There is one man who will be pacing around the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota this week hoping to make it three majors in a row — but you won’t find his name when you trail your finger down the list of starters at the 91st PGA Championship.
Though his presence may be unnoticed by spectators lining the fairways, his influence on the players he coaches is becoming far more conspicuous. That is because sports psychologist Dr. Morris Pickens, or “Dr Mo” as his players like to call him, is fast gaining a reputation for being one of the best mental coaches in golf. So far this year his mastery of the mind has helped Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink win the U.S. Open and the British Open respectively. In 2007, Pickens helped Zach Johnson to his Masters’ triumph at the Augusta National. A win for one of Pickens’ players at this year’s PGA would complete a career slam of majors for the psychologist. It is a cast iron certainty that this week’s winner will not only have to master the course — all 7674 yards of it — but also his mental demons coming down the stretch on Sunday evening. Learning to cope with such pressure is not easy. “It doesn’t just happen, you have to develop the mental game off the golf course,” Pickens told CNN. The best players on the Tour are consistently honing their mental skills and Morris — who studied under the game’s most renowned psychologist, Bob Rotella, at the University of Virginia in the 1990s — is now just one of dozens of mind men employed by pros on the PGA Tour. “Good players are mentally good when their game is on. Great players are mentally good regardless of where their game is. They are constantly remembering past memories — where they’ve won, where they putted good, and so on.” Pickens says it is important for players to put aside a set amount of time before a competition visualizing how they see themselves walking, their tempo and thinking about the demeanor they want to convey. But it is more than just about ramming home a message about the powers of positive thinking. Pickens advises more technical players to find ways of accepting where shots go, relaxing in between and staying patient.
Fact Box Dr Mo’s tips for amateurs: Off the course: Use 75 percent of your practise time using the clubs you use 80-85 percent of the time on the course — namely your driver, three wood, wedges and putter. On the course: Include some sort of routine and learn how to relax. Follow a pattern of behavior around the golf course whether you are seven over or 15 over.
Someone who struggles with shot selection will require a strategy that focuses on being decisive. “Being great behind the ball so you can be great over the ball,” Pickens says. It’s the sort of mantra you sense that Tiger Woods has probably uttered to himself thousands of times down the years. The mental side is part of the game that Woods has paid close attention to ever since he was a boy. When most teenagers were blithely thwacking balls out on the range and dreaming of future glory, Woods was already laying the foundations of his mental toughness. With the help of Dr Jay Brunza — a former military man and friend of Woods’ late father Earl — Woods Jr was being drilled in strategies of emotional detachment in pressure situations. As Pickens points out, it’s been key to his success. “If you learn these mental skills when you are young, it becomes second nature to you. Most guys start learning to be good mentally when they are 30 and it’s not easy to incorporate. For Tiger, it’s always been part of his game. For others it’s an add on.” Pickens, who has also worked in American Football and Nascar, identifies Woods’ extraordinary mental control in adversity as one of his greatest assets. “His confidence around his scoring is not going to be affected by his confidence about his ball striking. He might have his A-game, but if he doesn’t, it’s like he says: ‘I’ll figure out a way and hit three wood or an iron’ — like he did at Hoylake [in 2006]. Other guys confidence is all around: ‘if I don’t hit it good, then I can’t score good’ and they take themselves out of it.”
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Back to back wins on the PGA Tour have ensured Woods is one of the hottest favorites — even by his standards — to win his fifth PGA Championship. And it seems implausible that he will miss two major cuts on the bounce. If he is in the mix come Sunday, it is, according to Pickens, another edge he has over his competitors. “He’s been through those experiences more than anyone he’s going to face and is familiar with how the intense pressure changes your body. When you’ve been there so often, like Tiger has, it’s easier to manage. I think he still gets nervous and gets those feelings of wanting to win. I just think he doesn’t get overwhelmed by them like some guys do.” But that’s all to come. For now, Pickens is concentrating on getting his players in good shape for the tournament. And that means sticking to the same routine. “It’s not Masters week or PGA week. It’s what course are we going to Is it Augusta National, Turnberry or Hazeltine” Pickens said. During practice rounds, Pickens will spend around half a day with each of his players. Once the tournament starts. he’ll see them during their warm ups and, if required, work through some putting or short game drills after a round. He’s confident one of his charges can do the business this week. Cink, Glover and Johnson were all in the top five heading into the final round at WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last weekend. “They are all probably feeling that they are pretty close,” he said. But judging by Woods’ current form, they will do well to hold him off. Pickens and his players don’t discuss Woods, but they do talk about strategies if they are paired with him. “You have to be prepared for the crowd that follow him. When you play with Tiger you know that there is going to be a lot of chaos and confusion,” Pickens said. He can’t see past Woods this week. “I’m sure he still struggles with some shots, some putts, like everybody does. But I can’t see any weaknesses in his game. I’m just hoping that he’s peaked a little early!”