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Dr Karl Morris

Australia’s Adam Scott played superlative golf for 68 of the 72 holes at Royal Lytham. A birdie on the 14th on Sunday took him four shots clear with four to play, and yet a series of errors saw him hand back that advantage to South Africa’s Ernie Els, who produced a final round of 68 that ultimately saw him win by one. The immediate reaction to Scott’s collapse suggested the world No.7 had ‘choked’ – and yet when you analyse those closing holes it was not his swing but a series of poor decisions that cost Scott the title – mental errors that caddie Steve Williams should have been savvy enough to nip in the bud, suggests Dr Karl Morris

How did you feel as you watched the final round unfold at this year’s Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes?

Did you feel elation for Ernie Els as he holed a birdie putt on the last, which subsequently turned out to be the winning putt, or did you feel distressed for the way that Adam Scott appeared to ‘blow’ his chance of a first major victory by finishing with bogeys at each of the last four holes?

Certainly Ernie Els appeared to be a little deflated in his interview with the BBC as soon as it became apparent he was Open Champion for a second time. Els could obviously sense the pain of the loss that Scott would have to cope with in the aftermath of the tournament.

The majority of comments in the days and weeks after the event have been predictable in the sense that the focus has been on the assumption Scott ‘choked’, that he ‘blew’ his chance of a first major. On the surface of it he did but if we perhaps look a little more closely at what actually happened over those closing holes then we might be able to build a more complete picture.

Professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Sian Beilock, has spent her academic career studying the phenomena of choking and has written a fascinating book on the subject, titled simply Choke. It provides some tremendously in-depth analysis of the way in which the brain functions under pressure when we succumb to a situation and lose from a strong winning position.

“Could it be argued that his caddie, the man who took such credit for ‘his’ win with Scott in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational last year, could be held somewhat accountable for what seemed like a strong of poor tactical decisions over the last four holes? It is tough to say, but for me it is important that Adam Scott looks hard at the FACTS to analyse what really happened”Beilock talks about how under stress the expert brain can actually begin thinking like a beginner again. When an expert performs well the motor brain areas are in control and he is largely unconscious of what he is actually doing. He is running on ‘auto pilot’. But when under pressure, explains Beilock, we are susceptible to making basic errors as we begin to think too much, and the areas of the brain involved with attention, memory and control become too active. We think too much and ‘do’ too little. But did Adam Scott start hitting shots a beginner would be pleased with? No. Did he start to spray the ball off line in the manner of other high profile choking disasters? No, he didn’t.

What we need to remember is that the last four holes at Royal Lytham are extremely difficult, especially when the wind starts to blow. And around the middle of that Sunday afternoon the course started to bear its teeth as the wind picked up. For sure, Scott didn’t hit perfect shots on the last four holes; he pulled his approach at the 15th (after nailing his drive), three-putted the 16th (where he might have been better advised to hit a driver off the tee) and pulled a 6-iron approach to the 17th – again after a great drive. After hitting 3-wood into one of the cross-bunkers at the 18th, he actually played a fine recovery from the sand and then hit a superb third shot, straight down the flag, to give himself a putt to force a playoff. His swing didn’t fail him – he certainly wasn’t hitting it off the map.

For me, the real key was the decision on the 18th to hit a three-wood off the tee. The hole was playing with a helping wind and the absolute key to the hole is to avoid the cross bunkers. Needing a four to tie, the shot was either to lay up short of the bunkers with an iron or blast a driver over them and go for a birdie-three in a final attempt to win the tournament outright. After all, Ernie had made a birdie with that exact play.

The irony, also, was that Scott had driven the ball beautifully all day (indeed all week), even on the closing holes. Could it be argued that his caddie – the man who took such credit for ‘his’ win with Scott in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational last year – could be held somewhat accountable for what seemed a poor tactical decision? It is tough to say (and easy for us who were not actually there to speculate) but for me it is important Adam Scott really looks at the FACTS of what happened rather than being drawn into the argument that he ‘choked’ under pressure.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are prone to confuse choking with a task that is just incredibly difficult on a course where errors are hugely magnified. The key for Scott lies in the way that he deals with the loss of the tournament more than discussion of how or why he may or may not have choked. And it wouldn’t do him any harm to take a look on youtube at a wonderful video of his boyhood hero, Greg Norman, in a press conference the day after his collapse in the 1996 Masters, where he surrendered a six shot lead in the final round to a brilliant and relentless Nick Faldo.

