Mental coaching helps Yani Tseng, Rory McIlroy slough off slumps

Victor Fraile

Top-ranked Yani Tseng and Rory McIlroy hit speed bumps earlier this season but tuning up their mental games is key to their turn-arounds

Yani Tseng cruised to her second straight LPGA Tour Player of the Year title in 2011 on the strength of the longest tee shots on tour, a pretty good short game and an unflappable attitude she honed by smiling during the most pressure-packed situations and singing to herself as she stalked the fairways.

But that was last year. Tseng kicked off her 2012 campaign with three quick wins but even before her season took a serious nosedive the seemingly carefree champion of yore was complaining about her entourage, members of which were driving her “crazy” and telling her she looked “mad.” It wasn’t long before Tseng’s off-course issues found their ways inside the ropes and did a number on the nerves of No. 1, who missed her first of three cuts this year when she bottomed out of the NW Arkansas Championship in June.

“My confidence is at zero right now,” Tseng told GolfChannel.com’s Randall Mell after her first missed cut in 26 events dating back to April of last year.

Fast forward to Tuesday, and Tseng, returning to her native country for this week’s defense of her LPGA Taiwan Championship, began to cry when telling reporters about the loneliness of being the world’s preeminent player. Tseng shed tears at the opening of a display, called “Yani’s Smile and Courage Exhibit,” which commemorates her ascension to the top of the women’s game.

“Annika [Sorenstam] told me that world No. 1 is the loneliest place on the earth,” Tseng said. “As it become longer at No. 1, I feel more and more pressure. Everybody is trying to grab every piece of me. When you play good, everything is good, but when you don’t play so good, everything is bad. Even when you think there are good things, they still say bad things.

“It’s very hard,” she continued. “At that time, I feel sad, and I feel no one knows how hard I work and how many tears. They only know the score. At that time, I feel very lonely because no one understands since they haven’t been world No. 1 before.”

Yogi Berra famously observed that playing baseball was “90 percent mental, the other half is physical,” but the Yankee great could easily have been talking about golf. In the case of the latter, however, the Hall of Fame catcher might have amended his Yogi-ism to say that half of golf is 99 percent mental.

How else to explain the slew of professional golfers enlisting coaches to help them conquer the psychological aspects of their games -- or that more than 86 million results come up when you Google “mental golf?"

These days, golf fitness encompasses far more than washboard abs and sculpted biceps -- something to which Tseng can certainly attest. The superstar, who last year, at age 22, became the youngest player ever to win five major championships and dominated all of golf, entered this season burdened by internal and external expectations that have resulted in only one top-10 finish since May.

Tseng notched that third-place outcome at last week’s HanaBank Championship in South Korea after sending out an SOS to her coach Gary Gilchrist.

“We don't work much, just a couple drills and mostly on the mental part,” Tseng said prior to the South Korean tilt.

The intellectual tune-up seemed to do the trick for Tseng, who carded two rounds in the 60s for the first time since April’s LPGA Lotte Championship, and followed that up Thursday with a 5-under 67 to open her title defense two shots back of leader Inbee Park.

For sure, Tseng is not the only professional golfer benefitting from a focus on the cerebral facet of the game. Some three weeks after what could have been a career-defining devastating meltdown in the final round of last year’s Masters, Rory McIlroy turned to putting and short-game guru Dave Stockton for some on-course tutoring that turned out to be more about his between-the-ears makeup.

Even that aspect of the two-time major champ’s game required little input from Stockton, who told us recently that McIlroy’s putting and chipping were “perfect” and his mental game was “right there."

“He may be 23, but he acts 40,” Stockton said by phone shortly after his new book, “Unconscious Scoring,” hit bookstores in September.

After starting the 2012 season with a win in his second PGA Tour event and four top-5 finishes in his first five, McIlroy fell into a funk that included three missed cuts and a tie for 60th at the U.S. Open directly before he headed to Akron, Ohio, for the Bridgestone Invitational. It was not so much the effort, shots or results that concerned Stockton; it was the young Ulsterman’s body language.

“I told him, “I am tired of turning on the TV and seeing...by your demeanor and how you walk...exactly whether you’ve just made a birdie or a bogey....You sag your shoulders, you do all this stuff,’” said Stockton, who asked McIlroy to adjust his on-course attitude regardless of how he played. “‘If you get mad at something, fine, but just don’t get down.’”

Following Stockton’s pep talk, McIlroy finished in a tie for fifth at the Bridgestone, recorded a lopsided eight-stroke PGA Championship win, took two consecutive FedEx Cup events, and cooled off a sizzling Keegan Bradley in singles play at the Ryder Cup despite almost missing his tee time.

Stockton was more than pleased -- not necessarily because of the results but with the way McIlroy comported himself.

“It had nothing to do with how he played,” Stockton said of McIlroy’s PGA victory, “but I was very proud of the shots he was stringing together and the momentum....He’s just playing a game, he’s having fun with it, he’s not letting it get to him, and it’s fun to see.”

At the same time that McIlroy was lapping the field on Kiawah Island, another Stockton student, 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champ So Yeon Ryu, was hanging a final-round 9-under 62 on the board on her way to a seven-shot win at the LPGA’s Jamie Farr Toledo Classic.

With two disciples winning by a total of 15 strokes, Stockton was able to drill home to his other students -- including Tseng (who has worked with Vision54 instructors Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott as well as Stockton and Gilchrist) and her LPGA compatriots Suzann Pettersen and Brittany Lang -- the importance of what he was teaching.

“It made it a very easy thing for us to get our point across, and our point, more often than not, is that [golf] is more mental,” said Stockton, who has no cookie-cutter recipe for his players. “The mental is the important thing; if you can fix that, anyone can win.”

Julie Elion, who has worked with Phil Mickelson among about 10 PGA Tour pros and a handful of women on the LPGA, subscribes to a similar theory.

“I look at athletes as whole people,” the Bethesda, Md., sports psychologist told us during the Deutsche Bank Championship over Labor Day weekend. “I really go into who they are and then we go into how do they think on the golf course, how do they get in their own way, how do they sabotage themselves.”

During her stint as Mickelson’s coach, Elion helped Lefty approach golf with, as he told TV’s Charlie Rose a year ago July, “a whole different mentality...and with a much more positive, fun outlook.”

That’s something that Tseng has been working hard at, and Stockton, for one, believes her resolution will pay off soon.

“She hasn’t won but I have a hunch she’s going to win again very shortly,” Stockton said. “I suspect she’s going to rebound, because at some point she’s way too good to be doing what she’s been doing.”

Tseng, for her part, was trying to return to her easy-going ways and move forward one stroke at a time.

“I just want to show my big smile and show my best effort on every shot and do my best all the time,” she said. “I think I played great today. I feel really good.”

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