How pros stay focused at golf’s wildest event — and what you can learn from them

jordan spieth borat fan

During the 2021 WM Phoenix Open, a fan dressed as Borat was ushered away from the 17th hole shortly after interacting with Jordan Spieth.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Three years ago, before LIV Golf and before the pandemic and before “elevated events” was a phrase we’d ever heard uttered, the WM Phoenix Open chugged along per usual. The 16th hole was raucous, per usual. Players hit their shots and tossed hats to the crowd, per usual. And then on Friday afternoon, spectators in general admission seating by the 16th green began chanting. 

Green shirt, green shirt, green shirt!

On the other side of the putting surface, leaning over the railing of the second deck, a lady in an electric green zip-up decided to zip-down and expose herself. Per usual. 

Retell that story at this year’s WM Phoenix Open and no one is surprised. (That moment, like many at this tournament, is preserved on the internet. Not everything that happens at TPC Scottsdale stays there.) The event has evolved into something unlike anything else in pro golf. Thirty seconds later, our fan of the hour showed off once again, but only after Lucas Bjerregaard had missed his par putt. The Phoenix Open is a lot of things. Among them? It’s an exercise in tuning out distraction.

Jon Rahm of Spain reacts after a birdie on the 18th hole during the first round of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on February 10, 2022 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
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Dr. Bhrett McCabe walked TPC Scottsdale’s back nine with Patton Kizzire Tuesday afternoon, talking about distraction and process. McCabe is a sports psychologist and knows what happens when distraction creeps in. “They’ll tell you they’re not, but they’re all thinking about [16],” he says. “The minute they get on 11 tee, they start looking.”

The 11th tee at TPC Scottsdale is a bit like the side courts at Wimbledon. It rests just outside the real action, but within sight and sound of the main event. You feel all the chaos of the 16th but get none of the adrenaline of being in the arena. On Tuesday, spectators on the third deck whipped around to shout their bets at players on the 11th tee. A prop plane buzzed overhead, pulling a banner adorned with Rickie Fowler’s face behind it, saying ‘Text ULTRA to 40102.’ 

Distraction is part of the deal here. And there’s never been more than there is this week. Nearly every great golfer on the planet is in attendance. The purse has been boosted to $20 million, a preposterous 144% increase. The Super Bowl is in town, too, which means PGA Tour attendance records are in danger. “Today, on Tuesday, there’s thousands of people out there,” Patrick Cantlay said. “It feels like no other practice round that we play all year.”

Most all of those people are going to be drinking, and why shouldn’t they? This event promotes imbibing, with its endless assortment of VIP access and beverage-focused areas.There’s the Bay Club and the KOVA Club and the 1937 Club and a club up the side of the 18th hole called e18ghteen. There’s the Greenskeeper club and the Scorekeepers club and the Chairman’s Club. There are more clubs at TPC Scottsdale than on campus at Arizona State. And yes, this is the only event where beer cans have rained down from the skies. (The cans have been replaced by commemorative cups this year.)

“If this is your first time, it could freak you out a bit,” Kizzire said. He’s played the WMPO the last seven years and the chaos doesn’t even register for him anymore. The noise is comfortably constant. “If there’s a course where every hole is wide open, then you arrive at a tight hole, it might freak you out,” he continued. “But when every hole is the same, when there’s always a lot going on, there’s just always a lot going on.”

It makes McCabe’s job easier that Kizzire understands Psychology with a capital ‘P’. But not everyone is as steely as Kizzire, which makes McCabe’s job as important as ever. He says it’s not about avoiding distraction, which is guaranteed to happen when beach balls bounce around through the crowd. It’s all about what you do once you’re distracted. McCabe preaches two ideas:

1. Have an anchor. 

An anchor could be anything from tugging on your shirt to repeating a process to your caddie stepping in and saying the same three or four words before every shot. When Jason Day closes his eyes and visualizes his shot, that’s an anchor. “Go back and watch old videos,” McCabe says. Tiger Woods’ anchor was re-strapping the velcro on his golf gloves. “That’s a trigger, that’s an anchor,” McCabe says. “It doesn’t matter where I am in this world, that [move] starts the process.”

2. Dial in the Funnel of Focus

It’s okay to be aware of everything happening. When a fan dressed as Borat ignites the crowd around 17, you’re going to notice. But the closer you get to taking a swing, the further down the funnel you go. The tighter your focus is, and only a few things can fit inside your funnel of focus at that point. The yardage, the wind, your swing thought, etc. The other stuff can grab a piece of your focus at the top of the funnel, 60 seconds before a shot. But not 10 seconds before a shot. “If the funnel breaks down, we restart,” McCabe says.

If you tracked down that NSFW clip from three years ago, you saw the funnel of focus idea in peak form. When our lady in electric green reached for her zipper to rile up the crowd some more, it was Mackenzie Hughes who took a couple steps back in laughter. He settled in, let the noise drop for a moment and began his process again. Then he drained the birdie putt.

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.