14 Jan 2020 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

O'Hern's mind games

by Contributor

nick o'hern image
Nick O'Hern now mentors young players. Photo: Getty

Written by Graham Eccles, Golf Vic magazine

Ever since he was a junior golfer, Australia’s most successful ‘leftie’, Nick O’Hern, has thrived on the head-to-head matchplay format, but being drawn against Tiger Woods for the first time – well, that was a whole new experience.

The occasion was the second round of the 2005 World Match Play Championship at La Costa in California, with Tiger hellbent on winning the event again after triumphing the previous two years.

After the great man’s tee shot exploded off the first tee like a cannon and the adoring crowd went nuts, it was Nick’s turn to be introduced. But he didn’t move.

“I was still watching Tiger’s shot and my caddy had to give me a nudge and indicate it was my turn to tee off,” Nick recalled. “I made a point after that to not watch him hit off in case it intimidated me.

“On that first green I had an eight-foot putt to halve the hole and as I lined up, my caddy said, ‘Mate, this is for the match here on the first hole’. That certainly narrowed my focus; I knocked it dead centre and birdied the next two to go two-up after three.

“On the fourth tee, my caddy whispered that I had my foot on Tiger’s throat and to keep it there. I guess I did because I think I shot five or six under and won 3&1.”

Nick went on to lose in the fourth round to Englishman Ian Poulter. Two years later in the same event, played this time near Tucson in Arizona, Nick reached the third round to find Tiger was once more his opponent. “He was chomping at the bit to get even but the weird thing was he had a really bad start and I found myself four-up after seven holes,” he said.

“Then the charge came. On the eighth he hit a glorious three-iron with that famous twirl and I knew immediately he had suddenly found his swing. His posture changed and he started walking up the fairway more confidently and I knew he was coming after me. And, sure enough, he reeled off birdie after birdie and the match was now square through 16.

“We fought on to the 19th, where Tiger missed a five-foot birdie putt to win – the first time I had seen him miss a putt like that to win a match. Anyway, I won at the 20th and felt proud of myself that over 36 holes of match play against Tiger, I had never been behind.”

More than that, Nick remains the only player to have beaten the great Tiger Woods twice in this format. Now in semi-retirement with his focus today on mentoring professionals and club golfers alike, that’s a feat he can dine out on anytime.

Still, he admits being disappointed that he didn’t make more of an impact at the elite level, even though he achieved a world ranking of 16 at one stage in a professional career that spanned almost 20 years, much it on the European and US PGA Tours.

“I went close so many times,” he said. “I made a lot of cuts and a lot of top-10s and people wondered why I wasn’t winning. But, in a way, you need to be streaky to win and I’ve never been that sort of player.

“A good example is when I had a two-shot lead with two holes to play in the 2007 Qatar tournament. I finished par, par, but Retief Goosen finished birdie, eagle with a 60 ft putt on the last to beat me by one.

But on the flip side, I’ve given away a few, too, like making bogeys at 15 and 17 to lose an Australian Open to Craig Parry by one shot.”

Today, those near-misses are just tantalising memories. Born and raised in Perth, Nick, his talented artist wife Alana and their daughters Riley and Halle have moved to Melbourne after being based in Windermere, Florida for the previous 12 years.

“It would have been nice to return to Perth but it’s pretty isolated, particularly as I want to concentrate on mentoring and coaching,” he said. “Melbourne is the epicentre of sport in this country and it’s also where Golf Australia is headquartered and hopefully I can do some business with them.”

The hub of Nick’s early mentoring work is his book, Tour Mentality – Inside the Mind of a Tour Pro, that he wrote and had published in the US two years ago. The idea had its genesis during a social game with a couple of golfing mates, one of whom was struggling with his swing.

“I could tell his head was spinning with a million different swing thoughts, so I suggested for his next shot that he choose a precise target, commit to it and forget everything else,” Nick recalled. “He flushed it and over the next few holes I expanded on the mental side of the game. Towards the end of the round he urged me to write a book about the mental aspects of the game.

“I knew there were plenty of mental game books out there but the more I thought about it, not many, if any, are written by touring pros. So with two decades of hands-on experience in an arena that tests your mind to its outermost limits, I decided to put my thoughts down on paper.

“The book has been a great platform for working with up-and-coming players in the US, even elite players who have since told me they now think better about their game. In the US, the talent pool is incredible and reaching a new level. What will separate them is pretty much between the ears.

“The US, of course, has the population to produce so many brilliant players but they also have a mentality to succeed whereas other cultures don’t quite have that. In Australia, for instance, we have a lot of technically good players who are not translating that into long-term success. It’s all about the one-percenters and the mental side is one of them. That’s where I can help.”

Now 48, the former Australian PGA champion, who won almost $7.5 million over nine seasons on tour in the US, also intends playing in a couple of Australian and New Zealand tournaments a few times each year “as long as I remain competitive”.

And, would you believe, since semiretirement, he has become a righthanded putter. When the anchoring ban for long sticks came in, Nick just couldn’t adapt to the change. He tried a short lefthanded putter but never felt comfortable, so he experimented with a short righthanded putter for nine holes.

“I putted phenomenally well, which really surprised me,” he said. “I was a good putter with the long handle throughout my career. Could I have been even better had I made the switch all those years ago?

“Who knows, but I certainly love it now.”

- First published in Golf Vic magazine April-May 2019. Republished with the consent of Golf Victoria.

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