Head Games, Part 1

(Photo by David Matos on Unsplash)

“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” (Former Vice-President Dan Quayle, attempting to repeat the famous quote “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”).

Think of the last time you were under serious pressure while playing – maybe it was a tournament where you had an opportunity to win, trying to break 80 or 90 for the first time, or even a friendly match where a back-nine press or two made you a lot more aware of the stakes. How did you respond? It’s generally expected that the first time one experiences a new level of pressure, one folds like wet cardboard. You learn from it, and it’s suddenly not so incapacitating the next time you’re in that situation. Having the opportunity to feel pressure and try to overcome it – no matter what the skill level or age of the golfer is – is what makes the game so great. 

Only looking as far back as this past weekend, there were plenty of examples at the professional level of the ongoing battle against mental demons:

  • Chiara Noja: Readers of my post from last week will remember my mentioning Chiara as someone to watch at the Omega Dubai Moonlight Classic on the LET. She’s only 14 years old and was given an exemption to play the tournament. After a mediocre 77 in the first round, she had a self-described meltdown in round 2, shooting 86. That Tweet generated about 70 replies, all encouraging her to shake it off and get back out there. She said showing up to play the next day (there was no cut in the tournament) was hard to do, and then went out and shot 73. Pretty gutsy at age 14!
  • Carlos Ortiz: Standing on the 72nd tee in the Houston Open, he was up 1 and would be forgiven if he made bogey after tweaking his drive into that nasty rough or not saving par from a bunker. It’s not like the guy was a slouch – he finished 51st in FedEx Cup points last season – but having a clear path to one’s first victory can often result in choking. So what does he do? He busts a drive 309 yards down the middle, hits a solid approach to 22 feet and drains it for birdie. 
  • Grayson Murray: Grayson is what’s known as a “polarizing figure” for his aggressively political takes – and refusal to back down when attacked.  He shoots 85 in the first round at Houston, highlighted by a quintuple bogey 8 on a par 3. The response on Twitter was rough – one guy said “you literally label yourself as a professional golfer”, to which Murray replied “I do. $3.5 Mil plus in earnings plus endorsements as a 27 year old isn’t bad”. And then shot a 72 (+2) the next day. Anger can be a great motivator.      

The fact that the PGATour actually went to the trouble to post a page about first-to-MC starts over the last 10 seasons is a pretty clear acknowledgement that pressure is a killer. Of the 10 guys on that list, almost all have won before on Tour, so the ability to get the job done was in there somewhere. The craziest crash on that list had to be Xinjun Zhang and Zecheng Dou, playing as a team in the 2018 Zurich Classic, shot 60 (best ball format) to lead the tournament in the first round, then 80 in the second round (alternate shot format) to miss the cut by a shot. It’s one thing to be inside your own head and struggle, but it can be extra overwhelming when you feel like you’re letting your partner down. 

Ok, so melting down happens, even to the best players. What can we do about it? Stay tuned for Part 2!

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