Even the best struggle with doubt
May 10, 2017
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- Jason Day is winless since his victory at last year's THE PLAYERS. (Getty Images/Warren Little)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Even the best can doubt themselves.
Often, we see our golf heroes as herculean. We see them strut down the fairways with bravado, smash the ball so hard you feel the cover will come off, and make putts from everywhere.
They have enviable bank balances and fly on private planes. Everything seems to be good and rosy.
But at the end of the day, just like you and me, they’re human. Golf is a great equalizer when it comes to the mental battles. We’ve seen many a rollercoaster career. And even the most confident humans can lack self-belief at times.
Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Adam Scott have all been the best in the world – but it doesn’t absolve them of self-doubt.
“I face self-doubt on a daily basis in tournament rounds,” Spieth admits.
“I feel the longer I've played, the more my self-belief's sort of wavered a little bit,” McIlroy adds.
“When you lose it you have to dig deep and start asking yourself some pretty blunt questions and give yourself some honest answers,” Scott says.
McIlroy, the reigning FedExCup champion, began believing he was the best when he was just 10, but now he speaks of how the depth of competition increases the difficulty of maintaining a dominant mindset.I feel the longer I've played, the more my self-belief has wavered a little bit.
“I think you would be somewhat of a machine if you said every week that I'm the best and I believe in myself 100 percent,” McIlroy says.
According to Day, the defending champion at THE PLAYERS, self-belief is the biggest plague on his game right now.
That’s right. The same man who dominated THE PLAYERS Stadium Course a year ago to win by four shots in wire-to-wire fashion. The one who won seven times in 17 starts. That guy struggles to believe in himself.
“That's one thing that I probably struggle with the most out of my whole game is the actual self-belief,” Day confirms.
“When it's there, I usually play some very, very good golf. I, like everyone else, will kind of struggle with certain things out here, but that's one thing that I've always constantly been trying to get better at each and every year.”
Day’s current struggles center around not having a specific goal to strive hard toward. He spent his early career chasing the dream of being world No. 1 and winning a major championship.
He’s done both. And he has admitted his 51 weeks at the top added stress to his existence, so now he must find the motivation to put in the extra work to get back there.
“When I think about Tiger Woods and how he dominated for over 13 years at No. 1, I always think, why was he so motivated?” Day recently told PGATOUR.COM. “He was literally trying to break Jack's major record. He wanted to be the best ever, hands down, without a question, the best.
“I've wanted to become No. 1 in the world and I've wanted to win major championships, but I've never wanted to break Jack's record. I've never wanted to be better than Tiger Woods. I never wanted to chase anyone.”
So now Day is trying to find the new target in his heart. He is trying to find the belief that he does belong at the top. That he can strive to the same levels reached by the greats before him.
“I haven't determined that benchmark yet. I need to find that motivating factor that will push me to work harder than anyone in the world,” he says.
Neale Smith, a former TOUR pro who is now a sports psychologist for a handful of players, says the key is to return to what has worked in the past.
“Golf is designed to get you negative and tournament golf is another layer of that. No one hits it perfect or is good every day,” Smith says. “In a perfect world, you’d want high belief on every shot, but we know that’s not going to happen. So, it is doing the best you can.
“Everyone goes through cycles and with the right awareness every player has a recipe for how they’ve played well. Unless the context in their lives has changed a lot, it’s about respecting what helps them play well and part of the journey of tournament golf is learning your own recipe for success.
“When you’re struggling, often what happens is a lot of searching outside that recipe, which generally, is not that helpful. If you can search within what you’ve done well at in the past you are likely to play well again.”
And so the mental battle continues. McIlroy says Woods and Nicklaus might be the only guys in history who may have mastered it for long periods.
Spieth’s methods of finding his happy place are to simply say, “Who cares?”
In the grand scheme of things, it is just golf. It is not life and death.
“So what if I hit it in the water on this shot. I make a bogey; is that going to change my life? No. If I think about it that way, I'm more freed up,” the Texan says.
“And then if it goes in the water, I need to stick with that. That's the toughest thing for me is being carefree and then not reacting if something doesn't go well. I'm working on it and your mental game is something that we should be working on as much as we work on the physical components of our game.
“It's always a work in progress, and the bigger the tournament, the more work that's required.”
And it doesn’t get much bigger than THE PLAYERS Championship. Where TPC Sawgrass can throw multiple situations at you to doubt yourself.
May the most confident man win.