Why Do We Choke?

This is the moment you’ve worked your whole life for, you’ve spent countless hours on the practice range working for this exact moment in life, finally you’re in the position you’ve always dreamed of. You know you can do it, you’ve done it many times before, and now more than ever is time that you need to dig deep and do it with a little pressure on you. Your palms are wet from sweat, your knees are feeling a little rubbery, your mouth is dry and you can’t relax for anything. Your hands are shaking so much you can barely get your ball on the tee. Finally ball on tee, club in hand, it’s your turn on the box. You know what you need to do, you have rehearsed this very moment more times than you can count, you’ve worked so hard to put yourself in this exact position, finally it’s your time to shine. You’ve gotten yourself this far, now what are you going to do?

OK, so what if you don’t do this for a living? Even if golf is little more than a leisure activity that you do to unwind and maybe get a little exercise, you’ve still been in a similar position, lining up your first ever birdie putt, stepping up to the 18th tee with your lifetime best round just a simple bogey away, agreeing to that friendly wager that you really can’t afford to lose, or maybe teeing it up in your club championship. If you play golf you’ve been in a spot where you have a little pressure on you to take a deep breath and do what it is you know you can do, hit the fairway, hit the green, and make the putt. Maybe you’re one of the few that strive in this position and now more than ever you are as sharp as a tack and your game is better than it’s ever been, if that is you then congratulations my friend, you’re certainly in the minority. It seems that PGA professionals and weekend hackers alike all deal with the pressure similarly; when the heat is on the game we love just doesn’t play quite the same.

We see this play out in front of us on the PGA Tour quite often, rarely has there been such a obvious case than a couple of weeks ago when Robert Garrigus stepped up to the 72nd hole with a 3 shot lead. Garrigus was a double bogey away from his first ever PGA Tour title at the St. Jude’s Classic, his life was about to change in front of our eyes. He played great golf all week; continually put himself in position to win. A par gives him a final round 68, his fourth straight round at 68 or better. He had played the 18th hole fine all week, 3 wood off the tee, short iron to the green, putt, putt, over. Why then did he grab a hybrid when he stood there with the tournament on the line? Why not just play the game that got him there in the first place? Well, it wasn’t the club choice that made him duck hook one into the water off the tee, that came from somewhere else. The story is well documented now, Garrigus went on to triple bogey the 72nd hole and let two other players who already had their clubs in the trunk of their courtesy car off the hook and gave them new life. The St. Jude’s Classic was later won by someone else, not the guy who played the best golf for 71 of the 72 holes that week. We feel for you Robert Garrigus, we really do.

It happens to far more accomplished players than just Robert Garrigus so don’t mistake this choke job for something reserved for guys trying to win their first event on Tour. Phil Mickelson, 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Do I even need to go into further detail? Kenny Perry, 2009 Masters; Retief Goosen, 2005 U.S. Open; Dustin Johnson, 2010 U.S. Open; Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, (and at least a handful of other players) 2010 U.S. Open. Sure the conditions were tough last week, but they were not unfair and it seemed that at least one player was able to manage his way around Pebble Beach, so what happen to all those other guys? Oh, and of course I can’t leave out perhaps the biggest choke in recent memory of a major championship, Jean Van de Velde. Who can forget seeing that poor guy struggling his way down the 18th hole at Carnoustie in 1999? You get the point; I’m not here to hammer on every failure in big time spots, all I’m doing it saying that it happens, a lot. You couldn’t possibly count the number of hours spent preparing for the exact moments that all these players immense talent deserted them, and at a time they needed it the most. Obviously there are multiple major winners mentioned above so they know how to close the deal. The point I’m trying to make is that it happens to everyone and we definitely should not be overly discouraged if/when it does happen to us. Thing is, there are people who research this topic and there are ways to overcome such a habit.

There are sports psychologists that get paid a lot of money to work with these players to crack the code so that they are one of the few that play their best in crunch time. There are often times multiple reasons for people failing under these circumstances, everything from a lack of confidence to trying to be too precise and perfect. If you find you seem to coincidentally play your worst when the stakes are the highest I highly recommend you research the topic of golf psychology, there are books and articles on the internet that can get you pointed in the right direction to not only hang on in the clutch but to strive on those pressure packed situations and play your best. Having the inner strength to play your best when everyone around you is throwing up triple bogies is something we could all enjoy. It’s talked about every week on the PGA Tour; nerves are a tremendous part of the game of golf. There is not another sport played that requires the mental fortitude necessary to find success, regardless of what is used to measure that success.

Jason K.

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Jason Kunze
Jason is a busy husband and father of 2 daughters who are both just starting to take up the game that he has loved for years. Golf is his passion, when Jason is not playing golf and testing equipment he's hanging out with all his friends on the THP forum discussing every aspect of this great game.