Cherry Hills Village, Colo. – Few people in sports handled pressure situations better than John Elway.
Over a 16-year, Hall-of-Fame career with the Denver Broncos, Elway posted a 148-82-1 record while leading his team to five Super Bowls and two world championships. He is perhaps best known for producing The Drive, a 98-yard touchdown march in the 1987 AFC title game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, catapulting Denver to its second-ever Super Bowl appearance and first since 1977.
Elway and the Broncos would lose that Super Bowl to the New York Giants in the Rose Bowl, a trend that would continue again in 1988 (Washington Redksins) and 1990 (San Francisco 49ers).
He would have to wait eight agonizing more seasons to get a shot at redemption. But as he told the assembled audience at the 2012 U.S. Amateur Players’ Dinner Sunday night, Elway needed to change his philosophical approach to pro football’s biggest game.
It’s a message he wanted the field of 312 golfers to absorb before going into their version of the Super Bowl this week at Cherry Hills Country Club and CommonGround Golf Course, the companion course for stroke-play qualifying.
How am I going to resolve this issue? Elway asked himself after his first three Super Bowl failures. What I came up with relates to everyone in this room. How do you handle pressure situations?
The 52-year-old Elway, now the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations and a longtime Cherry Hills C.C. member, recently asked that question of his future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, whom Denver acquired via free agency this offseason. Manning is fanatical when it comes to preparation, whether it’s watching game tape or executing plays over and over through repetition in practice. It’s that work ethic that allows him to be calm in the heat of the moment.
Pressure to me is not knowing what you’re doing, Manning told Elway.
For Elway, pressure was self-inflicted. He always had higher expectations for himself than anyone else on the team. He wanted to win the Super Bowl so badly that it affected his performance.
When Denver beat Pittsburgh to earn a Super Bowl berth against the defending-champion Green Bay Packers, Elway phoned his mom. Can you believe it, we get another chance to go back to the Super Bowl.
His mom, Janet, retorted, Do we really have to go back to the Super Bowl? Elway answered by telling his mom that the only chance the Broncos had at redeeming past failure was to step up to the plate and deliver a better effort.
So as he and his teammates approached the 1998 Super Bowl against the heavily favored and defending-champion Green Bay Packers, Elway reflected on his past performances. He realized that he needed to live in the moment rather than think about the outcome.
I’m not going to let myself think of what it would be like to be a champion, Elway told the audience, which included USGA officials and championship volunteers. All that does is put that [pressure] back on yourself. You can never want anything too bad. Take it one step at a time, one shot at a time, and stay in the moment.
That philosophy – and a great running back named Terrell Davis – propelled the 14-point-underdog Broncos to a 31-24 win over Green Bay. The next year, Denver repeated as champions and Elway retired from the game at 38 as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
I can tell you this, I miss having the ball in my hand, said Elway, who hasn’t thrown a competitive pass in 14 years. There’s nothing better than having the ball in your hand and there’s nothing better than having a club in your hand.
The ultra-competitive Elway is now an avid golfer and he said that he often goes to Cherry Hills to hide out as it’s one of the few places in Denver where he can escape without being bombarded with autograph requests or questions regarding the Broncos. And those lessons he learned on the gridiron can often be translated into golf, especially the preparation and dedication it takes to be a champion.
He understands what the competitors this week will be feeling when they step to the first tee, and he wanted to remind them of one key intangible.
I hope and pray for everyone in this room – whether you are a [pre-championship] favorite or an underdog – when this week is over for you that you can walk away saying, ‘I didn’t get in my own way,’ said Elway. That I played the best that I can play because a lot of times, our mind will prevent us from being as good as we can be. We’re thinking about the outcome before we even do it.
I want you to appreciate where you are and understand that everyone in this room deserves to be in this championship. Stay in the moment and appreciate where you are and allow yourself to play the best golf you can play.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.