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The difference between professionals and amateurs is in the ground

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Ok, the difference between amateur and professionals isn’t necessarily in the ground. It’s more about how you use it.

We all enjoy watching the beautiful swings of the best players in the world and often wonder, “Why can’t I swing it like that?” They swing with great tempo, sequence and power, allowing them to hit the ball a long way with a high level of accuracy. Most professionals swing differently, but they all do one thing similar. They use the ground properly throughout their swing, providing great balance and sequencing.

I can tell you this because it has been proven through recent technology in the form of force or balance plates. These plates provide between 400 and 3000 high-resolution sensors that measure a player’s Center of Pressure (COP), Center of Pressure Trace (motion of pressure during swing) and foot pressure (where weight is).

At one point or another, all golfers have been told to set-up to the golf ball at address with their weight distributed 50/50, but technology has showed us that it’s virtually impossible. Everyone will have more weight on either their left or right foot at address, even if they feel like they are evenly distributed. Here’s what has been discovered by using force plate technology.

Average Amateur Set-Up

Photo 1

PGA Tour Player Set-Up

Photo 2

Above is a visual comparing the average amateur golfer set-up compared to the touring professional. You can see the percentages under each foot and the colors represent where the pressure is located. The red would indicate the most pressure.

On average, the amateur player does two things at setup with their pressure. They have more pressure on the trail foot with the weight back in the heels. Tour players do the opposite. They have more weight on the front foot with the pressure between the ball of the foot and the toe at address.

The white dot represents where the center of pressure (COP) starts at setup. A tour players COP starts centered between the two feet, and because of their pressure the amateur is typically closer to the trail foot. This has a large effect on the efficiency of the backswing. When watching PGA Tour coverage, you will see the players don’t move much off of the golf ball in the backswing. If you go to the local range and watch players hit balls you will see the opposite.

The great thing that has been found through this technology is that it doesn’t matter what swing theory or method a player uses. The pressure from each player is very similar. To the human eye it may not look close, but that’s why this technology is so powerful.

Once the tour player reaches the top of the backswing, they will have between 70 and 80 percent of their pressure in the trail leg. This holds true for players that practice a one-post or stack-and-tilt move as well. What gives the professional a big advantage over the amateur golfer is what they do immediately into their transition or start of the downswing. Below you will see another graph comparing a professional and amateur from the start of the transition.

PGA Tour Player (left) and Average Amateur Golfer (right)

Photo 34

The tour player shows an immediate transition in pressure moving forward. This player went from close to 80 percent pressure to 52 percent pressure on the trail leg in the first move in the downswing. You can see the pressure is moving forward and towards the ball of the front foot. You can see the amateur on the right still has too much weight on the trail foot. This affects a player’s balance, sequencing and power, which transfers into inconsistent face and path alignments at impact.

What you will also notice when looking at these pictures is the COP trace line. The tour player on the left has a smooth line that started centered at set-up, then smoothly moved into the back foot. As the player is moving closer to impact, the trace is smooth running towards the ball of the front foot. The amateur player on the right has a trace line that is all over the place. This means the pressure has inconsistent movement and the pressure has moved both back and forward in their feet.

Due to what the amateur golfer has done with their pressure at this point, they are going to have a very difficult time creating the proper impact angles. We call impact the “moment of truth,” because it’s really all that matters. The only problem is if the player is doing things poorly from the start it makes it that much more difficult to put the club into the impact position they are looking for.

The best players in the world have been found to all deliver the club into the impact position very similarly no matter what their swing may look like. It has been found through these force plates that at impact these professionals have between 75 and 90 percent of their pressure on their front foot. That number goes to 98-to-100 percent into their finish position. Below is another comparison between the tour player (left) and the amateur golfer (right). These number represent where the player is at just after impact.

PGA Tour Player (left) and Amatuer Golfer (right)

Photo 5

Right after impact, the professional already has 87 percent of pressure on their front foot with the weight between the ball of the foot and toe. When looking at the average amateur golfer on the right, you can see a big discrepancy. This golfer still has more weight on the back foot and you can continue to see the issue with the player’s COP Trace moving all over the place.

Tour players will have a simple, clear pattern and amateur golfers will not. They will show unnecessary movements and abrupt changes in direction. Every player will have their own “fingerprint,” however, because no one swings exactly alike. But ball flight is hugely influenced by what your COP is doing during your golf swing.

That being said, there are a few drills I prescribe to help amateur golfers improve their COP, COP Trace and foot pressure. This can help the player improve their balance, sequencing and overall power. These three things have a large effect on a player ball flight and overall consistency.

