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Mind games: How to avoid a major championship choke

By Chris Murphy, CNN
August 8, 2013 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Dr. Bob Rotella (left) has worked with some of golf's biggest names on the mental side of what can be a very lonely pursuit. His prowess has helped plenty of players realize their dreams, like three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland (center). Dr. Bob Rotella (left) has worked with some of golf's biggest names on the mental side of what can be a very lonely pursuit. His prowess has helped plenty of players realize their dreams, like three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland (center).
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  • Work on mental preparation has become a vital part of golf in recent times
  • Dr. Bob Rotella has coached some of the game's biggest stars
  • Rotella's mantra to his players is "You're unstoppable if you're unflappable"
  • He has worked with major champions Rory McIlroy and Keegan Bradley

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(CNN) -- You are only a short putt away from a major championship and golfing immortality.

You can already taste the acclaim, hear the roars from the gallery crowded round the 18th green and smell the bundles of cash heading your way.

But then an image of Rory McIlroy slumped over his driver at Augusta in 2011 flashes through your mind, Adam Scott sinking to the turf at the British Open a year later after throwing away a four-shot lead.

Before you know it, you're having dark visions of Jean Van de Velde wading through the Barry Burn at Carnoustie during his own British Open meltdown in 1999.

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Suddenly that putt looks a lot longer than it did a moment ago and you start wondering, "What if I miss?"

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You may also start questioning why you didn't pay a pre-tournament visit to golf's premier mind doctor, whose job it is to instil a watertight frame of mind that can deal with a career-defining putt.

"Players will tell you, you can get teary-eyed thinking what this could mean to your mum and dad, your wife, your children, for your name in history," Dr. Bob Rotella told CNN ahead of this week's PGA Championship in Rochester, New York.

It is the final major of the golf season -- where McIlroy will defend his title, and world No. 1 Tiger Woods will seek to end a five-year wait for the 15th of his career.

"You could start adding up how many dollars you're going to make. It is like, 'Can we just take care of this putt right now?' You need the ability to get lost in the present where nothing else in the moment exists," Rotella added.

"This putt is something you've done a million times both in your mind and on the practice putting green and on the golf course.

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"Now you've got to let yourself do it in this important situation but in order to do it you better not be reminding yourself how big this is or important this is.

"Most guys are trying to treat it like just another putt. But it's difficult because your hands are shaking a bit, your arms are shaking a bit, your heart is beating like crazy, you can't get any moisture in your mouth."

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Golf is a cruel and unforgiving pursuit in which the word "choke" seems to reappear more than any other.

Often, a major meltdown can be more memorable than the eventual winner.

Just ask McIlroy about Augusta, veteran Tom Watson about losing a playoff at the British Open in 2009 or consult Greg Norman on his capitulation to let Nick Faldo win the 1996 Masters.

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That knowledge surely only adds fuel to the fire when a player is in a trough that must feel like it is squeezing the life out of his game.

Though there is a caddy by your side, only one person can extricate you from this mess.

No wonder then that training the brain has become as pivotal a part of a modern player's preparation as the hours spent honing their swing on the range.

Rotella has worked with some of the game's biggest stars, major champions like McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Keegan Bradley and Darren Clarke, who are all keen to tap into his well of knowledge.

With a myriad of professionals capable of winning major honors and the intensity of competition rising all the time, players are increasingly obsessed with squeezing every last drop out of their potential.

Even the very best players aren't impervious to pressure, so Rotella's work acts to soothe increasingly frazzled brains so they can plot a path to glory.

What, then, does he tell players about that moment, when one shot can make or break their careers?

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"We're trying to get to the best state of mind and trying to catch it if we get half an inch away from that instead of waiting to get in a deep dark hole and having to dig yourself out," he said.

"We're talking about believing you're the best golfer in the world in a world that has a lot of really, good, talented and committed golfers.

"Everyone wasn't brought up thinking that way; a lot of people find it easy to respect other people or to believe in somebody else winning.

"Players have to learn as they develop skill that now you've developed this skill now you have to fall in love with your talent and your potential and ability if you're going to be the best golfer in the world."

It is no surprise many of Rotella's subjects have held it together right at the moment they needed to most.

Bradley won the first major he played in -- the 2011 U.S. PGA Championship -- surviving a nerve-jangling playoff against Jason Dufner.

He credited the work he did with Rotella in helping him to stay focused after a triple-bogey on the 15th hole in his final round looked to have ripped his dream to shreds.

After his triumph, Bradley said he actually felt energized after his mistake, such was the positive frame of mind Rotella had helped him download.

At the other end of the spectrum, Clarke was playing in his 46th major championship when he hit the front at the 2011 British Open.

Players will tell you, you can get teary-eyed thinking what this could mean for your name in history
Dr Bob Rotella

One of a rare crop to win his first major title over the age of 40, Clarke had Rotella on hand all week to keep him cool in the heat of battle at Royal St. George's on the southern coast of England.

But not before Rotella had to iron out a major putting wobble before the tournament even began.

"We spent a lot of time together during his Open win," Rotella said. "In Darren's case it started Wednesday and he was totally lost with his putter.

"He said to me, 'If we can get my head in the right place with my putter I think it'll take all the pressure off my ball striking and pitching and bunker play and I'll be fine.'

"Over the next few days we got his head where he wanted to with the putter, and magic happened. He started doing some great stuff and the ball started going in the hole and he won.

"I think the last step for Darren was to let himself go out on Sunday -- the phrase we kept saying was, 'You're unstoppable if you're unflappable.'

"I kept telling Darren you've got to be unflappable, you can't let a good shot that takes a bad bounce bother you or get you down or frustrated. You've got to stay in a good mood.

"For Darren, he had to be himself. When I think of Darren I think of really good-natured, happy guy. I said to him don't have the only place you're not happy be on a golf course."

Happy might not be a word most closely associated with the leader of the PGA Championship if he has a one-shot lead to protect down the final hole on Sunday but if he's spoken to Rotella, at least he'll be in the zone.

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