Less is More for Psychotherapist Sughrue September 20, 2016 | ST. LOUIS, Mo. By Tom Mackin

After changing careers, Matthew Sughrue began to look at golf differently. “The less I cared, the better I seemed to play.” (USGA/Chris Keane)

U.S. Senior Amateur Home

When things get challenging on the golf course for Matthew Sughrue, as they did when he was 2 down after six holes against Randy Mitchell in the first round of match play Monday in the 2016 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship, the psychotherapist relies on the same advice that he provides to athletes in his practice: regulate your emotions and stay focused.

“I ask myself, what would I tell myself?” he said. “Then I tell myself that.” The process worked when he came back from the early deficit to defeat Mitchell, of Wilmington, Del., 4 and 2, at Old Warson Country Club.

This is the first U.S. Senior Amateur for Sughrue, 57, of Arlington, Va. “My mindset is I have to knock them down one at a time,” he said. “It takes luck and a lot of patience to get through six matches and be the winner. I think I have enough game, but the field is so strong that you need some luck to go your way.”

Sughrue’s debut in the championship, which included an eagle 2 in stroke play en route to securing the No. 14 seed for match play, continued Tuesday with a Round-of-32 match against Michael Turner, of Sherman Oaks, Calif.  

“It’s just so hard, which makes the guys who win multiple championships of this caliber a remarkable feat,” said Sughrue, who is a member at Bethesda (Md.) Country Club and counts longtime PGA Tour commissioner and two-time U.S. Amateur champion Deane Beman as an early influence. “You can have a good week and a lucky week to win, but to do it two or three times, like a Paul Simson, Pat Tallent or Chip Lutz, is really something.”

So is making the kind of mid-life career switch that Sughrue has. While running his own insurance business, he entered graduate school at Virginia Tech in 2008 to study clinical psychotherapy, eventually completing a 3½-year internship and a thesis on chronic adult male homelessness.

“I didn’t play any golf during that time,” he said. “By 2013 I had sold my insurance business and was in a residency. That gave me more time to play golf and I began to look at it differently. Frankly, I saw it as not as important as in the past. The less I cared, the better I seemed to play. I also learned how to practice smart. And it’s worked.”

Indeed. Sughrue won the 2014 Maryland Senior Open and finished second in the 2015 Seniors Amateur Championship at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, where he came to the par-5 18th hole tied for the lead with 2014 U.S. Senior Amateur champion Patrick Tallent and attempted to reach the final green in two.

“I tried to win it,” Sughrue said. “I hit a monster drive, about 290 yards into the wind. I’m in the first cut with 235 yards left to the front edge. My layup shot was only 100 yards, or I could try to blow it over an entire sea of bunkers and maybe run it up on the green. I thought it was a smart play to go for it. The wind took it and I ended up in a tough lie, eventually making a bogey. Pat hit an unbelievable 4-iron into the wind to reach the green, and he made par and won. Others have second-guessed my decision, but I don’t.”

A week after the championship, Sughrue played in an outing at the Old Elm Club near Chicago and was approached by Ian Baker-Finch, who won the 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. “He heard about what I did at Royal County Down and said to me, ‘You tried to win it. [To heck with] those people [who questioned Sughrue’s decision]. You have to try and win it. On Tour, when you get in a playoff, you don’t play safe. You try to win it.’ So I felt good about that.”

Sughrue’s best finish in 11 previous USGA championships was in the 2015 U.S. Mid-Amateur at John's Island Club, where he defeated 2013 Mid-Amateur finalist Bill Williamson on the way to the Round of 16.

“I felt good about how I played there in match play,” said Sughrue, who missed the cut in the 2013 U.S. Senior Open at Omaha Country Club. “I’m somewhat of a late bloomer. I’ve had a nice run the past few years.”

That also includes running his own private practice in Vienna, Va., where he works with individuals, couples and families on a range of relational problems and mental illness.

“The sports aspect of my practice has grown organically by word of mouth,” said Sughrue. “People read about my career change and contact me, or know me as a good golfer. My job is not about fixing the yips; a lot of really good players get anxious and don’t know how to calm themselves in their lives, which then affects their sports activities. I’m not a sports psychologist, but I consider myself a sports mental coach who works with the entire family of adolescent baseball players, swimmers and golfers.”

That work includes helping patients develop the proper perspective, as well as examining possible issues that might be keeping an athlete from reaching their potential.

“It’s about creating a framework for how a sport fits in a person’s life and also allows the person to enjoy all aspects of life and that sport,” said Sughrue. “I focus on how people take defeat or failure, or when things don’t go well, and then help them create a mindset that says: ‘I’m not a failure. It didn’t work out this time, but I learned a lot and I’ll use it to get to where I want to go.’ That’s really what I try to do in a nutshell.”

It’s a philosophy that Sughrue seems to be using to his own advantage on the golf course.

Arizona resident Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites. He can be reached at temackinjr@gmail.com.

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