The first drill I recommend will help the player with their COP and foot pressure at the set-up position. It will also help with the COP Trace throughout the player’s swing. You will need to find a downhill lie with the ball slightly below your feet. This drill should be done using half-swings (click on the photos to enlarge them).

photo 7photo 8photo 9

This lie will force the COP to be centered with the pressure moving between the ball of the foot and toe at set-up. It will then help the player improve their initial move in the transition to begin the downswing. It improves the kinematic sequence and provides more pressure earlier, setting up the impact position.

The second drill will help the player establish a better relationship with their feet and the ground. You want to do this drill in your bare feet. The player should feel almost as if they are in a sand bunker feeling like they grab the ground with their feet. This helps create friction with the ground, allowing the player to create ground reaction forces. This can help the player with the sequencing and acceleration and deceleration of the kinematic sequence.

photo 12photo 11photo 13

Hitting balls barefoot will give the player a great sense of balance and help them understand how their body should move in the golf swing. If done improperly, the player will lose balance and not create the right amount of pressure. The great Sam Snead practiced much of his young life in his bare feet, this provided a great action later in his life providing a very powerful golf swing.

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Bill Schmedes III is an award-winning PGA Class A member and Director of Instruction at Fiddler's Elbow Country Club in Bedminster, the largest golf facility in New Jersey. He has been named a "Top-25 Golf Instructor," and has been nominated for PGA Teacher of the Year and Golf Professional of the Year at both the PGA chapter and section levels. Bill was most recently nominated for Golf Digest's "Best Young Teachers in America" list, and has been privileged to work and study under several of the top golf coaches in the world. These coaches can all be found on the Top 100 & Top 50 lists. Bill has also worked with a handful of Top-20 Teachers under 40. He spent the last 2+ years working directly under Gary Gilchrist at his academy in Orlando, Fla. Bill was a Head Instructor/Coach and assisted Gary will his tour players on the PGA, LPGA, and European tours. Bill's eBook, The 5 Tour Fundamentals of Golf, can now be purchased on Amazon. It's unlike any golf instruction book you have ever read, and uncovers the TRUE fundamentals of golf using the tour player as the model.

58 Comments

58 Comments

  1. Grant F

    Oct 25, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    This is good advice for amateur golfers BUT when the weight transfer starts from the hips first the head MUST remain back otherwsie amateur golfers simply move their heads forward and lose all aspects of their swing!

    Pros must teach amateurs this! Look at any pro golfer and their head remains back as the hips and lower body drive forward.

  2. Mike Davis

    Sep 2, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    I know I’m reading this article 2 years after originally being published but thanks for the info. Some good stuff here. Thanks, Bill.

  3. Pingback: The Reasons Why Golfer Should Use Golf GPS Watches | NADIANEREA

  4. Gerry

    Jun 5, 2016 at 5:32 am

    Hi Bill
    Given the important role that the intrinsic muscles of the foot play in dynamic balancing tasks such as the golf swing I wondered whether professional golfers use specific exercises to strengthen these muscles ?
    Gerry

  5. Jack

    May 19, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Weight shift is talked about often and understood little. This goes a long way in explaining it.

    I am not sure why this disturbs anyone… Every pro I have ever listened to or worked w/ acknowledges the importance of weight shift being correct. This article and the tech just puts it in a very friendly manner and easy to understand.

    Kudos!

  6. Gerry

    May 1, 2016 at 8:09 am

    Hi Bill
    Very interesting article .
    How big a role do you think the muscles of the foot ,and the intrinsic foot muscles in particular , play in producing a consistent golf swing .

    Gerry

  7. Jackson Brooke

    Jul 1, 2014 at 11:14 am

    Hi Bill and thanks for great info. Would be nice to read about those measurements when hitting woods or irons.

  8. Martini122

    May 10, 2014 at 11:52 am

    This a great article. I’m a big fan of Knudson and it seems like the technology verifies the points he wrote about in 1987. A balanced* weight transfer is essential to control and consistency. Please keep up the good work.

    • Bill Schmedes III

      May 11, 2014 at 1:36 pm

      Thank you! Technology is ever evolving helping us as coaches give our students fact and no longer just opinion. I didn’t read that George Knudson book, but some coaches are ahead of there time!

  9. Break80

    May 6, 2014 at 3:31 am

    Great article! I (and hope others) very much appreciate reading this highly important but rarely addressed component of the golf swing. Even before reading this article, footwork has come to be my main area of focus during my practice sessions, so this information and data provided in the article could not have come at a better time personally. Im sure you know how satisfying it is to be able to practice w/confidence, knowing the methods you choose has data proven that substantiates it.

