Bill Haas heads into the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club with a three-shot lead. If he holds on Sunday, he will have successfully defended his title from last year, the one where he held off Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson in a thrilling playoff.
But listening to him in the media room after his third-round, 7-under 64, you might have wondered how he avoided shooting 74. He was working very hard on fixing the most basic of swing flaws:
Just try not to ahead of [the ball]. That’s kind of my biggest flaw is I don’t turn [my hips] and I kind of get ahead of it. You’ll see it a few times, hopefully not tomorrow, but I hit some [shots to the right] and just really trying to work on, I don’t even know how you want to say it, but hitting it high.
On the range, I try to hit a lot of shots high, like pretend there’s a tree in front of me, which if you’re hitting a shot high, you can’t get in front of it. It helps you stay behind the ball a little bit. It’s kind a simple swing key but that’s what I’m working on.
In last year’s victory, he confessed that he has a problem in coming back to the field when he begins with a big lead. Would it be possible this year for him to just pull away from the field?
You know, very difficult in this game to just pull away from the rest of the field. You’ve only seen a few guys ever really do that. And those are guys like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson.
So I think I’ve just got to try to stay in the moment, don’t let my emotions get the best of me. Try to get off to a good start. You know, maybe it helped today that I didn’t birdie the [very easy par-5] first hole. Because that can certainly — all of a sudden you think, oh, I lost a shot to the field because I didn’t birdie No. 1. But I proved today that you can still play a good round not doing that.
No. 2 is a tough hole, just try to get through those first few. The guys behind me are going to make birdies and it will certainly get closer at the top. So I’ve just got to try to hang in there and give myself a chance on the back nine.
One of the things that really helps a player to play well is liking the course. It’s almost like it belongs to you, that this is where you’re supposed to be:
Absolutely. I like everything about it. The golf course, the grass, just how it’s old school style golf course. Walking in the locker room, seeing the pictures of all those champions on the wall, it’s just got a great feel of it about it.
Certainly even before last year when I have not had the best of records here coming up to it, it was certainly a week that I penciled in on the schedule if I could get in and play here, because it’s fun to play.
There’s that word “fun” again. It’s almost like a magic elixir for players who are playing well; having fun rather than wading into a steaming cauldron and grinding it out.
With an eye toward Sunday, Saturday seemed like a perfect day to go low but not a lot of guys did. Why was that?
Temperature‑wise, it’s fabulous, but with that comes — some of the fairways are really running out, the greens are difficult to hit and getting firmer and firmer. Just because it’s playing shorter doesn’t mean it’s necessarily playing easier I don’t think. Today I was able to save a shot, make a couple nice par saves. I hit some really nice chips from around the greens [but it wasn’t easy].
Haas was the guy who hit that improbable shot out of the greenside water hazard to win the 2011 Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. And then he rolled into 2012 with his win at Riviera…but the rest of the year drifted away from him and he was unable to get back to the Tour Championship to defend his title. Was there some change in his outlook for this year?
It’s not much different than last year in the sense that I really want to make it to the Tour Championship, and that was my goal last year, especially after winning here. So certainly had a very disappointed, sour taste in my mouth after the way I finished it off.
And it was all self‑inflicted. So I think — I know I’m 30 and I should be mature but I think sometimes out there I’m immature and I’m still trying to learn to play the game better mentally just as much as I am physically.
Quite a confession from the No. 36 player in the world. And for us, to realize that someone who looks so classy and placid when he’s playing, struggles just like we do, gives us some solace that our own roiling emotions are authentic…but can also be overcome.
And lately, things have sort of come around for him:
You know, to have success on the PGA TOUR, you’ve got to putt well, and yesterday I chipped in on the last hole for par. I certainly was not playing that well, and to be able to shoot 4-under — you can say I’m playing well but if you watched me play yesterday, you wouldn’t have said that.
Today I struck the ball a little bit better and the putter felt pretty good. No one thing; every day is a new day and you’re always working. My dad always said, when you’re playing well, you’re not far off from playing poorly; and when you’re playing poorly, you’re not far off from playing well. So there’s just such a fine detail in your swing that can change daily. So you just always keep working on it.
He shoots 4-under and doesn’t think he’s playing well because of some loose shots. But 4-under on a course as challenging as Riviera is 4-under. Is it as good as he could have played? No, since he shot 7-under the next day.
But his thoughts about it are a sort of weathervane into the psyche: if “good” can never be good enough, can’t it still be good?
But to his credit, he’s getting to the point that he sees what he’s doing to himself, how he sabotages himself:
Just not wanting to play poorly, and it snowballs on you and you play poorly because of that and you start doubting yourself; and worrying about the results.
I think my biggest thing is worrying about the result more than focusing on the task at hand and letting the results just happen.
In a results-driven culture, focusing on results is almost a reflexive action, not some sort of character defect.
But as Haas points out, one of the unsung benefits of the game is discovering that focusing on the task at hand is a more effective way to produce the results. Yes, you have to keep your eyes on the goal, but immersion in the process of achieving it is what gets you there, not starry-eyed day dreaming that distracts the effort.
What a game.