Greg Norman still remembers the day vividly. It was September 1992, and he hadn’t won a golf tournament in more than two years. He had changed swing coaches, fiddled with his mechanics and tried to convince himself he was on the verge of a breakthrough. He was in his car, driving to Old Marsh Golf Club in Palm Beach for a practice session.
“I can still see it,” he said, smiling at the memory earlier this month. “It was a pretty day, and I had the top down. It was just me. I had been playing like complete s— for a long time. I looked up at the sky and said to myself What is this about? Is something wrong physically? No. So why am I going to the golf course right now? Am I just going to beat myself up when I get there, just pound golf balls without knowing what I’m doing and then make excuses when I don’t play well next week?
“I was finally honest with myself that day. There was nothing physically wrong with me. There was no one to blame for the condition of my game but me. I had to focus on every shot—every shot. I had the best range session of my life that day. Two hours. I hit every shot with precision.
“A week later, I won the Canadian Open.”
Almost every golfer who has had success—not just Hall-of-Famers like Norman—has had to figure a way out of slumps along the way during his career.
“It’s all relative of course,” said Stewart Cink. “Everyone knows that Jordan Spieth isn’t playing well right now—for Jordan Spieth. He’s dropped to what, 20th in the world [actually 25th]. Most guys would kill to be ranked that high. But he’s been No. 1, he’s won three majors, so when he goes this long [since the 2017 British Open] without a win, everyone agrees he’s not playing anywhere close to his best golf.”
Spieth won two majors and five tournaments in 2015—the year he turned 22—and was ranked No. 1 in the world. A year later, he won twice more and finished second in the Masters, losing what had been a five-shot lead on the back nine. In 2017, he won his third major—the Open Championship at Birkdale. At that moment, he was ranked No. 2 in the world.
He hasn’t won since and missed the Tour Championship last year for the first time in his pro career. As he prepares to play in this week’s Players Championship, this season, so far, has been worse: his BEST finish in seven starts is a T-35 in San Diego. In Los Angeles, he started with a seven-under-par 64 on Thursday and finished with a 10-over-par 81 on Sunday.
There isn’t anyone on tour who doesn’t think Spieth will figure it out again, sooner or later. “His problem is he played so well coming out that the expectations for him are completely over the top,” said Adam Scott—also a former No. 1. “It’s his fault because he played so well coming out. It was like watching a junior who hasn’t learned to get nervous yet.” He smiled. “Of course, he pretty much WAS a junior.”
“The key is to not be too hard on yourself,” said Webb Simpson, who went more than four years without a win before his victory at last year’s Players. “You need to step back and remind yourself that you’re good at golf, that you’ve played it well and you can play it well again
“We all go through it, and I think what you find out is you’re never as far away as you think.”
Cink would agree with that. His game began to fall off not long after his greatest moment—his victory at Turnberry in the 2009 Open Championship. He still played solidly in 2010, but by 2012 had dropped out of the top 100 in the world rankings.
“I think it’s complacency,” he said. “It isn’t anything you notice right away because it isn’t blatant. I don’t think I stopped working hard—spending time on the range, working out—all of that. It was mental. Maybe getting just a little bit lazy in my focus on the range, or occasionally letting my mind wander on a shot or two in a round. Gradually, that adds up. Not right away, but you wake up one morning and realize you aren’t playing well and you wonder why.”
Cink said it was his wife Lisa’s battle with breast cancer that snapped his mind back to attention. “You know how people shave their heads to show support for someone with cancer who they love?” he said, smiling. “Well, I couldn’t do that.” He pointed at his follicle-challenged head.
“So, instead I just decided if Lisa could go all in the way she did fighting cancer, then I could go all in on my golf game. Be focused. Don’t be satisfied. No excuses and no whining.”
Cink finished 147th on the FedEx Cup points list in 2016—the year Lisa was diagnosed. A year later he jumped to 53rd and he was 73rd last year.