    Grip, Alignment, and posture has always been the foundation for me in hitting the ball to my intended distance/target, but the timing of the motion can sometimes fall thru the cracks and forgotten in the circus of swing thoughts, that aren’t supposed to be thought of….

    So I included tempo and rhythm into my foundation, but believed that consistent tempo can only be achieved and maintained with proper footwork.

    The Golf swing is such an athletic move, and thinking every athlete in any sport they play, proper footwork is vital for success in what they try to accomplish. From boxers to offensive lineman to middle infielders, individuals who achieved the most success would all have great footwork.

    Such is the same in a highly efficient golf swing, and one I believe is the main factor in providing that “effortless” effect in many of the golf swings we see from skilled players.

    The data provided in your research has not only strengthen my belief that what I’m working on will result in improving, but also provide new areas to focus on to help achieve my goals and possibly enhance my swing overall.

    The info about the weight during setup favoring a bit left, and the smooth line during transition are two bits of information Im excited to implement during my practice soon. I really hope others will see the info in this article and value it’s worth, value it enough to make a conscious effort to work into or, like myself, improve on within their own golf swings. Sometimes too much information can be harmful, especially in this game that’s drove all who’ve played it mental at one time or another, but in this instance, it is in my opinion that this knowledge is power.

  10. Scott

    May 1, 2014 at 11:58 am

    I could not agree more with this article. I also agree that this is not particular to any type of swinging method. I cannot believe how much horrible “professional” instruction that I see taking place all over the country. This should be every professional’s first item given and reviewed with every student. Proper weight shift should happen naturally without ANY discussion about getting your weight from one side to the other. Every weight shift discussion I have ever been involved in is overly complicated and incorrect. Thank you for the article.

    • Fred

      May 2, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      Your right, Scott – great observation. Amazing how you seldom, if ever, hear an instructor bring this valuable topic up. Listen to all the guys on TV selling their videos. They never mention this. Maybe it comes up when they reveal they’re “secret” to the perfect swing. Great article, Bill. All amateurs should burn a copy of it and put it in their bag for future reference. I know I will.

    • Bill Schmedes

      May 2, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      Thank you Scott!

  11. Sully

    May 1, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Awesome article Bill! It looks like you took those pics at a club back in the Boston area. Where was that?

    • Bill Schmedes

      May 1, 2014 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks Sully. It does look a bit like a new england course but it was actually in Colubia, SC

  12. Martin Chuck

    May 1, 2014 at 12:04 am

    Nice work, Pro!

  13. Rob

    Apr 30, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Nice article Bill. Thanks. As a Stack and Tilt student, it’s interesting to me that you found the pressure being as high as 80 percent on the trail leg for the SnT golfer. I would have expected much less than that. But the overall point about favoring left side is right on.

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 30, 2014 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks Rob. Yes center of pressure and center of motion are two different animals. I have seen two examples of SnT pro’s and the one I remember I believe was still 75% pressure in right foot although his body was actually centered around a fixed pivot. I think all golfers can take something away from the transition in the beginning of the downswing into impact and how the pressure should move.

      • Bill Schmedes

        Apr 30, 2014 at 7:50 pm

        *Center of Mass

        • Rob

          Apr 30, 2014 at 8:40 pm

          Sure, I can understand that difference. Thanks again for the info Bill.

  14. Richard Cheney

    Apr 30, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    That is one of the most instructive articles I have read on the golf swing. Beautifully written and easy to follow. Thanks very much Bill.

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 30, 2014 at 7:41 pm

      Thank you Richard for the kind words!

  15. Chuck

    Apr 30, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    Very fine article.

    “Lessons are the best equipment in golf…”

  16. J Sheehan

    Apr 30, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Great article…You’ve answered questions for me that I didn’t even know how to ask. I’d love to know if I could find access to a more detailed set of results.

    For now, though, I’m really wondering 1) if all those studied were holding the same club 2)was the ball teed up and 3)Wouldn’t 1 & 2 have a small but important impact on the results.

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 30, 2014 at 7:48 pm

      Great question. The two examples I used both the pro and amateur were hitting mid-irons. As the club gets longer and the swing arc increases the pressure may change a bit but wouldn’t be too far apart. We swing from the ground up so the proper kinematic sequence if done properly should always be the same with full-swing. Throw finesse wedges out the window.

