Friday, August 17, 2012

Scott’s Lytham Opportunity: The Only Way Out is Through

Much was made of the way Adam Scott handled himself after his disastrous four-hole demise at this year’s British Open.  In total control of the tournament and his golf game for 68 holes, Scott bogeyed holes 15-18 to lose the tournament by one stroke to Ernie Els.  Commentators all praised him for the Stoic and gentlemanly manner he negotiated himself after a collapse whose scope was compared to Greg Norman’s epic blunder at the Masters in 1996.  We remember that Norman  started the tournament with a course record-tying 63 and took a six stroke lead into Sunday, only to shoot 78 and lose by 5 strokes to Nick Faldo.  Even Scott made the comparison as he told reporters how well his idol had handled himself in defeat.
   Two comments immediately come to mind about the comparison with Greg Norman.  First of all, I have a distinct memory of the bad taste Norman’s comments left in people’s mouths when he said a version of, “hey, in the end, it’s just a game and I have all my business interests and my money, and I’ll be fine.”  Secondly, it would also be useful to remember that Norman never seriously contended in another major tournament, unless you consider the 1999 Masters, when he again turned in a lackluster final round 73 to finish three strokes behind Jose Maria Olazabal.  Norman’s final round might indicate that, regardless of how he handled himself in his 1996 defeat, his post-round retreat into his off-course successes may have been a salve for his ego, but may have hindered him from submitting to the kind of post game analysis necessary to avoid repeating it, as he did in 1999.  Any trauma survivor knows that avoidance is the easiest and most common-sense reaction to the traumatic event, but anyone who has truly overcome their trauma knows that the only way out is back through.  And that means: exposure.
   While Scott definitely did not seek to soothe his ego too quickly (“I can’t justify anything I did out there today.”), he would do well to expose himself very painstakingly  to everything that happened in those last four holes.  Rather than hide behind his now trademark steely gaze, he should submit to a tortuous examination of as much as he can remember of his thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, as well as every little detail of every shot in that last hour of play.  If he does, he might find that he succumbed to any or all of the following cognitive pitfalls:

1) The “I’ve got this” error.  If he reviews the audio reel of his self-talk, he might find that he had some thought that the birdie on 14 that put him four shots clear of the field was the winning stroke.  We all know how dangerous this cognitive distortion is and how much it can undermine the kind of attention needed to execute all the way to the end. And if he had the thought, was he quick enough to answer with a stern version of, “hey, we’ve got lots of golf left, here”?  He said of his play on Thursday that he just kept his foot on the gas, “as if it was Sunday.”  But maybe after his putt on 14 on Sunday, he began to play as if it was Thursday.
2) The strategy error.  Had he prepared himself to have a big lead late on Sunday?  If so, what was the strategy?  If he had not thought of that, then it suggests that his preparation was incomplete.  He should have gone through every margin of leading or following on all of the final holes, so that no situation would have felt unfamiliar.  He may think he prepared to “take it just one shot at a time,” which is generally a good strategy, but it’s equally good strategy to think, “how would I play if I had a four shot lead with four to go?”  It might not have meant doing anything differently, from a strategic point of view, but it would mean that he would have put himself there in his mind and had a plan when it did happen.
3) The “don’t” error.  Every golfer knows the power of saying something like, “don’t hit it into the water,” right before doing just that.  Did he make a version of the “don’t” error on 16 :“don’t miss this putt”?  Or, more likely on 17: “don’t hit it left.”  It is always more cognitively effective, from a performance point of view, to put the goal in the positive: “Hit it pure (and the water’s not an issue).” “Make a good stroke.”  “Let’s hit this a little right.”
4) The Stevie Williams error.  Adam said of Stevie’s contribution to his spectacular opening 64 on Thursday: “ [His] little gee-ups (a ‘gee up’ is Down Under speak for a “pep talk”) are good for me.  It keeps me alert.  I like that, I can feed off of it because I can cruise too much when I’m out on the golf course.”  All of us, particularly after Adam’s win last year at the Bridgestone, thought that Steve Williams would be Scott’s 15th club in the bag when it came down the stretch at a major.  After all, Williams had been a successful closer in 13 majors with his previous boss, the consummate closer.  But where was that 15th club in the last four holes?  Did Stevie continue to give him little “gee ups,” or did both of them go into the sort of cruise control that considers victory a foregone conclusion?  Did Stevie step up or down, and if so, was Stevie’s role clarified if he felt that his man was on cruise control?

There is evidence that his old habit of cruise control did set in, because in his press conference this year at Bridgestone he said of his last four holes at Lytham: “But it's not like I lost by spraying the ball all over. I wasn't that far off. What I was, though, was sloppy coming in. I just got a little sloppy. I'd never really been in that position before, and I just got a little sloppy."  Note how suggestive this comment is of errors 1, 2 & 4.  It’s great that he’s aware of the slop, but the question is the measure and extent of his awareness.  I think his response to his demise has been much better than his childhood idol’s, but if he really wants to tighten up that slop down the stretch on Sunday in a major then he would do well to examine and fully admit if he fell prey to any of these cognitive errors.  Otherwise, Greg Norman will indeed serve as an all-too unfortunate role model. 

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