“I always go back to basics,” said Kevin Streelman, who has been on tour for 12 years after failing to get through Q School five straight times. “The first thing you do is tell yourself you can work harder—no matter how hard you think you’re working. The second thing you do is remind yourself what you’ve worked on in the past that worked. You don’t just work to work, you work smart.”
He smiled. “Every time I flunked Q School, I was on the range hitting balls the next day. I just knew I had to keep working until I got good enough that there was no way I wasn’t going to get through. I finally did it on the sixth try.”
The struggling golfer’s lament is always, “I’m close.” Or, “I’m playing well, just not making putts.” Spieth’s secret when he was the best player in the world was that his putter always covered up for any other hiccups in his game. In 2015, Spieth was ninth in strokes-gained/putting, and a year later he was second. This year, he is 116th and all his other stats are down.
“For those first four years, it felt as if Jordan never missed a putt,” Scott said. “If he hit a bad shot, it didn’t bother him because he knew his putter would bail him out. Now, clearly he doesn’t feel like that. When you start to lose confidence in the thing you do best, it almost always ends up affecting you through the bag.”
Scott believes there are two kinds of slump—the “mini-slump” and the “major-slump”—and they require very different approaches.
“If it’s a mini-slump, you usually just have to go through a checklist of the things you’re doing and see where the problem is,” Scott said. “Don’t panic because most of the time, it isn’t that hard. The major-slump is different. You have to be willing to drill deep, to go to your core, strip yourself down as a player and as a person. Sometimes when you do that you’re going to find things you really don’t want to find. The game can be so tough mentally, which is why it can be difficult to dig yourself out of a major slump.”
Billy Horschel, who in 2018 had his best year since winning the FedExCup in 2014, agrees with Scott. “In the end, you have to be brutally honest with yourself,” he said. “Be willing to take criticism, first and foremost from yourself but also from your team. But after you do that you have to remind yourself that you love golf. I LOVE golf. Sometimes, I forget to enjoy it. I felt really good going to Hawaii this year. I’d worked on some things I knew needed work on in the fall, and I’d played pretty well. But then a couple things went wrong on Maui, and I got mad. I started snapping at people. I really wasn’t happy with myself—my golf or my behavior.
“When I went to San Diego a couple weeks later, I told myself to just enjoy playing golf. If I hit a bad shot, accept it, go find it and hit it again. Probably not a coincidence that I played much better.”
Brooks Koepka, who bounced back from a serious wrist injury last year to win two majors, dips into his memory bank. “I’ve been struggling with my putter lately,” he said this past week. “So, I remind myself that I’ve made some clutch putts in my career. I kind of shut my eyes and remember some of the putts I’ve made in majors the last couple years and I say, ‘See, you CAN do it. Now, do it again.’
“If I’m not hitting the ball well, I just go back to my foundation. I check my setup, my alignment. It’s almost always something simple. If I’m set up correctly and aligned correctly, then I know before I swing the club I’ve got a chance to hit the ball well. I tell myself, ‘You’ve been doing this for 20 years. There’s no reason you can’t do it well again.’ If I feel that way, chances are I will hit it well.”
He smiled. “Sounds simple. Easier said than done sometimes.”
That’s one thing players—even the best players—have to constantly remind themselves about: Golf is hard. It’s never as simple as they try to make it sound.
“You have to be patient with yourself,” Justin Thomas said. “You can say, ‘OK, I’m going to try this; OK, don’t be quite so aggressive; OK, make the game as simple and easy as you can.’ That doesn’t mean it’s going to work right away. You have to tell yourself good things are going to happen and then wait for them to happen. You can’t push them to happen, you have to let them happen.”
The bottom line? As with anything else, acceptance is half the battle.
“At some point you have to stop letting yourself off the hook,” Norman said. “You have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Right now, your golf isn’t any good. YOU aren’t any good.’ Then, figure out how to fix it. You can’t get better until you admit that, at that moment, you just aren’t any good. Once you do that, you have a chance to be good again.”