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How A PGA Tour Player Lost A Tournament By Losing His Connection To "The Zone"

Denny McCarthy was in the zone

If you watched the final round of the Texas Valero Open PGA event on Sunday, you witnessed an incredible display of golf by Denny McCarthy where he closed off the back 9 with seven straight birdies to end up tied for the lead and heading to a playoff with eventual winner Akshay Bhatia. 

Seven birdies in a row??? That’s unbelievable! Clearly, McCarthy was in the zone, you could see it in his eyes as he marched down the golf course. As each birdy putt dropped, his zone-triggered force field seemed to get stronger and stronger. He was a man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. Until something did, apparently, it was a bug. 

If you didn’t see the tournament, Bhatia did enough to maintain his lead for most of the tournament, despite the pressure from the charging McCarthy, and holed a birdy putt of his own on the final hole to tie for the lead and head to the playoff. You would think that McCarthy, given his golf god-like performance, would have the advantage of momentum going into the playoff, but here’s the thing about “the zone”, also referred to as a flow state. When you’re in it, it is incredibly powerful and can allow you to achieve peak performances. But, it can easily be disrupted, evidenced by what happened to McCarthy on the first playoff hole. 

So both players hit their drives, and both ended up laying up for their second shots into the long par 5. This is where things started getting disruptive for McCarthy. Apparently, Bhatia injured his shoulder while celebrating his previous birdy putt, and so he called for his trainer to come out on the golf course and tape it up. I didn’t even know that was allowed in golf! You see it all the time in tennis, but this was my first time seeing it in a golf event. But the tape job happened after McCarthy hit his third shot, which was a chunked wedge shot into the water from just 90 yards away. He would eventually miss his then fifth shot and Bhatia made birdy for the win. Huh? How does a player go from making seven birdies in a row and seeming virtually unstoppable, to making this massive mistake that eventually cost him the tournament? 

Denny McCarthy hits bad shot
Denny McCarthy chunks shot into water

As a performance coach, I love seeing these moments, because they offer an incredible window into the ups and downs of human performance and offer us opportunities to learn from them and hopefully devise ways to prevent them from happening to others. If you’ve played golf long enough, this has also happened to you, missing the easiest shot at the most important moment. But to see it happen at the PGA level? 

According to McCarthy, and I quote - “Wish I could have that wedge shot back there (no kidding). I backed off a couple of times. There was a bug on my ball and some noise in the stands and a bug jumped back on my ball. I probably should have backed away again, but I thought I could kind of not let it distract me and maybe it did a little. Maybe a learning experience for me, but all in all I handled myself really well today.” 

There is so much to learn from that quote and his overall experience. First, maintaining that level of flow has a biological cost. Flow, or being in the zone, is a neurochemical state fueled by a powerful cocktail of players like dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, cannabinoids, and serotonin. The longer we stay in flow, the more depleted those neurochemicals can become. So when McCarthy stepped off the 18th green, heading for the playoff, he no doubt had to experience some form of physical and mental fatigue given the level of focus and performance he had just experienced. 

How was he feeling on the tee box of the playoff hole? Who knows. He didn’t hit the best drive, but that didn’t really matter since he was most likely going to lay up for his second shot anyway, which he did without any issues. Here’s where I think things went wrong. When he was getting ready for his third shot, he was no longer in the zone. Bhatia had asked for his trainer, distraction number one. Then he talked about a bug on his ball, a noise in the crowd, and the bug coming back to his ball. When you’re in the zone and fully locked in, crowd noises don’t phase you. The bug issue had to be dealt with, but what he was missing in that circumstance was a “flow trigger”, a way to deal with those distractions, then find his way back into the zone, back into absolute focus, before hitting that shot. When he says “I probably should have backed away again…”, absolutely! But not just back away. This is when you need a pre-shot routine, a programmed ritual that allows you to clear your mind, activate your body, and get back to a peak performance state. 

After that second “bug incident”, he could have stepped back and focused on a deep breath to calm his nervous system and focus his mind. He could have repeated a positive affirmation to clear his mind of any negativity due to the distractions. There are many performance-based protocols that he could have used at that moment, but instead, he hesitated just enough for a smidgen of doubt to creep in and the rest is history. 

Akshay Bhatia winner's trophy
Akshay Bhatia wins Texas Valero Open

Congrats to Akshay Bhatia for maintaining his focus during McCarthy’s incredible charge. And congrats to McCarthy for such an incredible performance, even if he did fall one shot short of glory. The main takeaway here is that no matter what level of golf you’re playing at, there will be good days and bad days, good shots and bad shots, and once in a while, you may experience the magic of flow. But flow isn’t magic, it’s a performance state that has tons of science to back it up, and once you understand how it works and especially how to tap into it when you need it most, you can avoid the distractions, lock into a focused state, and potentially play your best golf.

Patrick Sebastien

Performance Coach


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