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Psychologist Keeps Golfers on Their Game : Guidance: With a positive outlook, athletes can overcome mental blocks, Wright says.

August 25, 1994|MARTIN BECK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — David Wright knows how to ease pain. For 10 years, he helped people deal with serious headaches at a pain management clinic he started in Orange.

Now he's going after another source of agony: Golfers' angst.

Wright of Coto de Caza is a golf psychologist and PGA teaching professional.

"I'm the only one of my kind in the world, I think--I'm still waiting to be discovered," Wright said.

Those who have discovered him, including PGA and LPGA tour professionals and successful local junior players, swear by his methods.

"You just listen to his voice and he makes you feel more relaxed," said Kellee Booth, a neighbor of Wright's who won the U.S. Junior Girls' Championship last summer.

Said PGA Tour pro Pat Burke of Azusa: "I had really gotten close to the point where I didn't want to play any more. I was a mess. He helped me get a different focus on things."

Said LPGA Tour pro Jennifer Wyatt: "I spent the first part of this year so miserable. I would come back from the course and just cry. I would be so frustrated."

After working with Wright, Wyatt says she is better at keeping her composure.

In golf, the most sane person might be one bad shot away from becoming a basket case.

This is where Wright steps in.

"Golf is a game in which you have to learn to control and let go at the same time," said Wright, who played a year of minor league baseball in the Cincinnati Reds' organization.

More than anything, Wright stresses patience. The deep breathing techniques he teaches help calm the nerves, allowing keener concentration.

"Golf requires such fine concentration and for such brief periods of time that you really have to focus on the present," Wright said. "Most of us live mentally in the future--when we get in the shower we're already thinking about what we are going to do later that day."

Wright helps his students return to the here and now. Based at Pelican Hill Golf Club since June, Wright charges $150 (juniors $100) for about 80 minutes of psychological instruction. His professional clients pay him a percentage of their prize money. The fee includes audio tapes on relaxation and building consistent routines and "Mind Under Par," an instruction book he wrote and plans to publish in January.

He helps his students map out their goals--in golf and in life. He provides physical fitness workouts. He counsels his junior players not to let golf consume them and, if necessary, helps them with a studying schedule. It's a comprehensive approach, but the main focus, of course, is golf.

When practice starts, Wright usually takes his students to the putting green first. "I have to do a lot of converting here," he said. "They have to believe in me. I'm not saying they come in skeptical, but once I show them success on the putting green, they're ready to listen to what I have to say in the other areas."

Wright, who has two psychology doctorates, trains his clients to visualize hitting each shot perfectly before taking it. "Fred Couples never hits a shot without recalling a similar shot he has hit well before," Wright said.

Obviously, Couples has a bank of good shots from which to make withdrawals, but the rest of us can dream, and Wright says vivid images produce better shots. He builds confidence through drills--repetition being crucial to learning.

Wright, 48, never dreamed he would be making a living in golf. He rarely played the game until the mid-1980s. He met Derek Hardy, then a teaching pro at Ridgeline Country Club in Orange, and they developed a symbiotic relationship.

Hardy would teach Wright and his family how to play golf and Wright would teach Hardy about psychology.

"When I first met David, I was a good teacher; I had won awards and so forth," Hardy said. "But after working with him I became a much, much better teacher because I understood how people learn."

Hardy, named by Golf Magazine as one of the 50 best teachers in the country, said Wright is effective because his background is clinical instead of academic.

Wright quickly took to the game. He gave up his pain management practice and became an assistant pro under Hardy, eventually completing the PGA apprentice program. At the same time he was developing his golf psychology practice.

The practice naturally led him to the PGA and LPGA tours, where mental toughness is essential and one missed putt can cost thousands of dollars. Wright works with such LPGA players as Marta Figueras-Dotti, who won for the first time in 12 years on the tour in January, Anne-Marie Palli and Jan Stephenson.

He has been working with PGA Tour rookie Dennis Paulson for about two years. A 1980 graduate of Costa Mesa High who played at San Diego State, Paulson turned pro in 1985 and played in eight PGA Tour qualifying schools before earning his card this season.

"He really helped me," Paulson said. "The funny thing is, David told me from the beginning, 'Dennis, you've won before and you've won a lot. You know how to win but you need to pay attention to what is going on when you are playing well.' "

Paulson said his problem was that he got so angry at himself on the course--"You're such an idiot for hitting that shot."--that the game wasn't fun anymore. Wright helped Paulson learn to give himself credit and channel anger positively.

Now Paulson has won nearly $130,000, putting him in the top half of the Tour's money-winner list. In April he shot a course-record 62 to take the second-round lead in the PGA event in New Orleans. He wound up in a tie for fourth, his best PGA finish, but another accomplishment stands out more in his mind.

"I was never more proud of anything than how I played at tour school," Paulson said. "I never hit it in the water, never had a three-putt, never had a double bogey and never shot over par in any one round for six rounds."

Now, that's painless golf.

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