Ryann O’Toole: Learning To Know Herself

Ryann O’Toole first came into our awareness as a cast member on the Golf Channel’s, “The Big Break.” She was very talented, but was eliminated about mid-way through the show, primarily because her fury with herself over bad shots knocked her off-center and she couldn’t perform.

She resurfaced a couple of years later in the U.S. Women’s Open as a transformed person: no visible anger, just going about her business. So much so that when it came time for Solheim Cup captain, Rosie Jones, to make her two picks, Ryann was one of them. It was a very bold, controversial pick by Jones, but O’Toole completely vindicated her with her team-leading play. It might well have been a Hollywood script.

I caught up to her after the third round of the RR Donnelley Founders Cup in Phoenix, where she went from 3-under to 2-over in two holes.

I write a daily golf blog called EyeOnTheTour.com, Exploring Mastery Through Golf.

Okay.

And so what it’s about is what makes great players great.

[Laughs] I’m still trying to figure that out.

[Laughing] Well, so are a lot of people. Because you are so visible, you are deep in the process and you have a lot of insights into how that happens. So, for example, I was very impressed with the way you went from all the angst and everything that went along with the “Big Break,” to the way that you were during the U.S Open.

Okay.

You were just so much calmer. You seemed to have channeled all of your anger. You were just like, focused and calm and at peace. Did you do anything between those two things that allowed you to be that way?

Well, people always go back to the “Big Break,” but, you know, it was the whole process before then. To me the “Big Break” was just something fun to do. It did teach you stuff like playing in the moment, playing under pressure and learning how to channel that pressure because you have to just get up and hit a shot. And you’re dealing with cameras and stuff.

And I think the biggest thing is just getting to know yourself, staying in your own personality and, you know, what makes you a player. And for me, I found that the more lighthearted I am, the more joking I am, the better off I am.

Oh, very great.

So, you know, some people like to shut off and be quiet where, if I can, you know, [banter] with people and hackle each other and do that, then I’m much better off. As long as I keep it light, it’s much better for me. So you’ll see my caddie sort of push me around and, you know, I just think that’s the direction I like to go.

Yeah, I followed you for most of the day…

Okay,

…and things looked really great until those two holes [her 15th and 16th where she missed her tee shot on the par-3 badly into the desert and made triple and the subsequent tee shot on the par-4 that was so far right she didn’t even bother looking for it].

Yeah, that’s been my whole week. I mean I had one bad hole every day — today was two — I’ve had three triples and a double this whole week. It’s like I’ve dipped low and then I just give it right back. So that’s been my battle where, you know, I can walk off and say I had fifty good holes [out of fifty-four] and four bad ones. So it’s a process and I’m getting there and it’s dwindling.

You’re clearly getting there because the difference between the “Big Break” and how you were during the U.S. Open was dramatic and you carried that through into the Solheim Cup. That was an amazing performance.

Yeah, so it’s getting there and it’s just learning myself.

And so what are the things that you’ve learned most about yourself that have allowed you to be that way.

I feel like I’ve just said. Like, that I am just more happy-go-lucky and lighthearted. I like to joke around, not take it too seriously. It’s time to buckle down when you’re in the shot, but in between shots, it’s, you know, keep it light.

So when you’re in the shot, your swing is so fluid and free right now, you’re not thinking about your swing.

Try not to. You know, when you start hitting shots out, yeah, you do. You have to pull yourself back into the process and into your pre-shot routine and more of the shot at hand than past shots. You have to go back and say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ rather than what do I not want to do. Or ‘What did I do in the past hole?’

So do you know what happened on the par-3? In terms of where your mind was? What caused you to block the shot out there?

No, and that’s what I said to my caddie. Right now I’m going through swing changes. My bad habit is flipping at the ball [trying to hit the ball with your hands rather than swinging the club through the ball]. So I get “stuck,” I get fast. So it’s looking at, overall, I hit a lot of good shots all week and it’s like I let a couple get away.

And that’s where my old swing habits are coming into play. I’m still trying to get comfortable with new swing feelings and not reverting back into my old habits. Especially when I’m really relaxed and making birdies and stuff; that’s when I find I get a little too comfortable, all of a sudden I find I’m going back into my old habits.

