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Thinking Clearly Under Pressure and Pushing Boundaries in Sport

By: | Sun 30 Jul 2017 | Comments

Article by Alex Picken

The 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale was the venue for a Jordan Spieth major masterclass. The young American golfer strategically and expertly managed his way around the tough links course to achieve his third major and first Open title. With a week that produced a typical English summer of unexpected and strange weather, Spieth stayed above the clouds and kept a calm head over the rest of the field. From Thursday to Saturday he played with spectacular thoughtfulness and efficiency, progressively extending his lead to three shots before going out on the final day. However, on Sunday something appeared to have changed.  For the first time in three days Spieth’s swing started to falter and his comfortable lead was starting to diminish. When he stepped up to the 13th tee shot and sprayed his driver over 100 yards right of the intended 13th fairway, his round and first Open Championship appeared to be slipping from his grasp. When everyone around him began to doubt his abilities, Spieth produced a moment of clarity and critical thinking on a golf course unlike anyone before him.

The 2003 Rugby World Cup winning coach, Sir Clive Woodward created a simple mnemonic to help his England team to remember how to behave when under intense pressure. His mnemonic was ‘T-CUP’ – Thinking Correctly Under Pressure. His team had this thought embedded into their behaviour when out on the rugby field in their 2003 tournament campaign. It allowed them to play high intensity sport whilst constantly being calm and measured under a huge weight of pressure. 

This is the exact same behaviour that Jordan Spieth showed stood over his second shot on the 13th hole of the 2017 Open. Instead of being angry and nervous at slowly throwing away his final round of golf, possibly making a rash and unsuccessful decision.

We've also heard more and more coverage in the news about British cycling and 'margin gains'.  Marginal gains being the view that tiny incremental improvements in any process can add up a large overall improvement.  Whilst Spieth wasn't applying 'marginal gains' fully he was utilising the golfing rule book for his own marginal gain.


By taking an unplayable lie for his second shot Spieth gave himself three options to get out of the current situation he was in:

  • Stroke and Distance option - Where he would have to go back to the tee and would be playing his 3rd shot from there
  • Drop – He would be allowed to drop the ball within two club lengths of the unplayable lie, no nearer to the hole
  • Drop – He must keep the ball directly in line with the flagstick, but can go back as far as he likes

Spieth cleverly decided to choose the third option, going directly backwards on the line of the flag which would lead him towards the practice range, surrounded by golf’s major manufacturers tour trucks, which were directly in his line of sight. His knowledge of golf’s rules meant that he could now move his ball to the right of the tour trucks as they are a temporary immovable objects (TIO) and would be conflicting with his golf swing. This genius method of using the rule book for his own advantage had now given him a perfect and flat lie on the practice range and he was now far enough away from any trouble so he had plenty of room to advance his ball as far down the fairway as possible. By taking his time over this decision, thinking clearly through his possible options and executing a brilliant recovery shot, Spieth managed to keep his major hopes alive.

He came off with a bogey that must have felt like an eagle or birdie under the challenging and unique circumstances. His mindset never wavered from this point on, he proceeded to play the next 4 holes in a stunning 5 under par, sealing his championship in a masterful way and highlighting the incredible mental resilience that the young Texan has.

On this occasion, Spieth used the rule book perfectly and it turned out to be incredibly advantageous to his Open Championship dreams. His respect towards the officials and careful consideration of key rulings in golf left no dispute that he had made the correct decision. However, there have been many cases where pushing the laws of the game to their limit can both frustrate the officials overseeing the sport, or be deemed as incredibly unsportsmanlike conduct by spectators and fans around the world.

Take the 1932 Ashes series, nicknamed the ‘Bodyline Tour’ as a prime example of this. England went into the series realising they were unlikely to beat Australia and the superb Don Bradman by playing a normal brand of cricket. Therefore, they decided to utilise their quick bowler Harold Larwood and get him to purposely bowl at the Australian batsmen around their ribs and body. The protection batsmen wore in this era was very poor and the ribs and head were particularly exposed. Even though there was no law in place stopping this tactic from occurring, this method of bowling was deemed incredibly unsportsmanlike and frowned upon by most cricketing fans and spectators. Even though England’s tactics during this series were completely lawful, the series was infamous for poor sporting behaviour and caused massive ramifications for the relationship between both countries.

Playing to the very edge of the law can also disrupt the officials and committees that oversee the sport who don’t like being shown up or embarrassed by certain players actions. Take the 1979 US Open for example, in the first round, Lon Hinkle stood on the Par 5, 8th tee at the Inverness Club in Ohio and chose to hit his tee shot through a gap in the trees down the 17th fairway, giving him a shorter shot into the 8th hole. After explaining his decision to the press, the USGA were outraged. They believed that his decision to hit the shot was dangerous to spectators and had to be stopped before the second round commenced. Overnight they planted a 20ft tall Black Hill Spruce Christmas tree to place in the area where the gap was. The tree was later nicknamed the ‘Hinkle Tree’ and is a symbol for many golfers not to have the audacity to challenge the wishes of the USGA.

A similar instance occurred during this year’s Open in 2017. During the practice round, many of the golfers decided that the difficult 9th hole could be made substantially easier. Throughout the practice rounds, some of the pro’s purposely hit their drives down the parallel and much wider 10th fairway, leaving themselves a shorter shot in. Similarly, to the 1979 US Open, it was the R&A this time who reacted quickly, giving the order on Tuesday that a new local rule had been put in place. “When playing the 9th hole only, a ball on or beyond the 10th fairway (defined by the edge of the closely-mown area) is out of bounds.” This rule prevented the shortcut of the 10th hole and permitted all golfers to have to play the 9th hole as it was originally set out.

As we see from all the examples above, there can be times when the rules in your sport can be massively beneficial for yourself and your team if you understand them carefully. Spieth’s major win highlights the importance of how understanding your own sports rules can dramatically improve your chances of success when the pressure is on. However, there are certain rules in sport that you cannot push to the limit, they must be obeyed and respected always. Not only are there intensely fine margins between success and failure in sport, but the margins of knowing when to utilise rules and when to avoid pushing them are equally as small and inconspicuous. When they are used wisely you are given all the plaudits and accolades for your masterful knowledge and respect of the rules. But use them wrong, and you may live out your sporting days labelled as a cheat or an unsporting athlete.

Images from Kevin Diss Photography

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