Golfers' mental opponents

Ted Weiss, a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about golf, once had a side specialty of helping players deal with problems that might hinder their game.
Ted Weiss, a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about golf, once had a side specialty of helping players deal with problems that might hinder their game. (ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2013

With the town all abuzz about the U.S. Open at Merion, now seems a good time to visit Ted Weiss.

Weiss, 73, is a psychiatrist with an office at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood. For a time, his side specialty was helping golfers with their mental handicaps, of which there are many.

During his youth, Weiss was a championship-caliber golfer who flirted with going pro; he's working on a book about the psychological aspects of golf.

He learned the game at age 13 at a country club in his native New Orleans, where he was tutored in the fundamentals by a Scottish master. At Yale, he was captain of the golf team and NCAA second-team all-American.

Over the years, Weiss has learned about the bogeymen (pun intended) that bedevil golfers. Of course, one starts with the premise that golf is an impossible sport, designed to drive reasonable people mad. It is a game of successive approximation; the best one can hope for is to mitigate the degree of failure over 18 holes.

Among the top bogeymen cited by Weiss:

(1) A formidable opponent. David Duval was proficient enough to win several PGA championships, the 2001 British Open, and for a while was ranked No. 1 in the world. But when he competed against Tiger Woods, he was so psyched out that his game went to pieces, and Duval, in Weiss' words, eventually "fell off the edge of the earth."

At age 15, Weiss was the Louisiana state junior champion, which qualified him to play in the nationals. There, he won his first three matches, but his fourth opponent, he was warned, was superlative in all aspects of the game. During the first nine holes, Weiss played well. He birdied the ninth and was only one down after half the match. But then his nerves got derailed by the dazzling play of his opponent. On the back nine, Weiss was "pulverized." His opponent was a blond lad by the name of Nicklaus. Weiss' advice: When competing against a superior opponent, play your own game and don't defeat yourself.

(2) Anxiety and tension. Anxiety is common, and no small part of golf. The long putter, which enables a golfer to stabilize the club against his body, has stirred controversy. Some leading golfers object that it reduces some of the tension inherent in the game and is therefore unsporting. Weiss recommends that golfers play at an intermediate level of anxiety, not so high that they're hyper, not so low that they're complacent. Many outstanding golfers recommend long, slow breathing to relax.

(3) Frustration and anger. All golfers make mistakes and fail to accomplish every aim. Sometimes it's a matter of skill and maturity. Lee Trevino went from a mediocre pro to a champion by concentrating on becoming a more accurate driver. Weiss, playing in the third round of the Jaycees national junior championship at 16, was four under par on the first nine and definitely in contention. But at the 13th hole, he lost it, using up six strokes. For the rest of the match, he was "toast."

"I didn't have the experience to deal with it," Weiss says.

A few years later, vying for a regional open championship, Weiss was two under par when he teed up for the eighth hole. There he had some trouble and wound up one over par. Instead of "blowing up," he birdied the next two holes, was six under for the round, and shot 65 overall, tying for the lead.

As an antidote to frustration, Weiss suggests setting realistic goals. When he plays in the Yale alumni golf match, for instance, he doesn't expect to be the scratch golfer he once was.

(4) Laziness. The top performers in any field are those who work hardest and put in the most practice, Weiss says. This echoes the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: As a rule, people don't become outstanding successes overnight; most have devoted at least 10,000 hours to practicing and perfecting their skills. Says Weiss: "If you want to be a member, you have to pay the dues. Or, as PGA champion Jerry Barber told an admiring spectator after a sensational shot: "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

(5) Proper technique. Weiss was lucky; he learned the game at the hands of an experienced pro. But even seasoned golfers run into patches of difficulty, and a sharp-eyed coach can spot a hitch or deficiency that may mean the difference between leaving Merion with a silver trophy and a million bucks or enough pocket change to buy a pizza at Bella Italia in Ardmore.


"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column.

Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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