Shane Lowry threw away a 4 shot lead at the US Open 2016 golf tournament 2016 at Oakmont having been in an overnight dominant position. After 10 holes on the final day, Lowry had dropped four shots to leave him 2 shots behind new leader Dustin Johnson, who had moved from -3 to -5 on the last day.

Lowry fought back to level with Johnson at -4 on the 12th before falling away on the last few holes as the pressure heated up.

So what happened

Basically anxiety had a significant negative impact on Lowry’s performance throughout the final round. Anxiety takes two forms and may impact the brain (psychological anxiety) or the muscular system (somatic anxiety) or both.

Psychological anxiety can affect decision making, ability to sleep on nights previous to performance and bring on worrisome thoughts – often about other player on attack, closeness of competition, fear of making a mistake, crowd, coach or family member perceptions which may make suffering players uncomfortable.

Somatic anxiety manifests itself in various ways – trembling hands, hyperventilation, nausea, increased need to use toilet, dry throat, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, general sweating and feeling of discomfort.

The combination of an increase in both psychological anxiety (head worry) and somatic anxiety (muscle worry) at the same time forces the body and mind to overheat and golfers then struggle to execute what are considered relatively easy shots. It takes the form of a mild panic attack or what we know as psycho-somatic stress resulting in skill breakdown. This can result in the de-chunking of what are normally considered automatic movement processes which is a physical manifestation of the anxiety in the body. The nervousness within the body can also bring about involuntary muscle movements which contribute to the “yips” as skill execution that is normally considered easy becomes a lot more difficult as a breakdown of natural movement flow occurs.

It is interesting to note that Lowry said on the evening before the final round that he liked to look at the scoreboard and know where he stood in relation to others. However, psychologically, this is sometimes unhelpful especially if you are in front and looking at somebody coming from behind. This may have elevated his levels of anxiety unwittingly as he found it difficult to execute his skills optimally finishing his final round on +6 but only he could explain how he felt during the course of the final round.

An added pressure that could have elevated anxiety levels was the unknown position around where the lead stood in the competition as the last 7 holes were played out. This came about with the questioning of USGA officials of Dustin Johnson on the 12th tee box over an issue on the 5th green as he grounded his putter without addressing the ball. Rumours circulated around the stands and players were informed that Johnson “could” receive a one shot penalty. The lack of clarity was further questioned with numerous tweets from top professionals including Ricky Fowler, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth ridiculing the concept of issuing such a penalty. Johnson’s experience obviously helped him deal with this better than Lowry as he was able to maintain his composure when under pressure while Lowry capitulated – missing relatively easy putts for par putts with three three putts in a row (5ft 7ft and 7ft) on the 14th, 15th  and 16th holes respectively.

Such meltdowns are more likely to occur in performers that are not used to such pressure in major competitions. US Open novice Andrew Landry headed the competition for most of the tournament starting the final day on -3 in second place before finishing on +5.

How often have we seen golfers do erratic things at the most inopportune times when under pressure and anxious during performance in highly charged settings.

One only needs to look back at Rory McIllroy at Augusta in 2011 to see how anxiety can destroy a performance as he threw away an overnight four stroke lead with the worst round in history by any professional golfer leading after the third round of the Masters Tournament.

Others also suffered a similar fate, none more so than Jean Van De Welde famously at the British Open and Greg Norman at Augusta as they both threw away huge leads on the final day after holding convincing leads overnight from the third round on the Saturday.

Payne Stewart suffered a similar fate at the US Open in 1998 when he lost a 4 shot overnight lead heading into the final round while more recently, a young Irish amateur Paul Dunne led the British Open in 2015 entering the final day leading by 3 shots. After his final round collapsed, Dunne found it tough to take after his first three rounds of 69, 69 and 66, as he enjoyed massive support among the galleries from Greystones club members and Irish golf fans.

Afterwards, Dunne said “I just never really got settled into the round,” he lamented. “I got off to a bit of a rough start and didn’t make my score on the front nine and threw away some shots on the back nine.

  “I wasn’t too bad starting. I just hit three wedge shots fat and one thin. I didn’t see those shots in my game or in practice before today. I don’t think I’ve done that ever. I don’t know where that came from.”

  “It kind of surprised me on the first. After I hit that second shot it rattled me a little bit and I never got settled after that.“

Various strategies such as appropriate relaxation techniques, self-talk and attentional focus cues in addition to imagery can help alleviate the impact of the anxiety and reduce the impact and onset of the “yips”. These are best generated with the help and advice of a qualified sport psychologist.

Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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