How Matt Kuchar won the Honda Classic

As a psychologist, the great appeal of the PGA Tour for me lies in the fact that it is the premier domain where failure is the norm (.03 winning percentage, and you’re considered great). A domain where the margin for error is slim; where the penalty for fractional mistakes are huge; where guys grind it out week after week through slumps, adversity, and mental and mechanical setbacks of all sorts.

The reason this is so appealing to me has to do with the impact that failure tends to have on athletes’ self-efficacy (the psychological term for confidence). In summarizing his findings on the relationship between self-efficacy and performance, Frank Pajares explained

“self-efficacy is not so much about learning how to succeed as it is about learning how to persist and persevere when you do not succeed. Self-efficacy does not provide the skills required to succeed; it provides the effort, perseverance, and adaptive thought patterns required to obtain those skills. We make a very great mistake when we endeavor to prevent people from failing. Failure, after all, is the price we pay for success. Our efforts are better aimed at helping individuals learn how to fail when failure is unavoidable.”

Psychologists used to say that golfers should ignore the negative and think only about the positive. Nonsense. That would be like ignoring weeds that grow in your garden (which, if ignored, can take over a garden). Because failure, setbacks, and disappointments are so prevalent in golf, our efforts are better spent teaching golfers how to think about failure in ways that foster future success. It may be surprising, but the primary obstacle of guys on the PGA Tour is NOT learning how to hit shots. By the time the reach this level, they’ve already proven that they can hit golf shots. The primary obstacle of guys on the PGA Tour is managing their mental states so that they can execute the shots they’ve already learned. That is to say, the obstacles for most Tour players is not the cultivation of skills, but the execution of skills they already possess. Thus their obstacles are not physical, they are mental.

Everyone fails at one time or another. That, as they cliche goes, is life. Golf is a game that insures failure will happen more than most, and in that respect, it is like a game of self-abuse. You may play flawlessly, but it won’t last. You may practice well into the twilight, yet see no immediate improvement. In some cases, you may get worse. In a forward to Ben Hogan’s classic book on the fundamentals of golf, Sidney James wrote

The golfer courts a mistress as fickle as she is bewitching. She leads him on with little favors that fill him with hopes of conquest. Then she scorns him and humiliates him and leaves him despairing. Humility–that is the magic word. Golf is man’s most humbling diversion. It may be, for that reason alone, the greatest game he has ever devised.

Part of the value of painful experiences such as bad performances, missed cuts, and defeats is that they teach us lessons. The real key to ultimate success is to lose but not lose the lesson. To remember our mistakes so as not to repeat them, while shedding the emotional baggage and guilt that often accompanies those mistakes. That is not an easy thing to do when it seems that, despite our best efforts, we just can’t get over that hump. Indeed, it’s easy to count all the times we’ve faded, failed, collapsed, messed up, made mistakes, exercised bad judgment, or just flat out publicly choked. But because we all have had enough positive experiences, it is also possible to look at our experiences and extract from them all the positives: the wins, the smart decisions, the clutch shots, the great moments, and the times we’ve persevered to overcome obstacles.

Unfortunately, too many golfers let their confidence be determined by their moods, their most recent performances, or by the immediacy of the situation. Because memory is selective, instead of being guided by the thousands (literally) of perfect shots they’ve hit, golfers in a rut often focus on the more recent shot they may have hit thin, pushed right, or left short (Even Ben Hogan said “I have a tendency to remember my poor shots a shade more vividly than my good ones”). They become guided by the avoidance of failure rather than by the pursuit of perfection, and that is never a good thing. To remain confident in the face of repeated setbacks, THAT is the great lesson and the great trick in life and in golf.

Going into Honda, Matt Kuchar had certainly had his share of success in golf. He was the 1997 U.S. Amateur champion. As a sophomore in 1998 at Georgia Tech, he finished 21st at Masters (the best 72-hole finish by an amateur in 20 years) and 14th at the U.S. Open. He won two tournaments as a college senior, and as a pro he’d also finished in the top 10 once. But Matt had also been experiencing his share of setbacks and disappointments. After winning the 1997 US Amateur as a sophomore, he didn’t win another. He had some mediocre months on various tours (he Played from Australia to Mexico, and in Japan; played on the BUY.COM Tour, Canadian Tour and the Golden Bear Tour) and never won. In the five tournaments leading to 2002 Honda Classic, he missed one cut and was ranked 149th on Tour.

With all this going on, why was Matt able to win last week? Well, to begin with, he had made the commitment to improve his work ethic: on Monday before the Honda Classic began, I watched as he was one of only 4 players hitting balls in the 40 degree drizzle. At one point, I overheard him remark to his caddie Bussie “this is time well spent” as he chipped yet another wedge across a saturated green into the water-filled hole. My talk with Matt later that day revolved around his success in the US Amateur. For over an hour he explained to me why he was able to win back then. He took me through the entire process including his thoughts and feelings at the time. I asked him about obstacles, and about overcoming obstacles. He told me the following story of his first collegiate victory:

“I was leading going into the final round of a tournament. Up til that point I think I was a little scared of winning. That afternoon Coach and I took a ride in the van to the supermarket. I said ‘coach I don’t really know how to play this last round. I’ve never really won a tournament. I’m not sure how to win.’ I was a bit scared. Coach told me ‘it’s the same as the first round. You go out there, you play golf, you keep your head down, you keep plugging away, you turn in your scorecard and see who wins.’ I turned in my scorecard, and won by 3 strokes. Once that happened I was able to believe in myself.”

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I teach and I understand.”

Chinese Proverb

Story can be a powerful psychological tool. By articulating our past successes, those successes become more vivid and more alive in our minds. Matt spent an hour explaining to me about what he did when he was at his best. In essence, I was asking Matt to teach me how to win. He took me through the entire process and in doing so, he was able to remember that which he already knew. When he was facing pressure at the Honda – the same pressure he overcame in college, the same pressure he overcame in the US Amateur, the same pressure he overcame at the 98 Masters - Matt was ultimately able to put himself in a winning frame of mind and overcome. He was able to reorient his perspective and extract from his own experiences what it takes to win. For Matt, as for most golfers on Tour, winning was not a process of learning as much as it was a process of remembering.

That is, I think, a good lesson for us all.

2014-15 PGA Tour Dates


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