Bill Haas: Overcoming Himself at AT&T

Bill Haas won the AT&T National on Sunday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Defending Champion and tournament host, Tiger Woods was unable to play due to an elbow injury. Haas won by three strokes over up-and-coming Roberto Castro. The low round of the day went to Q-School medalist, D.H. Lee, who moved up seventeen places to T3 with an impressive 7-under 64. The course looked much harder than that to pretty much everyone else except Haas.

You would have to say that Haas deserved the win, not only because he shot 5-under 66 in the final round, but because he had to overcome a lot of mental baggage over disappointing results as he built his 4- and now 5-win career. He sums it up in these opening comments in his media session. 

But today, unbelievable special day.  I can’t even tell you how good it feels.  I was trying to keep my emotions in check out there.  It’s so hard to do.  You make a birdie, and you’re thinking, oh, I can win this thing, and you have to somehow reel yourself back.

There’s been a few Sundays this year — L.A., I had a three‑shot lead starting the last round and really felt good there, and it didn’t happen.  Threw up all over myself in the middle of that round.

It’s a great feeling.  As many times as I’ve choked and hit bad shots and I’ve been nervous and it hasn’t worked out, I was feeling all those things today, and to hit good quality golf shots down the stretch is such a good feeling.  I wish I could explain it.  It’s amazing.

First, let me begin by acknowledging Haas’ courage and generosity with respect to sharing his mental downfalls in tournaments. Other players have done as much, but they have mostly been objective reflections on what was occurring for them in the heat of the moment. In Haas’ case, it reads more like he’s making himself wrong for feeling the way he does under pressure, almost like it’s a curse he has to work through. To the extent that’s true, his generosity in helping the rest of us by sharing so much about himself is truly quite selfless.

He continued with how you keep yourself from thinking about such things as L.A. where he let victory get away, but still finished T3. He ended up sharing the packaged solution all the Tour players speak about…and then acknowledged that it really does work:

I don’t think you can.  Obviously, you’ve got to stay in the moment, look forward.  I’m just being as honest as I can be here.  Obviously, I could sit here today and say today I blanked all that out and I was so focused and that’s the reason I won.

I think I was just trying to stay focused on the task at hand, stay patient.  Life is good, all that kind of cliche stuff.  No matter what happens, just keep plugging along, try to hit every shot the best shot you can hit.  I know it sounds stupid, but that’s what we’re thinking out there.

L.A. has sat with me all year honestly.  You can’t let one round bother you [a final round 73], but the way I played those holes in the middle of that tournament really was disappointing.  So this — it only makes this week that much sweeter.

While he attributes all those things to his success, it’s almost as if he hasn’t quite bought into it. “I know it sounds stupid…,” he says. So either he’s still transitioning from swing fixations or he’s come to this wisdom late and is still not grounded in it, however successful it’s made him.

And then he talked about the fine line between the four cuts he missed this year and holding the trophy in those tournaments:

There’s definitely a fine line.  The U.S. Open, I did not play that great.  It’s hard to use the U.S. Open as an example of a missed cut because, if you have one off day, you shoot 78, 79, which is what I did. [His point remains the same, but it’s telling that that’s what he thinks his first round was; it was actually 77.]

Hung in there.  I was proud of the way I hung in there at the U.S. Open, just threw up over myself when we came back after the delay Saturday morning to make the cut.  I four‑putted my first hole from 12 feet, and I would have made the cut if I made pars coming in.  We’re getting off topic there.

But, yeah, there’s a fine line between missing the cut by a couple and maybe winning, honestly.  That’s how good everybody is out here.  That’s how a little swing — I’m working every week on something.  Today just my one little thought seemed to be working, and my putting thought all week worked.

Next week it might be something different.  If I go out there on the Pro‑Am and hit it all over the place, then I might switch it up.  Just a new thought.  So, yeah, there is a fine line.

And what did he learn from his top-10s that he didn’t convert to wins?

Hopefully, that I can do it.  I can put myself in that situation, and then once you get there, you’ve just got to do better than you did last time, hit better shots.  You’re going to be nervous.  Try to enjoy being nervous, and that’s hard to do because, when you’re nervous, you feel like you’re going to hit a bad shot.

I think there was a couple times today where I could feel it coming, and I just took a few deep breaths.  There were a couple of putts where I felt really comfortable over a few of them that maybe I wouldn’t have normally if I hadn’t been in this situation a few other times.

In terms of when he felt he could breathe a sigh of relief on Sunday, he gave us one of the best insights into the catastrophic fantasies that go through the mind of even a world class player like him:

I said it earlier.  When Roberto missed his putt, I knew I had three putts to win from three feet, and I still was — I mean, I was shaking over that last putt.  I think that’s just the nerves you feel being so excited and so anxious.

