Lessons From Merion

By Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed. 
“I’ll tell you about these (U.S.) Opens, they get tougher and tougher on the mental side.  You keep remembering the mistakes you made in the past that cost you an Open title.  I guess you keep trying too hard.”

-Sam Snead, PGA all-time victories leader (0 U.S. Open titles)

Each and every year, the U.S. Open provides some of the most entertaining drama on one of the game’s biggest stages.  As amateurs and weekend hacks, we lean in to watch the most skilled players in the world reduced to fighting for the very same thing we covet each time we step onto the course – par.

In this year’s edition two storylines developed as the tournament built toward its thrilling Sunday finish: one, Phil Mickelson’s quest for his first U.S. Open title (after a record five runner-up finishes) and two, Justin Rose steadying himself while those around him faltered to claim his first major championship.

There are always lessons to be learned while watching tour pros test themselves when the stakes are highest, but after this year’s Open I offer three in particular:

Lesson 1: The more you love a course/hole/shot, the better you play.

Of course, the inverse is also true – the more you hate a course/hole/shot, the worse you play.  Mickelson and Rose in particular were huge fans of quirky old Merion.  Mickelson shared multiple times throughout the week how enamored he was with Merion, with one key exception (more on this in Lesson 2).  And no player in the field played more practice rounds at Merion than Rose.  He also spoke fondly of the history and aura of the storied course, with its connection to one of the game’s hallmark moments – Hogan’s 1 iron to the 18th green in 1950.  In fact Rose’s approach on 18 on Sunday was just steps away from the plaque commemorating Hogan’s shot.  Golf has its own unique way of rewarding good feelings, I don’t know how else to put it.  So think for a moment on how you approach the toughest holes on your home course – is it with a positive spirit of embracing the challenge or bitter pessimism fed by poor shots from previous rounds?

Lesson 2: Practice “tunnel vision” during your round

Rose shared that he used a picture of a tunnel in his mind to help remind himself to stick to his game plan and avoid distractions.  Sometimes a simple picture can be a powerful tool as a way to keep us on track while on the course.  On the other hand, Mickelson showed the beginnings of his breakdown Sunday after the 3rd hole.  Upset about the difficult setup of the 266-yard, uphill par 3 (yes, you read that correctly), he made his feelings known to the USGA’s Executive Director, Mike Davis.  That would be the polar opposite of tunnel vision.  Sport Psychology 101: only worry about what you can control, i.e. your game plan for course management.   Use simple pictures and cues to block the other stuff out.

Lesson 3: Preparing your swing is only half the battle (if that)

Mickelson’s overly-publicized overnight flight just hours before his opening round 67 shed some light on an under-appreciated facet of competing: mental preparation.  “I think that mental preparation is every bit as important as physical, and I was able to take the time on the plane to read my notes, study, relive the golf course…It gave me a great few hours to get mentally prepared.”  Mickelson alludes to some great ways to prepare yourself to play: visualizing yourself playing well, planning and recording your strategy, relieving tension, etc.  In the end though, it wasn’t quite enough.  But we have much to learn from someone who has put himself in contention in the sport’s stiffest challenge time and time again.

In the end, Sam Snead said it best – U.S. Opens are tough.  However, it is always in the toughest of circumstances that we learn the greatest lessons.  Take these 3 lessons with you to the course, and play better in your next “major”.