It was with a great sense of joy that I watched this past week's Players Championship. Why? Because it's obvious, golf is in great hands - with a strong crop of stars ready to carry the torch for the next generation. What a great tournament and a fantastic performance by a number of players.
First and foremost, Matt Kuchar is a deserving and incredible champion. His cool under pressure while hitting all kinds of shots showed a character and strength that define the term "champion." Zach Johnson may play the smartest golf of anyone out there. He has a world of talent but he never really tries to do anything that is an "iffy" proposition for him. He knows his abilities and his limitations and plays to them incredibly well. And Rickie Fowler, wow! Talk about a kid that just flat out gets after it. He's fearless and has a world of golf skill. That's quite a combination. (And let's not forget, world No. 1 Rory McIlroy isn't going away anytime soon.)
But the player that many people were really intrigued with this week was young Kevin Na. Kevin has a sweet swing and smooth putting stroke. But it's obvious, he's got some interference in his head that can hinder him at critical times. His issues on the tee were certainly all the talk on television and social media. Also, there was a statistic during the telecast showing what a great putter Na is from short distances. But at a time when he is going through important swing changes, and possibly on the verge on winning the biggest tournament of his career, the mental demons become bigger and stronger. He struggled to "pull the trigger." Even his short putting, which had been a strength, started to falter.
Matt Kuchar faced similar mental thoughts no doubt, but his smile showed he was in control of those problem-causing thoughts. How did he do it?
Mental demons are more than just common, they are ubiquitous. Every golfer has them. And the truth is, thinking is one of the most destructive things you can do in golf. Especially at a difficult course like the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium course. Everyone knows that the island green at the 17th hole plays with your mind - what should be an easy wedge for these players all of sudden becomes the size of a table mat. But why? It's not just the water. It's probably the 120 steps it takes to go from the 16th green to the 17th tee box. Do you know how long it takes to make that walk and how many damaging thoughts can enter your mind as you do so?
The truth is, dealing with the mental side of the game is as important (and challenging) as any swing fundamental. Maybe more so. And different players are going to be most effective in totally different ways. Lee Trevino used being "chatty" with players, volunteers, fans, whoever to keep it loose and relaxed. Ben Hogan was the absolute opposite, choosing not to share too much with anyone.
One of the things I have told my students, especially the better players, is that if you're going to think, think about the 'silent clinic' you are putting on for your competitors, not at all about the swing mechanics itself. I'd rather you think "Watch me hit this high cut to the center of the fairway" rather than "to hit a high cut, I need to open the face, drop my back foot a bit, weaken my grip, etc.."
But the lesson to be learned here is, mental interference IS a destructive force on the golf course and it WILL show up in your game. Do you have a plan to deal with it? Do not focus on the mechanics, do not focus on the importance, just focus on what the result you want is. It's not easy, but the payoff is well worth it.
Matt Kuchar knows it. And I hope, Kevin Na will soon too.