Jordan Spieth threw away a 5 shot lead at the Augusta Masters golf tournament 2016 having dominated the competition until the last day. Walking on to the tenth hole on the final day he held a 5 shot lead. He bogeyed both 10 and 11 before his game totally unravelled on the 12th hole.
The 12th – a par 3 had water to the front of the green that took Spieth’s eight iron tee shot as it fell short and right of the green. He dropped a ball and caught his third shot thick from less than 100 yards as the ball again landed in the water. After another drop, his 5th shot overran the green and landed in the bunker from where he did well to get up and down for a quadruple bogey 7 – too much harm to salvage the masters.
So what happened
Basically anxiety had a significant negative impact on his performance on the 12th. Anxiety takes two forms and may impact the brain (psychological anxiety) or the muscular system (somatic anxiety) or both.
Psychological anxiety can affect decision making, ability to sleep on nights previous to performance and bring on worrisome thoughts – often about other player on attack, closeness of competition, fear of making a mistake, crowd, coach or family member perceptions which may make suffering players uncomfortable.
Somatic anxiety manifests itself in various ways – trembling hands, hyperventilation, nausea, increased need to use toilet, dry throat, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, general sweating and feeling of discomfort.
The combination of an increase in both psychological anxiety (head worry) and somatic anxiety (muscle worry) at the same time forces the body and mind to overheat and golfers then struggle to execute what are considered relatively easy shots. It takes the form of a mild panic attack or what we know as psycho-somatic stress resulting in skill breakdown. Decision making can suffer – aka Spieth after tee shot on 12th. However, there are also actual physical manifestations of the anxiety in the body and these can often do the most damage contributing to a meltdown!
The nervousness within the body bring about involuntary muscle movements which contribute to the “yips” as skill execution that is normally considered easy becomes a lot more difficult as a breakdown of natural movement flow occurs – as we saw on his disastrous 12th hole in the final round.
How often have we seen golfers do erratic things at the most inopportune times?
Ernie Els made a six-putt at the first hole in Augusta only this week – See disaster here. Such poor skill execution can often be seen as golfers feel under pressure and anxious during performance in highly charged settings..
One only needs to look back at Rory McIllroy at Augusta in 2011 to see how anxiety can destroy a performance as he threw away an overnight four stroke lead with the worst round in history by any professional golfer leading after the third round of the Masters Tournament.
Others also suffered a similar fate, none more so than Jean Van De Welde famously at the British Open and Greg Norman at Augusta as they both threw away huge leads on the final day after holding convincing leads overnight from the third round on the Saturday.
More recently, a young Irish amateur Paul Dunne led the British Open in 2015 entering the final day by 3 shots. After his final round collapsed, Dunne found it tough to take after his first three rounds of 69, 69 and 66, as he enjoyed massive support among the galleries from Greystones club members and Irish golf fans.
Afterwards he said “I just never really got settled into the round,” he lamented. “I got off to a bit of a rough start and didn’t make my score on the front nine and threw away some shots on the back nine.
“I wasn’t too bad starting. I just hit three wedge shots fat and one thin. I didn’t see those shots in my game or in practice before today. I don’t think I’ve done that ever. I don’t know where that came from.”
“It kind of surprised me on the first. After I hit that second shot it rattled me a little bit and I never got settled after that.“
Various strategies such as appropriate relaxation techniques, self-talk and attentional focus cues in addition to imagery can help alleviate the impact of the anxiety and reduce the impact and onset of the “yips”. These are best generated with the help and advice of a qualified sport psychologist.
Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.