If the PGA Tour has taught us anything this season, it is that it is tough to win. Extremely tough. Kyle Stanley blew a seven shot lead at Torrey Pines, Spencer Levin blew a six shot advantage in Scottsdale and Phil Mickelson came from behind to win the AT&T National Pro-Am.
What makes closing the deal so tough? The only player who consistently makes winning look easy is Tiger Woods, who is fresh off a five-shot triumph at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But even the red-shirted victory machine went two years without closing the deal in an officially-sanctioned event.
In my opinion, the only possible way to explain the difficulty in winning, is having been through the experience of contending for a win and failing miserably. That’s where I come in.
I played high school golf in Central Ohio for Olentangy Liberty from 2004-07. Just to be clear I was no Tiger Woods. In fact, I was no Kevin Na either. I was more like the Ken Duke of high school golf. If you don’t know who Ken Duke is, just know that he has played in more than 140 PGA Tour events and has never once felt the taste of victory. This is not a knock on Duke, clearly he is a good player if he has had that kind of longevity in the game of golf. But, like me, he has never really won anything on the big stage.
My lone victory in the game of golf came in the third flight of the Columbus District Golf Association’s match play championship. Not exactly the most prestigious event, but hey a W is a W. But that event was not a sanctioned high school event. I never could break through and win at the high school level.
What I hope to do is take you through my biggest choke as a competitive golfer and use it as a case study to explain why winning in golf is so difficult — and maybe for some cathartic value as well.
The event was the 2007 Delaware County Cup during my senior season at a course north of Columbus called Oakhaven, famous for its “Barn Hole.” We played the course many times in my competitive career and I once saw a good friend and teammate flop a shot over the old barn for an improbable par. Every school in our county attended the Delaware County Cup and the event was always late in the season, sometime in early October or late September. We had already advanced to the District tournament for the first time in school history (it opened when I as a freshman), so needless to say the mood was loose and the vibe was good.
I had a great senior year as a high school player with a scoring average just under 80, and we never once threw out one of my scores all season. Quite an achievement for me as consistency is not exactly a hallmark of my golf game. In fact, I held the record on the JV squad — and still do as far as I know — for the highest nine-hole score recorded, a 63, scored my freshman year on the front nine of, you guessed it: Oakhaven. A week later I broke 80 for the first time and shot 77 on 18 holes. As you can see, my golf game is usually about as consistent as the mental state of Charlie Sheen.
But that bad memory at Oakhaven was long gone. That 63 was a day of the Sh**** (you golf folks should know this word and understand my aversion to typing it) and was quickly remedied. This day in 2007, I was feeling good, and my play showed it.
I don’t remember much about the first 14 holes that day, other than that it seemed easy and went very well. I was one-under par at this point and was sure I had the best score on the course. This is when the wheels started to fall off. Several of the parents out on the course had made there way over to me, which I didn’t mind, but it certainly made me realize I was playing some good golf and had the chance to win my only high school golf event. The damage was done: I was already thinking about how well I was playing, how badly I wanted to win and how not to screw it up.
On 15, these thoughts started creeping into my golf swing. My heart rate was up. My hands were sweaty. I was thinking about nothing other than how cool it would be to win and finish under par all in the same day. As it turns out, these are not the things you need to be thinking about. When this happens, you forget your swing thoughts and what was working for you. And you begin to swing faster. Much faster.
Despite a very loose drive to the right on 15, I was still able to salvage a par because it was so far right that I had an angle over the tree-line. I began to think that maybe I had dodged this bullet and that the win was in the bag. More thoughts that don’t help you win a golf tournament.
On the par-4 16th, I scrambled for an unlikely par out of a green side bunker and was only two holes from my first sub-par round and my first victory. By this point my mind was flying and my heart was beating out of its chest. I thought of how happy my teammates would be and how I pumped I was to tell my parents. I thought of how I could finally tell people that I won a tournament and shot under par. I thought about everything but the right thing. The old adage of “one shot at a time” was as far from my mind as possible, and I kept thinking about how well I was playing and thinking how awful it would be to screw it up. This is what happens when you are not used to winning. You begin to self-sabotage.
It seems also, that the breaks don’t seem to go your way. The 165 yard par-3 17th should have been an easy three on my way to my first win, but instead it was the beginning of the end. Despite my elevated heart rate and wildly unfocused mind, I hit a pretty solid shot that I thought would land on the fringe and give me an opportunity to lag putt for par. I was wrong. Instead, I was lucky enough to hit one of the few bunkers with railroad-ties on its face right net to the green, which kicked my ball wildly in the wrong direction. I was not happy. The anger and feeling of inevitable collapse took over in my head and from there I was mentally finished.
In this situation, winners would have accepted the shot and found a way to make no worse than bogey on the hole. As a player who had never won and was nervous as hell, I proceeded to chili dip a chip shot and three putt for a solid triple-bogey.
When things are going the wrong way, it is hard to calm your thoughts, this is what I most remember from that experience. Looking back, I should have realized that the shot was over, it was in bounds, and that I had been chipping well all day. Unfortunately, that calmness and clarity was nowhere to be found and I was fuming.
The 18th hole was a blur, and in my mental state there was no way I was going to make a solid swing on that tee. And I didn’t. The 400 yard par-4 18th is an uphill tee shot with water on the right. Almost on cue, I ripped my shot into the hazard. When things are going badly, that is all you see. You see the bunkers, the hazards and think about how you are absolutely sure your shots will end up there. The feeling is truly terrifying. The tightness and fear in your body make it impossible to to make the free swings that golf requires.
After rinsing my tee shot, I dropped near the hazard and hit some more awful shots, including another chili dipped chip shot, on my way to my second triple bogey in a row. I had classically succumbed to the choke. The fear, the thoughts of self doubt, the racing mind, the heart racing as if I had just run the 100 meter dash were all present that evening. Coping with all of these factors is how you win golf tournaments.
That day I did not navigate the emotions of leading a golf tournament. Well, I navigated them, but more like Jean Van De Velde than Tiger Woods. My final score that day was a five-over par 77, which was good enough for third place, two strokes behind the winner. If I hadn’t gotten so worked up over those final shots and realized I could have legitimately won with a double bogey-bogey finish, I might have not gotten so angry at myself and self-sabotaged.
These are the same emotions non winners face when they have the lead in a PGA Tour event. The self doubt, tightening up, quickening of the swing and the racing thoughts of the future all sabotage players as they try to win. You can see it right on their faces most of the time.
To win, you have to stay calm, realize that your play to get you in the position to win was solid and feed off of that. Never think about any shot other than the next one, and definitely don’t think about your score at the end of the round and what it will feel like to win. These thoughts will only raise your heart rate and put you on the train to chokeville. Believe me. I know.