Mark Calcavecchia: Being Your Own Worst Critic

After the photo on the first tee with the honorary observers, Mark Calcavecchia, politely informed the lady in the pair, “Sometimes when I get a little upset, I might use some bad words, so if that happens I apologize in advance.”

On the one hand, it appeared a self-indulgent excuse for boorish behavior. On the other, a considerate, thoughtful gesture of the man behind the gruff, unhappy, facade, the man patiently accepted by his bemused peers and loved by his wife and caddie, Brenda.

It was the beginning of the third round of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. The immaculate Cochise course lay shimmering 200 yards across the desert wash on the 80 degree, early November day.

It was almost as if Calcavecchia was setting the stage for yet another day of disappointment and despair at the hands of the game of golf. I’ve always thought of him as a Tour pro’s Tour pro the way he works his way around a golf course with that deadpan demeanor of his. I wanted to find out how he did that.

He chose 3-wood off the first tee, but still hit it in the rough behind the bunker complex in the middle of the fairway. Even though he couldn’t see the pin over the mogul, he hit the green and the ball just rolled across the fringe into the rough. It was a good shot, but the chip shot with his rescue club was even better; he didn’t even use his putter to tap it in.

He missed the birdie putt on the short par-3 2nd, but made the four-footer on the 475-yard 3rd.

He was within reach at the 4th and the 5th, but they didn’t fall.

So when he missed the easy, downhill eight-footer on 6, he tapped it in and started walking to the next tee. But he stopped on the fringe, turned around to face the hole and looked dolefully to the sky. And then down to the green in front of him. And stood there agonizing, seething in silence.

Which all changed when he hit it close on the par-3 7th and knocked it in for birdie. Redemption from the golf gods.

He later admitted hitting the wrong club on the 10th, hit the chip shot long and missed the putt.

As he came off the par-3 11th where he’d just made his third birdie, he walked by a pint-sized little girl who called out to him, “Good luck!” He turned to look at her, his sullen demeanor melted. “Thank you,” he said with a warm smile. And Brenda rewarded her with an autographed ball. She radiated with sheer joy.

From there on in, he played workman-like golf, getting it around and getting it in. But he couldn’t make a birdie. On 18, he went into the par-5 with an iron, just the wrong one. He ended up in the back bunker, ran the ball all the way back down to the front fringe and walked away with a two-putt par…on a “getable” 511-yard hole.

So as we wound our way underneath the grandstand in the passageway back up the hill to the scoring tent just next to the clubhouse, I wondered how I was going to approach him? Well known for his churlish, fatalistic behavior, I didn’t even know if I should try. I didn’t have anything specific to his round that I wanted to ask him, I just wanted to get inside of his very experienced head to find out how he plays from such a defeatist attitude.

I asked Brenda while he was in the tent. “You can try,” she said. “He’s a man of few words.”

So, recorder in hand, when he emerged, I did. And amidst all the bustle around the tent, he looked like he didn’t particularly want to move away from all of that.

“Is this okay here?”

“Yeah. What do you want to know? I got nothing good to say, so don’t look for anything good to come out of my mouth.” Coming out of his mouth the first time it sounded impatient and disinterested. But as I transcribed it later, it sounded like the wistful truth.

“I write a daily golf mastery blog called EyeOnTheTour.com, Exploring Mastery Through Golf and I look at not what you guys do, but how you do it.”

“Huh,” he said. His eyes darted around as he looked at me, measuring me.

“And so the thing I noticed today is that you really hit the ball great and it was just the putter that wasn’t working all that well for you.”

“And my head. Wrong club on the last hole cost me a shot. Wrong club on 10 cost me a shot.”

“Just a little long?”

“Yeah. Wrong club. I mean just the flat wrong club. Just stupidity. Uh, I didn’t hit it that good. It’s been the same all week. I made three double bogeys the first two rounds. Just been shootin’ myself in the foot. So, try again tomorrow.”

“Well, it looked pretty good to me. So what do you do when you get in this situation?”

“Well, I’m just dyin’ to quit golf. I’m just tired. Everybody’s tired. The course is hard to walk. My feet hurt. I’ve been sick all week. I’m just ready to get the hell off the golf course and quit for the year, more or less. Anyhow, I’ll stick it out for one more round…”

“Not forever, though?”

“I could not play until next year and it wouldn’t bother me in the least if I didn’t grip a club for two months. So, a lot of guys, we’re all tired. You know?

“I was talking to Bernhard [Langer],” I empathized. “And he was saying it was all a matter of, ‘we’re all hurtin’. It’s just a matter of how much.'”

“Yeah, I was in the chiropractor the first three days. My back’s killing me. My finger’s killing me. My feet hurt. Blister on my foot. I’m walking up and down through these washes in the desert. I got rocks in my shoes. Rocks in my head.”

I wanted to tell him that Cochise is one of the most walkable courses at Desert Mountain and the members love walking it. But discretion is the better part of valor.

“I just — we started counting the holes down on number 8 on Thursday. We said only 64 more and I couldn’t wait to get off the course. So, one more day.”

I was at a loss as to how to get to the gold I knew he had buried in his experience. Buy some time, keep him talking, I thought. “But aside from that, it’s been pretty good conditions?” The weather had been great and all the players raved about the course conditions.

“Yeah,” as he walked away, “aside from that, everything’s great.” He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

“Thanks, Mark.”

“All right.”

I am sorry to say, I did not find out how he plays so effectively with such a dark shroud over his consciousness. But he does. The balls he didn’t think he hit all that well, looked towering and accurate to my practiced eye. He might not have been as sharp as he wanted to be, but some of his drives were ponderous and his irons had that penetrating flight that all Tour pros have.

So I can’t say don’t do what he does, because it works for him. But it appears joyless and can’t be fun.

Players who play the game inquisitively rather than in a self-accusatory way, seem to make more progress in the game. Perhaps that hits some sort of plateau as you get closer and closer to the pinnacle of the game. But those that we see week in and week out on Tour, amid rare flashes of passion, don’t seem to be that way. You simply don’t learn that much when you experience white-hot anger.

I’d love another shot at Calcavecchia to talk about it in those terms and perhaps when he’s further removed from what he considers a disappointing round. Perhaps that could work.

But I’ll apparently have to really work for it…because he’s a man of few words.

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One Response to Mark Calcavecchia: Being Your Own Worst Critic

  1. Bob Rogers says:

    Bill, I tried to track you down at DM during yesterday’s third round of the Schwab tourney, asked to no avail in the pro shop, and found no press tent. I just wanted to put a face to a name, shake your hand, and say how much my wife I enjoy your posts. You’ve carved out a unique angle from which to assess golf and golfers. And damn, you are prolific. Bob Rogers

    P.S., Poor ol’ Calc. I’m inclined to think the guy’s gotta smell the roses, realize how blessed he is to possess the talent he does. Then again, few things are more annoying to a struggling combatant than polyanish, just-think-positive advice. Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie: Please, go away! Players of team sports excel at the behest of radically different coaching styles, from nice to downright mean. In golf every player has to be his own coach.