Rory McIlroy is returning to a hell we’ll likely never know. At last year’s Masters, he held a commanding four-shot lead going into the final round, then infamously collapsed. With his lead already trimmed to one shot, things got real ugly on No. 10: his tee shot hit a tree and settled between two cabins deep in the woods. His putting coach said Augusta National should put a plaque on that spot: Here, ladies and gentlemen, was where young Rory lost it all. He triple bogeyed the hole, instantly fell two shots behind and wound up shooting a 43 on the back 9, finishing tied for 15th.
So imagine you’re McIlroy stepping up to the 10th tee for the first time during tournament play. Or even better, picture him this Sunday, April 8, either with a lead or in contention — each a very likely scenario — returning to that hole of horrors. Won’t McIlroy, 22, think about what happened a year ago? Going back to a painful place is never easy.
TIME called two prominent golf psychologists, both working with players in Augusta: Dr. Bob Rotella, who is advising Padraig Harrington, Trevor Immelman and others and also advised John Calipari and the NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats at the Final Four in New Orleans; and Dr. Gio Valiante, shrink to Justin Rose and Sean O’Hair. We asked them what advice they’d offer McIlroy, the world’s second ranked player, who did dominate last year’s second major, the U.S. Open, upon his return to the 10th tee. What mind tricks could prevent another Masters meltdown? Here are three tips:
1. Laugh It Up. McIlroy is a fun guy. Right after his collapse, for example, he snapped a picture with 2011 Masters champ Charl Schwartzel as they took a plane to Malaysia on the way to a post-Masters tournament. He tweeted it out with the message: “Glad one of us has the green jacket on!”
Rotella noticed that on the back nine of Augusta, McIlroy changed. “He got a little serious,” says Rotella. “He got out of his personality. He started acting like Tiger — he turned inward.” Such a demeanor works for Woods but isn’t really a fit for the Irishman, even though it’s only natural for McIlroy, who like so many of today’s young golfers grew up watching Woods dominate Augusta, to channel his golf hero.
McIlroy has pretty much admitted that trying to mimic Woods cost him. Rotella says McIlroy could take a lesson from the Kentucky hoops team: after the Wildcats missed some late free throws in their semifinal win against Louisville, they laughed about it in the postgame locker room. In the April 2 championship game, the relaxed Wildcats sank some key shots. “If he makes a few mistakes, he should just laugh about it,” says Rotella. “It’s just golf.” In the days before this year’s tournament, McIlroy has been yukking it up. Once he starts his rounds, he should bring the guffaws to the golf course.
2. Put Twain in Your Game. It’s Sunday afternoon, and McIlroy has a one-stroke lead over his final-round partner, Tiger Woods. It’s the dream matchup for golf fans everywhere. McIlroy is at the 10th tee and wants to look in the direction where he so horribly hooked that drive last year. Don’t do it!
Rotella suggests that McIlroy think of a Mark Twain quote: “The inability to forget is infinitely more devastating than the inability to remember.” Repeat it in his head, over and over. McIlroy needs to remind himself that if he’s in contention on the back nine for a second straight year, he must be doing something right. “Stay in the present moment,” Rotella says. “In golf, just play until you run out of holes. Add ‘em up in the end and see how you did.”
3. Soften Those Hands. When McIlroy returns to No. 10, he won’t help but feel a little nervous. Valiante notes that once the stress hormones get released, the muscles tense. That’s when golfers tighten their grip, which can throw off their swing and their rhythm. Valiante has a mantra for his pro patients: “Soft hands, soft hands.” McIlroy should keep an eye on his grip. Loosen it up if it feels too tight, and the rest of his body may relax. “You can’t always control your thoughts,” says Valiente. “But you can always control your grip pressure.”
So Rory, chuckle a bit, quote Mark Twain and keep your hands loose. That green jacket would look mighty good on you.