Open. Can adrenaline help with that? And note that he talks about nurturing himself rather than driving himself back up to the edge. And notice particularly in the second paragraph how thoughtfully he chooses his words:

I think adrenaline can get you through.  Especially if you get off to a good start and get yourself up on the leaderboard.  You can then start to focus on the tournament, and start to focus on winning a golf tournament.  But I’m also aware of the fact that it can go the other way as well.  So I think probably just need to be a little bit easier on myself this week as well.

But I’m still hoping — hoping is the wrong word.  I’m expecting to go out there and put in a good performance.  I still think that the same discipline I showed at the U.S. Open will apply this week, and that’s how every golf round should be played.  So that will be my goal this week to be as sharp as I can mentally.

This next one is very interesting. Here he’s talking about what he learned from his good friend Adam Scott who flamed out in last year’s British Open when it looked like he had it in hand and then came back to win the Masters this year. You can only be free enough to play your best when you’re willing to go all in emotionally and experience the heartache of losing:

It hit me really at the U.S. Open that if you’re not willing to experience the heartache and heartbreak of losing a major, then you can’t really truly play your best stuff and be free enough in the moment to get it done.  If you’re kind of apprehensive to what it might feel like to lose, I think for me that’s just what struck me.  I was good with the fact that you just have to put yourself in that moment time and time again, and be willing to just keep knocking down the door.

This next one is interesting because he describes his mental calculations as he played the 18th hole. What’s illuminating is how even his mind was filled with extraneous and conflicting thoughts when he had to wait too long to hit the shot:

Yeah, I mean, the tee shot was just about really picking a target, making a great swing and just trying to stay in my normal routine as much as I could and making sure I focused on my rhythm.  Because in a moment like that, the tendency is to get a little quick.  But once I got the tee shot away, I kept my eyes just kind of locked forward.  I didn’t look left; I didn’t look right.  Just kind of stayed looking forward and staying in the moment.

I walked over the hill because of the blind tee shot.  When I got over the hill I saw my ball sitting perfectly in the middle of the fairway on the up slope.  The shot that I had hit in practice, and I thought, this is my time.  It’s a photograph I’ve seen a thousand times with Hogan, and I had too much time to think about it, because Luke had hit it right off the 18th tee and was taking a drop.

I walked to my ball and thought perfect 4‑iron.  I had 230‑something to the hole.  But the number in my head was 215, the minimum carry over the false front.  The more I stood there, the more I looked at the flags in the distance, and the more I thought is that wind into me?  If it’s into me, I don’t know 4‑iron gets there.  Maybe I need to cut up a 3‑iron.  I don’t know.  That wind is picking up.  Anyhow I had way too much time to think. Then ultimately I just thought, okay, it’s a perfect 4‑iron, get up there and get a good shot, and fortunately that’s what I was able to do.

Hunter Mahan got to play in the last group at the Open with Phil and he talked about embracing that because that “searing” is what your psyche needs:

To be in the final group, have a chance to win the U.S. Open, it was a great day.  It tests you mentally and physically.  That’s what you need, to test yourself to get better.  It was a great week.  It was a week that I was looking forward to and prepared for and I was excited about because I felt like the course fit me pretty well.  I take all positives from it and it was a great experience.

All well and good, but how do you manage the circus atmosphere playing with Phil:

You get used to it.  I think when Tiger first came out it was probably shocking to everybody and it was different, but you get used to the distractions and stuff like that.  You know, I feel bad for him sometimes, playing with Tiger, especially because he has so many cameras and stuff going on on his swing.  It’s just crazy.

Yeah, it takes a couple times but you understand it and get used to it and you find a rhythm in the round and you maybe don’t play as fast as you normally would, having to wait for everyone to settle down.  It takes a few times to understand the kind of sequence and the flow of the round.

Here he talks about the difference between an Open mentality and the mindset in a regular Tour event. And once again, it all comes down to freedom in the end:

Oh, for sure, the U.S. Open, pars are good, you’re going to play safe and you’re going to play away from pins. And this week you’re going to be aggressive and you’re going to try to attack the hole as much as you can and be aggressive.  You can’t play with much fear out here, because low scores [by the field] are possible every single day.  You know you’ve got to swing free and attack the golf course, you can’t hold back and let it come to you so much.

In this segment, he talks about the personal transformation that occurred for him by playing in that last group. And he talks about how we “add” to moments and make them more — and sometimes more unmanageable — than they really are. And that we need to recognize that so that we can have the freedom to “let it fly”:

Yeah, I stepped on the tee thinking I could win and I left knowing I could win.  You know, as much as some media people or some people want to give permission to players; okay, you can win a major now because we feel you’re ready, it’s still golf and it’s still 18 holes and it is something different except for what you add to it.

And it’s easy to add a lot to it.  We always get there earlier and try to do more work and try to figure a course out, if we haven’t seen it before, figure out the nuances of it.

Once you realize you don’t need anyone’s permission and realize it’s just golf, and realize that at the end of the day, there’s always another tournament, it’s not the end-all, be-all.  It’s just golf and it’s just one tournament and you’ve got to, you know, same rules apply.  You’ve got to swing free and let it fly, even though in the U.S. Open, it feels like, can’t hit it over here or can’t hit it over there. You just have to let it fly.

Rickie Fowler talks about mental toughness and the confidence that flows from it:

As far as mental toughness goes, I think it’s how you rebound from mistakes or rough times.  Whether it’s in golf or life, it’s not always going to be smooth sailing, so the mental toughness is how well you can rebound and come back from those low points.

Definitely playing in an individual sport, you have to be confident, I feel like, to be successful.  If you’re out there, there is no one else to lean on.  It’s just you.  You have your caddie there to help you out every once in a while.  But at the end of the day, I think you have to learn to be confident to make it to the professional level in an individual sport.

I don’t think it’s something that’s easily taught.  I think you learn it along the way.  It’s definitely a learning process, and I’m just fortunate to be where I am right now.  I’m confident in what I do, and part of that is being that I’ve played a lot of individual sports growing up.

And then he reiterates that Opens are all about patience and commitment to the shot. We hear it over and over again, but it’s always worth repeating for whatever our biggest challenges are:

The biggest thing, especially at the U.S. Open, is just patience and making sure you fully commit to each shot.  There is a lot that can go wrong out there.  Even if you hit a shot that you’re trying to and it just happens to bounce off line and go a little too far or come up short.  Yeah, I guess the second day on Friday, I made a few bogeys, and I brought it in, ended up making the cut and had a good round on Saturday.

And finally he talks about what distinguishes a touring pro from the rest of us. It’s why they look like they never give up on a round:

But just have learned over the years that sometimes the rounds where things aren’t going your way, if you can hang on to them and try to get the most out of those rounds, those are the ones that are most important.  It’s very unusual that you play four great rounds of golf in a tournament.  There is always going to be one tough day, and if you can turn that day from a 75 or 76 to a 71 or 72 with maybe a couple key up‑and‑downs or making a couple putts to save a shot here or there, that is the difference in winning a golf tournament and finishing tenth.

So, good, hard-core playing wisdom from three of the best players in the world. Get them going and these pearls of wisdom seem to just flow, some so subtle that you might not even notice them for what they are on the first reading.

And so the task for us isn’t just to memorize these things, it’s to incorporate them into our very being by experiencing them. So be on the lookout.

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