Nervousness Versus Consciousness

As you probably know by now, sixteen-year-old Lexi Thompson didn’t pull it off in Mobile yesterday. She went into the final round tied for the lead in the Avnet LPGA Classic in Mobile, Alabama. Played on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Magnolia Grove, The Crossings, she had a chance to become the youngest player to win an LPGA event. The good news is that she still has two years to do that.

She began with a bogie right out of the box. At just 395 yards, bogeying the first hole was a big thing to give up by somebody with her length. And then she did the same thing on the 387 yard 3rd hole. She fought back with a birdie on the 5th, but by then the players who were playing well, principally the winner, Maria Hjorth, were headed low. She hung in there with pars through 13, but then she got hit by a truck, actually, two of them. She made back-to-back double-bogeys on 14 and 15 and, her quest over, followed that with a finishing bogie on 18.

Her disheartened picture in this AP story captures her disappointment perfectly: 

Thompson waved in acknowledgment of the gallery’s loud applause heading to the final hole, but walked off with an anguished expression on her face. Her bid for history had taken a sour turn, but she said nerves weren’t to blame.

“I just didn’t hit it very solid,” the Coral Springs, Fla., resident said. “My driver wasn’t that bad but my irons weren’t good. I just wasn’t trusting anything. I don’t know why, because I wasn’t even that nervous surprisingly [my emphasis].

“It definitely was (a learning experience). I’m only 16, so I’m just learning every tournament.”

What she will learn over time the more she examines lessons like this is that nervousness isn’t always the marker for whether you will play well or not, consciousness is.

The reason I think she may not understand this yet—please! she’s only 16—is because she didn’t understand why she could hit her driver but not her irons.

I cannot tell you the number of amateurs who tell me the same thing. And I always tell them that it’s probably because they don’t know how to hit the ball properly. Hitting the ball properly is a matter of hitting down on the ball and with the clubhead the last thing arriving in the hitting area causing the entire divot to be on the target side of the ball. If you are unable to do that, you are forced to try to compensate by trying to hit the ball with your hands. Because it’s so hard to time that just right, you will not hit the ball solidly. You will hit it either slightly fat or thin. You can get away with this with the driver because the ball is perched on the tee and you don’t have to worry about hitting the ground.

Lexi Thompson understands very well how to hit the ball properly. She could not have gotten to where she is otherwise. But it’s this thing about the distinction between nervousness and consciousness.

Tour pros up to and including Tiger play at very high levels while they are nervous. They talk about it all the time. But it’s very hard to do that when you’re not sharp. And it’s very hard to be sharp when you are trying to be careful, when you have any reticence, any fear, any doubt, any flightiness, any lack of commitment, any pulling of your punches. As Lexi said, “I just wasn’t trusting anything.” She knew that much.

All of these things lead to short-arming shots, decelerating into the ball, however slightly, instead of accelerating through the ball. And you end up with that slightly more scruffy or picky shot. When you’re trying to hit to very precise yardages, that imprecision is all it takes to throw the strike out of kilter and miss greens, however elegant the swing may look.

Hitting down and through the ball has the feel of a powerful ballet move, the grace of a matador. There is an unfettered flow to the swing that gets degraded when you’re not sharp because you can’t quite get your mind around the whole of it.

One of the things great players learn to do is ratchet up their senses by slowing down, softening their minds and adopting a sort of tunnel vision of the world. They enter into a consciousness bubble that includes only those things that matter in the moment and excludes everything that doesn’t.

Lexi Thompson is well on her way to becoming a great player and experiences like this one will soon teach her how to do that too.

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