  17. James Gatz

    Apr 29, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    What’s an “average amateur?” Professional golfer is a pretty narrow field while everyone below professional is extremely broad group – too vast to present anything meaningful in terms of “average.” Perhaps this would be better narrowed down to that this is indicative of your “average 18-handicapper?”

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 29, 2014 at 5:30 pm

      Yes it is broad when I say average golfer. All mid-high handicap golfers have sequencing issues and then even the majority of lower handicap players have sequencing issues also. A golfer can play, and play well with a sequencing issue, but the consistency will be lacking, and they will have a hard time reaching their full potential. There never is a one size fits all anything in golf instruction, but this should help the majority of golfers. Thanks

    • Daniel V

      Apr 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      How about (High handicap = 20+) (Low handicap = 5-10) (Average = 11-19)?

  18. Jeremy

    Apr 29, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Great article Bill. As I have taught myself into being a high single digit handicap now, I have noticed that on my good ball striking days my weight is always finishing on my front foot, and on my bad days I’m hanging on the back foot. If you watch the Pro’s you will see a variety of backswings and swing paths, but one thing is always consistent: they finish balanced with their weight forward (even Bubba who doesn’t look like he does).

    I have really been working on exaggerating transferring my weight to my front foot on the range, but have been struggling with shoving my weight forward too fast and just chunking the ball like crazy. I know this has a lot to do with the tempo of my transition. Do you have any tips or drills that could help me make my transition more consistent? Thanks.

  19. Pete

    Apr 29, 2014 at 2:42 am

    The observations on amateur vs. pro on the weight distribution must be relevant, but what do recon is the reason for such a difference?

    As a hacker I find this information little bit disturbing, as so many of us pay lots of money to our club pros to become better in swinging the club.

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 29, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks Pete. Hopefully these club pro’s are knowledgeable enough to understand how the body effects the club throughout the swing. The proper body mechanics control the club and the correct sequencing of events is crucial to a players success. The average golfer slices the golf ball. Someone could try and fix that slice all day but until you improve the sequencing, especially in the downswing, it will be very difficult to do. The TPI website is very good explaining a large amount of this. I would check them out!

  20. Boo

    Apr 28, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    So we should strive to swing the club on the balls of our feet, not the heels or arches?

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 29, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      For most players yes, especially in the transition to begin the downswing, if you can get more pressure moving forward and outward it can help improve the sequence. Most players trying to create power start with both the upper and lower halves at the same time (sequencing issue) this spin move places too much weight back at impact. If it does get forward its typically too much in the heel effecting the players impact alignment and ability to create power.

  21. Tom Stickney

    Apr 28, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Good article. Have used a force plate for many years. Couldn’t agree more.

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 28, 2014 at 6:36 pm

      Thanks Tom! I always enjoy your articles

  22. Jim

    Apr 28, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Excellent article from so many perspectives. Shows me I have a lot of swing changes in my future to begin working on right now. Thank You!

  23. Philip

    Apr 28, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Awesome article – I have noticed a similar thing with myself as my setup and swing have been moving from hacker swing to golf swing. I get a crisper hit if I keep a bit more weight on my front foot and it is easier to make the weight transfer.

    Question – does the logic apply to all clubs, including hybrids, woods and drivers?

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 28, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Thanks Philip! Yes Logic is the same. Ball position obviously just various. Feeling should be the same as pressure effects face-path relationship at impact.

      • Henry

        Jul 28, 2015 at 12:30 am

        Love the article. This has made a positive difference for my game. But can you further elaborate on that last sentence. Thanks

  24. Mbwa Kali Sana

    Apr 28, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I ‘m happy you showed thèse graphe ,Bill:they exemplifie why the “STACK AND TILT”swing works ,or methods closely related ,such as MARTIN CHUCK ‘s TOUR STRIKER méthod .
    Though you have to put your Weight on the right leg to BUILD up power ,you have to get as Quick as you CAN on the left leg :see how BEN HOGAN did it !Impressive !

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 28, 2014 at 6:42 pm

      Happy to help. I have seen graphs of stack and tilt players compared to the “traditional” players and the pressure is all very similar. It may look different to the eye but there are many things we can’t read without the help of certain technologies. Thanks!

  25. Joe S

    Apr 28, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Bill,

    This is a great and for me, timely article…so thanks for posting.

    I am struggling with this move. I fake finish with my right foot (Im a righty) because I get stuck on my back foot. When I move to the left, my head seems to get too forward and I hit the ball low. I find it exceedingly difficult to swing, get weight on left as you have described, while keeping the head back? Any suggestions? I keep watching on my V1 App how still tour players are with their heads…while their bodies are swinging low and left, which supports your article. I just don’t know how to hit the ball high and move forward…without the heading wanting to tilt down…or follow the feet when I know it should stay back. I’m a 3 handicap currently so I do some things right…but have struggled with this move for some time.

