Drew Steckel, coach to the likes of Kevin Na and Pat Perez, reveals getting players ready to perform at the majors is as much about helping them mentally as teaching mechanics
Bobby Jones said that competitive golf is played on a “five-and-a-half-inch course – the space between your ears”. The pressure of the Grand Slam all but broke the game’s greatest amateur and fast-tracked him into retirement.
So imagine how he’d deal today with the Golf Channel trailing him walking onto the range, with TrackMan numbers flashing up on huge LCD screens for the watching hundreds to review his carry distance and curve, and all his hopes and fears dissected on 24-hour sports news.
Sometimes we forget these golfing titans we put on pedestals are human beings. They think, feel and hurt like the rest of us.
Did you know, for example, that the setting for the US Open even made the world’s best blink? They too strolled round those ocean holes at Pebble Beach and found it hard not to drink in the scene.
So trying to peak for just 16 days a year – the entirety of a major season – can feel like a herculean challenge.
For the game’s top coaches like Drew Steckel, who worked with Kevin Na at the US Open and also counts Pat Perez and Jason Kokrak among his clients, helping their players solve the mental puzzle is just as important as working on technique.
He’s a counsellor, a friend, a social worker and a motivator as well as a teacher.
“The mechanical side of it is the easier part,” he explains. “The emotional part is where you are getting through the code of their identity as a golfer and figuring that out.
“It is not just ‘slow down your backswing’, ‘work on your wrist angle at the top’. It’s how are they feeling? What are they thinking? How nervous are they? Can they make a three-footer on the practice green before they even tee it up?”
Finding the key to the cipher is easier said than done, Steckel admits. When you want to construct an aura of invincibility – to unnerve your fellow competitors into believing that it’s definitely your week – you don’t necessarily want to engage in a couch session.
“I’m trying to talk to them, figure out how they are feeling and get them to open up. Everyone’s got their guard on.
“They are all competitive. You don’t want to lose your edge and tell someone how you are feeling and the guy hitting balls [next to you] is going to know you are in a bad mood and not feeling like you are putting well.
“You’ve got to be careful and know they are going to protect themselves. Your job (as a coach) is to get into that barrier, make it become a team with you and their caddie – the two people, other than their family, that are inside the ropes.
“You just try to get them in the right spot emotionally before this all goes on.”
Stretch that from dealing with one individual to handling many and juggling the different personalities in any coaching portfolio feels like a tough balancing act.
Steckel can spend 12 hours a day on the golf course, walking 27 holes and finding the right times and places to have the necessary conversations.
He has become an expert at body language.
“Everyone runs to a different beat. They’re all different. Some are wound tighter and some are more relaxed.
“Some get into a different mode where they don’t talk at the course, some will talk. As a coach, you have to be very good at reading people’s personalities and mood and trying to alter them.
“If they are in a bad mood that day, or a good mood that day, it’s trying to figure them out emotionally – where they are going to feel they are in their round, or what they do after their round.
“You are dealing with personalities more than you are dealing with ‘right elbow position at the top of the swing’ when it comes to playing golf.”
From there, it’s about protection and managing expectations. It’s about making sure players go into Thursday in the best possible shape and not tired out from too much effort in practice.
It’s about keeping perspective that what they do at any of the other big four tournaments shouldn’t define their year.
“You have to balance out Monday through Wednesday. A lot of guys will go into Thursday and they are tired because they feel like if they are not hitting balls or chipping, or putting, or playing 18 holes a day, then they are not getting better or they are not prepared.
“In reality they are actually hurting themselves.”
“You know after the first day you are going to be tired – physically and mentally exhausted,” he continues.
“It’s a four-day stretch of grinding where you are trying to make par, missing a fairway, scrambling and all of that stuff.
“You have to have a good perspective. This isn’t the only week of the year. It would be great to win a major and play well in a major, yes, but you’ve still got a lot of tournaments the rest of the year.
“A win is a win on the PGA Tour.”
And what’s the objective? It’s a word that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a lesson, but is so difficult to consistently replicate in that swirling world of mental strength and frailty. Trust.
“You try to make them feel like they are ready to go, have no doubts with what they are doing and feel good and can trust themselves.
“When you trust yourself, it doesn’t matter if you’re an 18 handicapper who’s shooting 100, you are going to play better. When you trust yourself you’re going to have confidence.
“That’s how you build confidence.”