It was Stewart Cink versus the world. That’s how the final round of the 2009 British Open played out as Cink, who came back from a three-stroke deficit, faced tournament fan favorite Tom Watson, the 59-year-old legend on the cusp of becoming golf’s oldest major champion.
Cink sank two birdies in the four-round playoff to end Watson’s miraculous run. It was a roller-coaster ride for Cink, who “watched Tom with such admiration all week” before he went on to win his first-ever major.
In a situation that intense, you’ve got to be mentally tough to triumph.
According to sport psychology consultant Rob Bell, the key to building mental toughness is to view hard-knock situations as a challenge, not a threat. Bell says feeling threatened is the worst thing you can do. Instead, he recommends using the adversity as a challenge to how well you can perform.
As a caddy and mental training consultant for golfers on the PGA and Nationwide tours, Bell knows about the concept of challenge versus threat. It’s a battle his clients constantly fight, from tee to rough to sand trap to green.
Says Bell: “If a shot goes in a bunker and the ball is plugged, we [mentally] work to go through the grieving process really quickly, so when we get there and see it, we can deal with it.”
The second part of developing mental toughness for pressure-cooked situations is to focus on what you can control. “We can control our preparation and what we say to ourselves,” Bell says. “What we can’t control is what other people are going to do. I think that’s what gets some players off their game, is worrying about the aspects they can’t control.”
What does Bell suggest to keep your mind right in tight situations? “We play better when we have fun,” he says. “Between shots, we’ll talk about anything except the score or golf. When we’re walking up to the ball, that’s when we sort of take a deep breath and turn up the concentration.”
Give your brain a break when you’re on the sidelines or in the dugout. Talk about the nature of the crowd or the local pro team—anything to keep your mind relaxed, advises Bell, because you don’t want to be mentally exhausted in that final minute when the game is on the line. “That’s when you need the gas tank full of mental energy,” he says.