Such is Norman’s upbeat demeanour, it almost seems as though the members of the press are more deflated than he is! The gist of the message he delivers runs something like this: nobody died out on the course, that he has plenty of reasons to believe in his ability: “I have 40 million dollars in the bank and I know that I AM a good player – I just wasn’t a good player yesterday!” says Norman. Of course, Norman had the benefit of already being a double major champion (the Open Championships of 1986 at Turnberry and 1993 at Royal St George’s), and with his typically positive outlook he was able to put into perspective what could easily have been a career-ending performance (while he would not win another major, he did run close a couple of times and won the 1997 Anderson Consulting World Match Play title, the precursor to the WGC event).

Let’s hope Adam Scott can similarly take the positives away from Lytham and learn from the experience without there being too much emotional damage. He is too good a player – and has too fine a swing – not to win a major championship.


What can the rest of us who play golf learn from the above examples? How can we improve our chances of closing out a tournament and hanging on for victory when we find ourselves in a position to win coming down the stretch?

Pressure is pressure, in the sense that the feeling you will have in your system – whether you are trying to win your club championship, get your handicap down into single figures or even break a hundred for the first time – will be exactly the same as the sensations the great players experience. Tension is tension – it is just the relative situation that changes.

Studies into the science of ‘choking’ can help us in so much that we know so much more about how the brain functions under pressure and the mistakes we make that literally cause us to get in our own way and sabotage performance.

Here are some of the top tips from the world of neuroscience which have been well researched and documented as being useful strategies to deal with those ‘white heat’ moments of intense pressure when opportunity knocks!


Golf is almost unique in so much that we tend to do all of our practice in an environment (i.e. on a range) that has little or no relevance to the real game which is played on the course. When you play golf with a card in your hand, each and every shot has a consequence. Yet we are all guilty of standing on a driving range that is wide open and belting balls one after another with little or no consequence to the outcome.

Under pressure we need to be a little bit more intuitive and just do it! This is why it is SO important to have – and to practice – a really effective pre-shot routine. A routine that is concise and rhythmical.This style of practice gives golfers what I call ‘false confidence’. You are good in an environment that is totally removed from the real thing. Without identifying a specific target, you might hit 30 balls on the range to loosen up and feel that you are hitting them pretty well. Then you get to the 1st tee, and all of a sudden you find yourself looking at a narrow fairway, trees left and right. That warm-up session hasn’t prepared you for this – now the shot has a real consequence. And you get nervous...

A good comparative example would be someone who fears public speaking doing all of his practice to a chair! The chair will never be bored or disruptive in the way that an audience of real people is likely to be. If that speaker were to rehearse in front of just two people it would make the experience that much closer to the real thing. It’s a step in the right direction. As Beilock confirms in her book, if we practice under a little stress we greatly improve our chances of performing that task better under a lot of stress.

Following the chain of this concept, for me, explains the single biggest reason that golfers don’t fulfil their potential. The time the vast majority of golfers spend practising bears little or no resemblance to the challenge of the golf course.


The normal reaction under pressure is to slow down and try to think too much. Over the first three rounds of the ’96 Masters at Augusta, Greg Norman’s routine hardly varied. Yet in the final round his pre-shot routines varied by anything up to 45 seconds. It’s no coincidence he collapsed to a 78 while Nick Faldo was putting together a 67. The Australian played magnificent golf to build that 6- shot lead going in to the final round...and then he abandoned the execution of his game plan and his natural shot-making rhythm.

It is counter intuitive...but under pressure we need to be a little bit more intuitive and just do it! This is why it is SO important to have – and to practice – a really effective pre-shot routine. A routine that is concise and rhythmical. You should gather just enough information and go through a set procedure and then get in there and GO! If you don’t practice this when there is no pressure don’t expect it to hold up when there is pressure.


One of the things that settles your mind down under pressure is to focus on things that you are able to control. Unfortunately, winning is not one of them. If you shoot five under and someone else shoots seven under then there is nothing whatsoever you can do about it. What you DO have control over is your own emotion and your game plan. The advice I give to a lot of my clients is to become fascinated with the golf course. See the course as a complex puzzle that you are trying to unlock. Ask yourself what the course designer is trying to trick you into doing and then come up with a plan that will enable you to play your game and defeat him.

To be absorbed in your own game plan and what you need to do is a wonderful antidote to the physiological symptoms of pressure. I love the line that Jack Nicklaus used when he said that in the main he didn’t win majors, he let others lose them. Under extreme pressure he knew that other players would stray from their game plan and watch too closely what others were doing. He knew that he wouldn’t do that because he had a plan and he would stick to it. That’s a key message from the greatest player who ever lived – one that you should remember and apply to your own game.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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