    Thanks

    Joe

    • Mbwa Kali Sana

      Apr 28, 2014 at 11:37 am

      Dear Joe ,Go on REVOLUTION GOF’s site ,and Watch how MARTIN CHUCK swings :hé does exactly what BIll demonstrated hère .I would suggest you buy a TOUR STRIKER club ,and train with it .Also buy the STACK AND TILT Golf instruction manuel by MICHAEL BENNET and ANDY PLUMMER .You’ll quicky understand why you should keep your Weight on the left,leg throughout most of the swing ,the sole momentbthe Weight gets on the right foot is at the top of the backswing ,very briefly!

      • graymulligan

        Apr 28, 2014 at 3:27 pm

        This comment needs MORE CAPS!

      • Bill Schmedes

        Apr 28, 2014 at 6:45 pm

        There are many different way to swing the golf club effectively. I’m not advocating any style or method, just trying to improve the average players pressure mostly in the downswing and into impact. The stack and tilt golfer still has plenty of pressure in their trail side at the top of the backswing, but you wouldn’t be able to see that with the naked eye.

      • Big Bill

        Apr 30, 2014 at 8:01 pm

        Forget revolution golf Don Trahan and Peak Performance golf is the best.

      • Boy George

        May 1, 2014 at 11:01 am

        I can’t believe you numpties are still advocating Stack and Tilt, it’s been around for a decade now and there isn’t a decent player on tour who uses it.

        It’s a failed theory, stop peddling it.

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 28, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Joe Thanks for the comments! If your already a 3 handicap you are obviously a good player. It’s tough to make any suggestion without seeing your swing but I would advocate increasing your spine angle just a bit at set-up. Above in the downhill lie photo (address position) you can see my spine is still tilted away from the target even though there is more pressure in my lead leg due to the slope.

  26. Mike Frost

    Apr 28, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Great article Bill, Cobblestone looks great in the pics!

    • Bill Schmedes

      Apr 28, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      Thanks Mike! Hope your well. Had a lot of fun playing with you that day at Cobblestone!

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Instruction

How-to Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

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Lucas Wald How To Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

This is the first installment in our How To Series — follow this plan to master the movements of the hips on the backswing!


Watch the series introduction here

This new series is all about helping you improve your golf swing quickly. We’re going to break the swing down into its component parts and give you specific practice direction — master these key elements of the swing and you’ll see improvement fast!

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How “long arms” at the top of the backswing can help you hit the ball farther

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One of the hardest things to do as we get older is to make a big shoulder turn with extended arms at the top. It’s the swing of a younger golfer! However, every one of us can add width at the top so we can hit it further, but few know how to actually do so. In this article, I will use MySwing 3D Motion Analysis to help you understand how beneficial long arms are at the top.

As you examine the swing of this particular player, you will notice that the lead arm is “soft” and the hands are close to this player’s head at the top. This is the classic narrow armswing to the top that most older players employ. And as we all know this position leaves yardage in the bag!

Now let’s look at the data so we can see what is actually happening…

At the top you can see that the shoulders have turned 100 degrees which is more than enough, but the arms look jammed and narrow at the top. Why?

The answer lies within the actions of the rear arm, the lead arm is only REACTING to the over-bending of the rear elbow. As you can see at the top the rear elbow is bent 60 degrees. In a perfect world, when the rear elbow is at 90 degrees (a right angle) or more, the lead arm will be mostly straight — depending on how you’re built.

Something to note…in this position the hands are just past the chest and the shoulders have turned almost 90 degrees. However, when this player finished his backswing, he added 30 more degrees of rear elbow bend and only 11 more degrees of shoulder turn! What this means is that for the last quarter of the backswing, all this player did is allow the hands to basically collapse to the top of the backswing. This move is less than efficient and will cause major issues in your downswing sequencing, as well as, your transitional action.

As stated when your trail elbow stays at 90 degrees or wider in route to the top, you will have a much straighter lead arm.

One last thing to note when comparing these two players is that this player two had a shorter backswing length but a BIGGER shoulder turn with WIDER arms at the top, giving this player a short compact motion that resembles Adam Scott — which seems to work for he and Butch!

Therefore, the thing to remember is that if your lead arm is soft at the top and your arms look crowded at the top, then you must fix the over-bending of the rear elbow on the backswing. And if you have wider arms you will have a more solid “package” to become a ballstriking machine!

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Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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