So, I don’t have an answer for you because I’m still…

In the question.

…I haven’t digested this day yet. So I can’t tell you.

So when you went from the triple to the next tee and blocked the driver right as well?

Oh, I was just [angry]. So…

The old anger coming up?

But it’s still that same shot again.

Right. Just late getting down into the hitting area.

So how far away do you thing you are. I had this same conversation with Paige Mackenzie the other day. Because you can just see that she’s right on the cusp.

Yeah.

And so, I think you might not be as close as she is, but you’re just “right there.”

Well, like I said, I’ve had four bad swings out of fifty-four holes, so that’s not far. So, to be honest, that’s not a lot of bad shots out of, how many? Two hundred and something?

No, I wouldn’t be standing here unless I thought you were close.

I’m just saying, you just keep working and at least you’re going forward and not going backward. And when you come into a tournament, it’s hard. You have to shut off swing mechanics, you have to shut off what you’ve been practicing and you’ve got to go back into ‘just play’ mode. And, you know, it’s going to creep up and that’s gonna happen, especially when you’re either under pressure or you get really relaxed out there, I’m finding. I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t have a full answer.

Right. But is there a better athlete out here than you are?

Uh, the cocky side wants to say no. But what makes an athlete is not just the physical, it’s also the mental. And I’d like to say — if there are mentally stronger players out here — is that to say that’s not going to be the same forever? No. And that’s what I’m working on.

Physically fit? I don’t think — there’s no one else out here that gives me a run.

It’s not just the fitness as much as it is just the underlying athleticism that allows you to skateboard and surf and all that other stuff,

Exactly. It also allows me to hit shots the other girls can’t hit and use imagination, but, when it comes to that mental side, that’s the side I’m perfecting and that’s where I’m still — as I’m out here, I still feel like a rookie. I mean I didn’t play in this event last year, so I still feel like a rookie.

As a matter of fact, I was here last year when you came off the course after trying to Monday qualify.

Yeah?

So…

There you go.

So look where you’ve come.

Yeah, it’s been a long journey, it’s been a road since. But, it’s only positive.

So do you work a lot with your coach?

Ah, no. But when I’m home, since I’m working on changes, probably once a week. But I’m not somebody who needs a coach all the time, watching eyes. I know when I do something wrong,

Yeah, I don’t like to be mentally crazy with hard swing mechanics, because I’m more of a ‘feel’ player. But I do know the tendencies I have and trying to make sure that — what I’m trying to learn is, when I do go south, what am I doing, teaching myself to pull back. So you know, seeing him and realizing, ‘Okay, when I start hitting shots like that, here’s what I’m doing wrong.’

Right. Do you work with any mental coaches?

I do. I work with Bob Rotella [author of “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect”].

Oh, do you?

Yeah. I started working with him this year, so it’s a work in progress.

What’s that experience been like?

It’s been good. He has a lot of good insight. He works with a lot of top players and, you know, all across the board, which is nice. He works with athletes, so he can relate golf in other situations. Which I can then relate to.

So, did you get to go to his house and all that?

I did, yeah.

Go through the ritual of Bob Rotella?

Yeah, so it was nice. I’ve listened to his books on tapes, read his books. So I’ve grown up leaning on him for learning stuff. But, it’s much different when you go see him personally.

Yes, of course. Which is why it’s much better to talk to you in person than it is on a phone.

Well, listen, thanks very much. Anything else you can think of that…

Not right now. You might have to catch me after I digest, so…

I was going to say — well, a part of the whole process is being able to have a round like that and still be able to get out of it and have a conversation with people and leave it behind you. So, good job. [laughing]

Right. Yeah, exactly. I need about an hour. [laughs]

[Laughing] I really appreciate the sacrifice. Thanks, Ryann.

Yeah, no worries. Thanks, Bill.

This is a serious young woman with loads of talent and engaged in great introspection. Deciding to work with Bob Rotella is not an idle act. So as she continues down her path and with her talent, things should be falling into place for her in short order.

And the very best part of that is that she thinks so too.

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