Some Secrets Are More Secret Than Others

I tweeted early this morning that I thought I was going to follow Phil Mickelson in the pro-am and that’s what I ended up doing. He was very gregarious, engaged in constant conversations with his four amateurs and spent quality time with one in particular, Emmitt Smith, the guy who was once famous for being a Dallas Cowboy but who’s now gone on to real fame as the winner of “Dancing With The Stars.”

Emmitt was apparently having trouble with his chipping and pitching on the 6th green; I didn’t see exactly because I’d already moved to the 7th tee to get a good spot to watch Phil’s tee shot. And what happened is the reason that Phil is Phil and such a fan favorite.

He and Emmitt arrived at the tee in the middle of Phil’s graduate course conversation in short game mechanics.

“First of all, you want to begin with 60 to 70% of your weight on your left foot,” he began. “You want to be able to hit down on the ball by leading the club head into the ball with your left hand. Now the only way you can do that without hitting behind the ball is you have to break your wrists on your takeaway.” He was demoing this right-handed with a club he’d pulled from Emmitt’s bag. “It’s the only chance to make sure that your hands stay in the lead of the club.”

“You don’t want to play the ball in the middle of your stance,” he continued. “You want to play it either back by your right foot to hit it low or off your front foot to hit it high. But the only way you can do that is by breaking your wrists and leaving them there through the ball. There’s a thousand ways to putt, but there’s only one way to chip and this is it.”

By this time, he’d hit about three little pitch shots with just his left hand on the club. Then he gave the club back to Emmitt and he hit a couple of tidy little shots. As they left the tee, the small gallery surrounding the tee were all diligently demonstrating the motions to each other. Later, at the 8th green, Emmitt had to chip onto the green and got accolades all around for hitting a good shot.

And all of that led to this line of questioning from me when he arrived in the interview room after his round:

You had everybody captivated on the 7th tee when you were giving Emmett his short game tip.  How did that go for him?

Well, he hit some great chip shots thereafter until we got to 16 [the coliseum hole], and he missed the green just left, and there was a bunch of people watching, ready to heckle, and he gave them every opportunity to heckle him.  I don’t know what happened because he got it dialed in.  I mean, he hit some great shots, and he’s got this great hand‑eye coordination as any athlete does, but his ability to pick things up quickly is obvious.  I was surprised how much club head speed he had.  He really can move the ball out there quite well.

Do you do that a lot?  That was a pretty extensive session you spent with him.

Well, we had people on the green.  We weren’t going anywhere.

It was very generous is my point.

Oh, I appreciate it.  I think if you can just take a couple of minutes and explain the basics of chipping, it just is easy to pick up.  It’s just not a hard part of the game but it baffles people why they struggle with it.

And then the interview proceeded along with a series of other questions relating to Phil’s connection to the area and ASU, how he gets his motivation with 39 Tour victories in his resume, what his plans are to update Torrey Pines North in La Jolla and what he thought of the TPC Scottsdale course conditions. (You can read the entire interview here.)

And then the lyrical poet of the Golf Channel, Rich Lerner, asked this:

I’m working on a piece on sports psychology.  What has worked for you over the years in terms of psychological approach, and have there been periods where you’ve been in a negative mode and you just can’t kick‑start it?

Well, we all go through mental challenges where we’re seeing the negative and not the positive.  If you’re going to succeed, though, you have to be able to see what you want the ball to do as opposed to where you don’t want it to go.  Working out of a positive frame of mind is critical, and being able to slow your thought process down, especially the last nine holes of a golf tournament when you’re in contention, is a critical ability if you want to succeed.

Are there tools that you use to slow yourself down?

Yes.

Are they top secret? [Laughter]

I think certainly breathing exercises are the first and easiest way that guys can control that.

“And that’s all I’m saying about it,” he seemed to be saying with his blushing grin. “There are, indeed, secrets and edges we all have from each other. Do you really think I’m going to tell you?”

And while nebulous tips about mysterious, breathing techniques are conveniently opaque, but understandable to people who have experience with them, they are not something that Emmitt will soon be demonstrating on the 18th green. And, in fact, they are merely gateways to what the desired state is.

The desired state is what we have been talking about at length in this blog since its inception and came up in PGA Champion, Keegan Bradley’s interview not fifteen minutes later when I asked him:

One of the things that was so impressive about your PGA win was that last stretch from the 15th hole when you chipped it in the water and you just stayed in this state of fierce determination all the way till the end.  Can you kind of describe how you get into that mind state, and in the face of that kind of disaster, just stay there?

Yeah.  It’s hard to really describe because you’re in a major championship, you’re coming down to the end, you’ve got a chance to win.  So you’re in a different state of mind.  It’s almost like an out of body experience, really.  It just was a time where–Camilo Villegas had sent me a text message the night before the final round and said there’s going to be a time in this round that’s going to challenge you, and it’s how you respond to that that will be how you play in the tournament.  I just kept thinking about that.

I just thought I had come too far to let that hole melt me down.  It was amazing how little it affected me, barely even affected me at all.  I mean, I’ve made triple bogeys in the past, and since then, where it’s been like I really was hurt.  But for whatever reason, it didn’t affect me at all.  It was just a great state of mind I was in.

If you ever figure that out…

I will.  I’ll let you guys know.

To summarize and reiterate all that I’ve said about it in the past, the path to that mind state is to become completely fascinated with the task at hand to the exclusion of all else. The more focused your attention is, the more extraneous things–like triple bogeys–blend into the periphery. And once you’ve manage to distance yourself from those things, they cease to be a trigger of fear as long as your fascination remains rapt.

That’s exactly the mind state that Keegan Bradley described in the biggest tournament of his life. And without knowing the details, that’s exactly how he achieved it.

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