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The Worst Moment of Your Life

Greg Norman was the number-one golfer in the world in 1998. He was flamboyant, he was charismatic, he was an athlete right out of central casting with flowing blond hair and a rugged demeanor from down under. The Australian accent was an added attraction.

Arguably, the most notable golf tournament in the world is the Masters held in Augusta, Georgia, every April. It is of profound historical significance but especially because it is the only iconic golf tournament consistently held on the same golf course so it’s easy to compare performances year after year. A victory in this golf tournament without doubt is one of the most prestigious accomplishments in sports. And the winner dons the coveted green sports coat.

Going into the final round on Sunday afternoon, Greg Norman had a six-stroke lead, which was an unheard-of advantage and would virtually guarantee a victory. But midway through that final round Greg Norman had the greatest unraveling in all of sports history. As memorable as Babe Ruth’s move to New York in 1919 triggering the Curse of the Bambino for Boston. Or Bill Buckner’s between-the-legs flub in the 1986 World Series.

Norman had been unflappable under pressure, seemingly had ice water in his veins, and traditionally was unbeatable. But over the course of several holes, he lost his confidence, lost that swagger from down under, and lost the tournament to Nick Faldo, respected professional but a golfer who certainly did not have the gifts and skills of Norman. On the final hole Faldo apologized to Norman for having taken the title under these very difficult circumstances. But in fact, Greg Norman “gave” the championship to Faldo.

This disintegration has been extensively analyzed, and Norman frankly admitted that he did not sleep well the night before the tournament, was having some back issues, and got out of his usual rhythm. He started to manipulate his swing and lost his confidence. Sports psychologists and other experts were far less kind, and Norman's unraveling went down as one of the greatest reversals in sports. But let us not be too critical.

A close professional colleague is an excellent golfer who consistently shoots in the middle 70s. He signed up for a charity celebrity tournament at a local golf club with prominent local athletic and business personalities. Since this was a charity function, there were complex betting schemes, and almost every hole would offer high-end betting opportunities for who had the longest putt, or who had the longest drive.

These professionals were financially comfortable but became distracted by the extra money and the fact that this was a highly public event, and their scores would be in the local media. Golf can be stressful, but when you throw in the added tension of betting and the publicity around the event, my friend lost his mojo. His judgment on the golf course was cloudy.

I walked several holes with him and said to myself, What were you thinking when you attempted that shot? His performance was dreadful, one of the worst rounds he ever played. What happened and what can we learn from this experience?

Do Not Judge or You Will Be Judged

  • Let us not be too critical because someone has a bad day. We may not know the entire story. A family emergency, a nagging health issue, a crisis of faith. You don’t know the baggage others are carrying with them.

  • When stakes are high and failure is not an option, embrace the zone, total immersion in the task at hand. Whether it’s an exam for an MBA, CPA, or some other certification; the SATs; a music rehearsal or audition; a conference presentation; a court deposition—stick with consistent, predictable routines for sleep and meals. Map out the drive to the venue, know where the restrooms are, and consider the accommodations and meals.

  • Anticipate what can go wrong. A bright, highly motivated colleague was sitting for an important medical school examination at a distant site. She prepared and brought her own lunch. While sitting at a picnic table, a bee stung her. Nothing serious but a painful distraction during the second half of the exam. If you are to bring a pen, bring three. If you are to show up 15 minutes early, be 30 minutes early.

  • Dress for the part. Sweats and a baseball hat worn at the time of a major examination hardly puts us in that “space” to do well. Dress the part for job interviews.

  • Slow it down, eliminate distractions, control what you can, and show up to give it your best shot.

Greg Norman was unable to give his golf game his best shot that day. The college quarterback couldn’t deliver his best passes and a win. A bright student partied the night before the critical SAT exam.

As life unfolds, each of us is battered and bludgeoned with advice and recommendations on how to do X, Y, or Z. When it comes to sports, the input from coaches and advisers often goes something like this: Keep your head in the game, control what you can, keep your eye on the ball. And do not let the crowd or your nerves interfere with your performance.

Same with life.

Image from Unsplash, Jeremy Perkins photographer.

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