Martin Laird: Something Old, Something New

Scotland’s Martin Laird came out of nowhere at the Valero Texas Open to storm past Billy Horschel to win by two shots. He shot a course record-tying 63, making three birdies on the last three holes to hold off a resurgent Rory McIlroy, more than satisfied by his 66.

Yeah, to be honest, I know how good Rory is, but it doesn’t matter if it’s Rory or Jim or Billy, if someone’s behind me making birdies like they were, I know I’ve got to keep making birdies.  That was a pretty strong leaderboard at the top there.

So he made nine of them. It was ridiculous. The Tour staff tried to setup the course to make a very hard golf course more fair and they did a good job of that. But even so, the swales and runoffs on the greens together with the windy conditions made it impossible to make nine birdies. But Laird did. 

And this is one reason these PGA Tour tournaments are never over until they’re over. These players are so incredibly good, any one of them can suddenly catch fire and it’s like a meteor streaking across the sky. And when it starts for them, not only do they know what to do, they know how to do it:

I tried to stay aggressive all day.  Coming in this week, my caddy and I talked about that after last week.  I played my best golf when I play aggressive, and I just tried to play that way all the way through the 18th hole today and not change my game plan and it paid off.

Laird was a surprise because he’d fallen into oblivion since last year’s Players Championship where he finished T2. This year, he’s only managed to win $69,000 in the 4 of 8 cuts he’s made. But with his win giving him re-found notoriety, we discover why:

I started struggling with my ball striking last year.  I made a coaching change [to Randy Smith] at the end of the year in September.  It’s taken a few months for me to get used to some of the changes.  It’s been one of those things that I’ve been playing good in practice and hitting the ball on the range.  I’ve just not been playing good in the tournaments.

This supports advice I gave to a reader this week who wants to play professionally: find another pair of eyes in a good coach, work out the changes by beating balls and playing at home and then go play as much competitive golf as you can because that’s where it matters.

And the other thing Laird did, like D.A. Points last week in Houston, was to add some “automatic comfort” by going back to an old putter:

The biggest thing this year is I just putted terrible.  All the struggle on the West Coast putting on the Poa annua greens and it really killed my confidence this year.  I came away from there wondering if what I was doing was right and things like that.  Changing putters and things like that.

This week, I went back to my old faithful [belly] putter that I won Bay Hill with a few years ago and probably had my best putting spell with.  Now I’m wondering why I ever stopped using it.

He realized that he’d been putting blind with all the other putters he had substituted. The putter and its slow stroke speed sometimes cause us to take its simplicity for granted. The the most important thing in a putter is knowing where the face is pointed:

I felt like I could see.  It sounds simple.  But I know where it’s lined up easier.  It’s kind of a comfort thing.  I’m confident with where I’m aiming with it as opposed to some of the other ones where I was kind of second guessing.

He picked a good week for his vision to return. By virtue of his win, he’s in this coming week’s Masters tournament where, with their lightning greens, he will certainly need to know where he’s going.

Another guy who knows where he’s going is Rory McIlroy who was in the Masters on his world ranking, but pretty much being written off by everybody because of his recent poor play. Not any more and he knows the biggest reason why:

I think over the last three rounds especially just eliminating the stupid mistakes that I was making on the course, mental errors.  You know, to finish off this tournament with a round like today is obviously great going into Augusta.  So, even though I didn’t get the trophy, Martin just played too good today.  I mean, 63 out there in these conditions is phenomenal.  I’m really pleased with my game, and I think this is a great week for me.

I feel like my game’s in really good shape going into next week.  A round like that today gives me a nice little bit of confidence.

And finally, the 54-hole leader, Billy Horschel has a great deal to contribute to us as he introspectively looks back on getting run over by Laird. He was only able to shoot 1-under on the day.

It’s satisfying that I had a chance to win, but at this point — I mean, I hit it awful on the first nine holes.  I mean, there was no wind, and I had to take advantage of it, and I didn’t do a very good job of it.  I hit it very pathetic in my mind, sort of what it was like in Florida a little bit.  And it was disappointing, very disappointing.

I mean, my putter saved me a lot.  I just kept saying that, next shot we’re going to get it going.  Next shot we’re going to get it going.  Never got it going until maybe a little bit on the backside, and even at that it didn’t feel great.

Even so, he managed to keep to his practice of not looking at leaderboards or looking around at other players. If you take care of your own game as best as you can, you don’t need to look around. But what that doesn’t take into account is nervousness:

I did a good job of it.  I wasn’t too worried about anything.  I didn’t worry about what other people were doing.  I knew people were making birdies, but what it came down to is I just hit it very, very bad.  I sort of warmed up, and it was halfway decent, but my timing was a little quick and I got quick on the golf course.

I think me and [his coach] Todd can work on figuring out what I can do.  Timing‑wise, I need to figure that out, because that’s what’s killing me a little bit, I think.

He went through his normal routine and everything seemed ready to go, He felt some nerves, but that seemed typical to him:

I felt like I do every morning, maybe just a little bit more.  I’m an intense player, so I knew I was going to feel butterflies.  I always feel a little antsy in the morning until I get to the golf course, and then I feel like, now I’m here.  Now I can go through my preparation and get ready to play today.  I thought I handled this morning pretty well.

But that’s the cunning nature of nerves, of fear. When all of a sudden the import of the moment dawns on you, you can try to mask it all you want with physical motion and action, but it’s the mind that’s sucking it out of you…unless you’re ready for it:

The first couple holes I felt good, but I felt like I had jello legs.  Like my legs weren’t under me.  So I jumped around a little bit and tried to get some blood in there and get it flowing and everything.  I just felt very — I don’t know.  I felt like jello, everything felt jello, probably because I was a little nervous and everything.

But I still hit good shots when I was nervous.  I just — I felt okay though.  Nothing that I can’t handle.  Nothing I wasn’t prepared for and nothing I haven’t had to handle before.  Everyone’s going to have butterflies.  I don’t care if it’s Tiger Woods or Joe Schmo at the golf course, you’re going to have butterflies, and you have to learn how to deal with it.  I felt like I dealt with it pretty well.

Over time, Horschel will come to see that ending up with debilitating jello legs is not exactly “dealing with it.” With time he’ll be able to tap back into that experience and see that if you don’t have your legs, you don’t have your golf. That’s what caused his swing to get quick; he couldn’t feel his legs.

But these are the experiences that harden good players into good tournament players. And Horschel was smart enough and experienced enough to recognize what was going on and pay attention to it. When this first happens to you, you sometimes can’t even feel your body, let alone discrete parts of it; it’s just an amorphous blob.

With attention, however, it comes up, it gets recognized for what it is and it goes away when the player’s mind descends, instead, into the moment, i.e., the target, the shot and hitting that shot at the target. And that takes the same kind of practice as anything else.

So with this experience behind him, I still agree with Horschel: if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll win this year.

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