The Mental Grind is Top of Mind for These Juniors July 19, 2018 | Springfield, N.J. By Stuart Hall

Cole Hammer has trailed in all three matches this week, but has found ways to battle back and claim victory each time. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Much of what players talk about this week at the U.S. Junior Amateur is some variation of hitting the ball well, making good putts, avoiding big numbers and managing the course. But there is a more important factor at play – the mental grind of a long and demanding week of competition.

The player who ultimately emerges as the 71st U.S. Junior Amateur champion will have played up to 198 holes in 8 days: two practice rounds, two stroke-play rounds, and six matches — including double match play days on Thursday and Friday, finishing with a 36-hole final.

Learning how to get through that gauntlet, especially during these formative junior years, is beneficial. Just ask 18-year-old Cole Hammer, of Houston, Texas.

“This is my fourth year [at the U.S. Junior Amateur] and I have learned how up and down golf is,” said Hammer, who began working with Dr. Bob Rotella in February. Rotella helped bring the mental aspect of golf to the mainstream with his book “Golf Is Not A Game of Perfect” in the mid-1990s.

He’s experienced that roller coaster this week. On Wednesday afternoon in the Round of 64, Hammer was down 2 holes to Jackson Suber through nine holes on Baltusrol Golf Club’s Upper Course; he scrambled to square the match on the 12th hole, only to lose the 13th to trail again. Hammer, the reigning U.S. Amateur Four-Ball champion along with Garrett Barber, found a way to win two of the final three holes for a 1-up victory.

Afterward, Hammer, playing in his eight USGA championship and fourth U.S. Junior Amateur, called the match the most difficult of his young career. He also acknowledged that he likely would not have won in a similar situation three years ago when he played in his first U.S. Junior Amateur.

“I knew I was good then, but I just don't think I was developed enough or had as much confidence in my game as I do now,” he said. “Really felt like I could pull it out even when I was 2-down late in the match. I really think that's what pulled me through it, because if I was feeling sorry for myself or anything I had no chance.”

On Thursday afternoon in the Round of 16, Hammer again found himself trailing a match and running out of holes. He was 2 down through 13 to Trent Philips, yet rallied to win Holes 14 and 15 to square the match en route to another comeback victory in 19 holes.

Another U.S. Amateur Four-Ball champion (2017), Shuai Ming (Ben) Wong, 18, of Hong Kong, China, knows that there is much more contributing to success than physical ability.

“All the guys here can hit the ball, can putt, hit it far, go low … that’s why they’re the best juniors in the world,” said Wong, who is playing his ninth USGA championship and fifth U.S. Junior. “But the mental test is probably the most important.”

So far Wong has passed the test. He needed 19 holes to defeat Jolo Timothy Magcalayo in the Round of 32 on Thursday afternoon before turning right back around and earning a dominant 7-and-6 win over Jacob Bridgeman to reach the quarterfinals.

Dr. Bhrett McCabe agrees that the player who best controls his mindset is going to be a formidable force.

“What I like players to do is to say it’s a stroke-play event that turns into a match-play event,” said McCabe, a clinical and sports psychologist, founder of The Mindside and author of “The Mindside Manifesto," who works with professional athletes across several disciplines including golf. “Go play your golf, go play your strategy, go play your approach and let us see where you end up. Then let’s go one from there.”

McCabe is cognizant that demons such as mental and physical fatigue, anxiety and uncertainty can seep into a player’s mind and begin to wreak havoc. He encourages players to use the experiences of the past to trust what they do.

He adds that an athlete might possess one of five mindsets — being “amped,” being a tactician, being in a mental bubble, being a worrier, and being in a position for a reason. All can work to win a championship, keeping one thing in mind.      

“Now is not the time to be the first time listening to music before you go out and play,” he said. “It’s going to be different. Trust what works for you. If what works for me is that I always get myself amped up, then trust in that regardless of what’s going on. If they go into it thinking they are going to be calm and then they become worried or disappointed that they’re not calm, then they are in trouble.”

 “I have learned that I can play in those anxious situations,” adds Hammer. “Dr. Rotella and I are working on forgetting about the situation and focusing on the shot you know you can hit, because there are all sorts of distractions coming at you.”

One glaring distraction that each player has throughout the week is taking hold of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship Trophy. A U.S. Junior Amateur victory comes with an exemption into the U.S. Amateur and the following year’s U.S. Open.

“It’s a natural thought,” Wong said. “The first thing is recognizing I have that thought. I feel like sometimes when I don’t play my best golf or when I am not in my best mental state, I am hooked onto a thought and I don’t recognize that fact. So I think the key is to recognize the thought and then let it pass, and know that I am playing golf because I love it and not because of anything like the prize or an exemption.”

McCabe believes that is a proper response.

“You can’t ignore it,” he said. “It’s real. When you find yourself jumping ahead, you have to think ‘How do I get myself back to this shot?” When they start fast forwarding ahead, what they also do is put more pressure on the present moment to perform at a level that is unrealistic.”

And, at present, the 36-hole championship final is still two rounds away.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.

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