New York Times & International Herald Tribune – Jun 12, 2007 – Damon Hack – OAKMONT, Pa., June 11 â€â€? Three years ago, at the lush and leafy K Club near Dublin, Ireland, Thomas Bjorn walked off the course in the middle of his round on the European Tour, saying he was fighting demons in his head. The golf course, with its thick trees and winding rivers, had all but suffocated him, Bjorn said. He did not want to take another swing.
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Suzy Allman for The New York Times

Three years ago on the European Tour, Thomas Bjorn walked off the course in the middle of his round saying he was fighting demons in his head.

“I just saw trouble everywhere, Bjorn said shortly afterward. The fairway looked tiny. The green seemed to be the size of the hole. There was nothing but fear.

Although Bjorns travails caused chatter around professional golf, the news was greeted more quietly in the locker rooms on the PGA Tour. It might be because the tale was familiar. “All of us go through it, Bob Tway, the 1986 P.G.A. champion, said in an interview two weeks ago at the Memorial Tournament. “There are tons of stories like that.

On the eve of the United States Open at Oakmont Country Club, considered by many the most difficult course to be host to golf’s national championship, players talked about the mental stresses of a game in which physical execution is a fraction of the chore and every swing is dependent on the individual golfer. “It would be nice, when things are going bad, to raise your hand and say, ‘I’m tired,’ and bring someone else in like they do in other sports,� Tway said. “But we can’t call a timeout and bring another set of five guys in.�

Instead, much of that stress and strain remains internalized, some players said, partly because of their personalities. They describe themselves, and many of their competitors, as introverts.

“I’d say we’re all a little shy,� said Ted Purdy, the winner of the 2005 Byron Nelson Championship. “Even Tiger’s introverted. He’s to himself. With every golfer, there is a lot going on in their brains, but you just can’t see it. Inside, we’re churning and burning.�

Compared with athletes in more reactive sports like football or tennis, golfers deal with pressure in a much different way, said Dr. John F. Murray, a sports-performance psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla. A football player can run or force a tackle. A tennis player can react to the ball flying across the net. A golfer, though, spends the majority of a five-hour round walking and waiting.

“Hitting a golf ball is less than one percent of the time in a round,� Murray said in a telephone interview. “Because of that, so much of their time is getting ready for a shot, and there are more mental factors that can distract you or also help you and be a positive. There is more potential for being stressed, but also for being prepared.�

At its most stressful, “the pressure is often more painful than somebody punching you in the face,� he said. Unable to run around a field or court, “these golfers are stewing in their juices,� he said.

“They have nowhere to go but think about what might happen, he added. And you cant punch the wall because youre out there on the course.

After walking off the course in Dublin, Bjorn was back competing days later, finishing tied for 16th at the Scottish Open. The next year, he won a European Tour event and carded seven top-10 finishes, including at the 2005 P.G.A. Championship. At the P.G.A., he reflected on why he walked off the K Club on the European Tour. I got out there on a very, very difficult golf course and it just got away from me, he said. I didnt believe in anything. I didnt have a shot that I could go to when I was under pressure, and it just ran away from me.

“I remember a couple of times in my career where I say: ˜This is it. Im going to take a break away from the game and get myself ready to play again. Ive been very successful doing that.

Bjorn is not the only player who has strained for clues to grapple with the pressure. At the Memorial Tournament, Sean O’Hair explained how he went to the self-help section of a bookstore the night before the 2005 John Deere Classic. His confidence was shot, he said.

“I went to get a psychology book to kind of get my head straight,� he said.

After browsing through titles, he ended up in the sports section. like: ‘You know what? Let’s get a Nicklaus book, he said. Its got pictures.

O’Hair ended up winning the tournament, but he has not won since. “I think self-doubt, positive self-talk, all those things we try and work on, it’s not so much we forget how to do stuff, he said. Its just about believing in ourselves.

Even Tiger Woods, who has won 12 major titles, at times making it look effortless, recognizes the sports mental strain.

“If you look at reactionary sports, they really don’t lose it as fast as someone in this sport,� he said. “It’s very rare that you see somebody like Steve Sax or Chuck Knoblauch get the throwing yips. But in our sport, you see quite a few guys get the yips, not only in the golf swing but a ton of guys with putting and chipping.

Through the years, some players have returned to their past form easier than others. David Duval, a former No. 1 player in the world and the 2001 British Open champion, has not won a tournament since.

Also in 2001 � coincidentally on the same course where Bjorn walked away � Henrik Stenson withdrew after nine holes at the European Open and spent months piecing together a game with a coach and a sports psychologist. (Stenson won the Accenture Match Play Championship in February.)

Ian Baker-Finch, who won the 1991 British Open, had such a loss of confidence in the years that followed that it drove him into broadcasting.

“Thomas Bjorn has made a very nice comeback,said Justin Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion. “He’s playing as good or better than he was at his best. With Finchy, its unfortunate that he couldnt get it back. Hes still a wonderful golfer, but getting it out here inside the ropes, hes kind of seen too many bad things to recover from.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.