I didn’t want to miss that three‑footer even though I probably would have tapped in and still won.  You’d like to say — maybe one day I can say, well, you have this three‑footer, and I need it to tie, and hopefully I can rely on it a little bit.

I didn’t allow myself to have a sigh of relief.  Walking back to the 18th tee with a three‑shot lead, I could hear people saying, “Great week, Bill.  Way to go.”  I just told myself, acknowledge them, but don’t let it get to you.  It’s not over yet.  If Roberto makes birdie and I make double, which I’ve already made a triple this week — and a double, I think.  Triple and a double.  So it could happen.

[And he rose to the occasion.] Honestly, the drive on 18 really made me feel pretty good.  Just had a sand wedge in there, and that hole I hit 5 iron yesterday.

Given that he grew up in a golfing family [his father is Jay Haas, his uncle is Jerry Haas and his great uncle is Bob Goalby] it would be easy to assume that he would be better at this mind stuff than he seems to think he is. Is his success indicative of just how hard he’s had to work at all of this?

Absolutely.  I think anybody in any job.  I think there’s a lot of kids that go into their father’s business and don’t succeed or don’t get the deal done that their dad got done, if that makes any sense.  It’s hard.

And certainly, a sport that you get a lot of people watching you and at any moment it could go astray and go wrong, those thoughts creep into your mind. [Those thoughts are ephemeral ego-driven thoughts as opposed to playing from impervious spiritual essence. See, “Thinking About Confidence.”]

You’ve just got to somehow not think of that stuff, not think of how you screwed up before.  Just think, you know what, you can hit good golf shots.

And I can definitely — I’ve said before, on the hole, I’ve said, you’ve won before.  You can do this.  Even though this is number 5 out of, I think, 240 events.  It’s hard to do.  It’s nice to be sitting here.  It’s an unbelievable feeling.

He apparently uses the terms “throw up all over myself,” and, “choke,” with enough frequency that he was asked if being so honest with himself sometimes crosses the line into being to hard on himself?

Yeah, maybe so.  Certainly too hard on myself.  Something I fight with that. I grind — get on myself too much out there.  And maybe, being honest with myself, knowing that it’s so easy to say, oh, it will get better.  Sports psychologists, be positive.

I’ve always said, well, if you make three birdies in a row, you’re positive.  If you make three bogeys in a row, you’re not positive.  Which comes first?  I think I’m more of a realist and honest and just saying, if you’re not going well, you’re not good.  When it’s going well, that’s when I’m feeling good.

I think that hurts me, but also I think it keeps me — I pride myself on being honest with myself a little bit.  Sometimes these questions that you guys ask, I think some of the answers that are given are pretty boring, and they’re by the book.  I try not to be that way.  I’m honest about how I’m feeling. [With which, after this, I think we can all agree.]

I think it’s kept me playing a little bit.  I don’t know.  We’ll see.  Maybe I’ll get a little better and be a little positive sometimes.

That’s terrible to say that I choke and I throw up on myself, but I’m just honest that I did that, but go from there.  How do you get better?  Don’t do it again, you know.  That’s my best statement is just don’t do that again.  Today I didn’t do it.

I think it makes it that much sweeter too when you can remember the times that you stunk.

As a perennial top 20 player, what does he feel that he has to do in order to get to that next level?

Work a little harder.  This year I think I’ll put in a little bit more work than I have in the previous years.  Easy to say now it’s paying off.

But all the best players, they’re working hard.  And the best players — and there is a level, and I’d love to be a part of that.  But the way you guys and, I think, just the golfing world ranks us, it’s by the majors, and I have not had that much success in majors.

A guy like Jason Day hasn’t won that much — has he won?  Sorry.  He’s won once.  But you’ve got to put him up there, I think, because of how he competes in the biggest tournaments, and he’s only 25 years old.  He’s a stud.

But I would like to be a part of that, but honestly, I would just like to work hard, see the results, and if the next level comes, then I welcome it.

I think I’m close.  If you’ve won out here, any tournament, you can’t say you’re far off from being one of the best players in the world.  Not trying to toot my own horn, I’m just saying you can do it.

I think mentally, it’s something. I’m 31 years old, still trying to grow up and still trying to work on that.  I think that’s what the best players have.  They’re mentally tough.  They’re certainly very talented.  They beat you with your mind just as much as their sticks.

So thank once again, Bill Haas, for your frank, very helpful generosity and we wish you well on your continuing journey even as we work on our own.

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