Danny Willett won the 2016 Masters golf tournament. Period. He shot a final round 67 while in the glaring hot spotlight of grand slam golf. Well done Danny.

Also, Jordan Spieth had an impressive 2016 Masters tournament, but the 12th hole of his final round was burnt into the mind of viewers and pundits around the world. No doubt about it, it was a bad hole. It has been labeled a “choke,” fairly. From the moment when his putt, the seventh stroke of the hole, dropped into the cup post-mortem, mental-game analyses began.

So what happened?

On the first swing of the hole he made a bad decision. He said so himself in the post-round interview. The ball landed short of the green and rolled into Rae’s Creek.

His second swing was clearly a tight one as evidenced by a divot the size of an area rug. To use a technical term, he failed to self-regulate. It appeared that he had both an unsettled mind and unsettled body. Another donation to Rae’s Creek.

His third swing was rightfully skittish. Already having carded four strokes for the whole, a playable ball on the other side of Rae’s Creek would be nice. This time around, the ball ended up beached on the far side of the green.

A couple of strokes later the hole was over… and the experience a blur.

It does not take an advanced degree in sport psychology nor any particularly prescient insight to break down a lack of focus and an unfortunate response to stress. Despite the valiant resilience that Spieth displayed over the following six holes, it is reasonable to see that 12th hole was simply too mistake-riddled for a tournament victory against Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour pros. Using this all as a teachable moment on how to prevent “choking” in competition is a remedial exercise—it misses the bigger lesson.

Sure, a quality pre-shot routine is important. Yes, making reasonable efforts to manage stress both cognitively and physiologically helps athletic efforts. These are all nice pieces of advice and have been shared by every golf pundit and armchair sport psychologist around the globe. There may be a grander truth about the mental, however.

Spieth shows the world that you have to be willing to look foolish in public if you want to achieve at the highest levels of sport. It is impossible to be great at athletics without having a few shame-inducing moments during the journey to the top. No one enjoys stumbling on a public stage. It is gut-wrenching to be judged a fool by an audience of a few, let alone an international television audience of millions. No athlete wants to mess up, but he or she must accept that it could happen (and likely will). Be sad, be mad… but also be willing.

The PGA tour player that insists on being athletically infallible in the eyes fans, commentators, and others rarely finds himself in the hunt of major tournament victories. If he was unable to accept fallibility, it seems unlikely that Rory McIlroy would have recovered from his Masters disaster of 2011 to win four major golf tournaments. If “good” shots held his ego together, it seems unlikely that Bubba Watson would have wandered deep into the woods during a playoff hole in the 2012 Masters tournament and come out a Masters champion (in 2012 and two years later in 2014). Ego bruises are part of the rarified air of champions. Success in sport requires the acceptance that failure can occur in the glare of public eye and the belief that more often than not, good things happen on the competitive stage. An emotional investment is a necessary and a worthy part of the ride.

Congratulations to Danny Willett on a terrific Masters tournament. Thank you Jordan Spieth for sharing a most valuable mental-game lesson with the world. Two worthy bearers of green jackets.

About the Author

Adam Naylor, EdD, CC-AASP

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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