Shell Houston Open: Mastery Moments From the Tour

Bill Haas is tied with Charley Hoffman at the top of the Shell Houston Open leaderboard after they shot 7-under 65s. The Golf Club of Houston was supposed to be whipped by high winds and isolated thunderstorms, but the worst just seemed to be bands of passing showers. Guys weren’t even putting rain gear on — just a few umbrellas popped open here and there.

As a result though, the greens just didn’t have a chance to get as fiery as the plan for the week called for. But what they did achieve were perfect tabletops and guys were raving about them.

In talking about his chances to press on through the end of the week, Haas sort of captured the essence of the mental place a player needs to get to: I’m playing okay and just waiting for it to go my way. Even when you’re not playing well, remaining positive is a huge lever to winning. Anything less gives you tentativeness. 

[Playing] okay.  Somewhat consistent.  I feel like I’m kind of hanging around, playing okay.  Certainly haven’t knocked on the door on Sunday quite yet.  But I feel like I’m doing a lot of good things.  It’s not like I’m just lost out there.  I feel like I’m close.  I think you just have to stay positive, and hopefully one week it all clicks and you find yourself in the mix on Sunday and then try to take advantage of that.

Take heart seekers of the game’s secrets; this from the same guy who won the Tour Championship and the FedExCup in 2011 and the $11.44 million that went with it. Obviously, golf is a game that comes and goes.

Haas was asked why the winners of Houston didn’t seem to fair very well the following week in Augusta even though the similar conditions were supposed to facilitate that. His response may also explain why the same holds true for the par-3 tournament at Augusta and why players would really like to win it…but not so much…but maybe so:

I think maybe you could boil it down to just the odds.  The odds of winning two tournaments in a row is very small.  Winning once on the PGA Tour is very difficult, and then winning twice and the second one being a Major, the odds of that happening are very, very slim.

But, I mean, if you’re playing well enough to win, going into next week I certainly would think that that would up your chances.  You know, if you’re playing that well, then obviously you give yourself a chance there, as well.

I don’t know.  I’d love to be that person, you know.  There’s a lot of golf left to be played, tomorrow, the weekend and certainly in the next week.  I’m just happy to shoot a good round and try to feed off of this.

Keegan Bradley is one stroke back at 6-under with four other guys including Matt Kuchar and J.B. Holmes. He played with Phil Mickelson and Webb Simpson and as a threesome, they accomplished a rare feat:

Yeah, really fun day playing with Phil and Webb, bogey-free day for our whole group is pretty amazing.  Phil said it’s never happened in his career.  Pretty cool, pretty fun day.  We all played very well.  I got off to a good start on my back-9 and made a few birdies coming in.

And that led to three questions that sort of teased out the dynamics inside the group. Phil it turns out is really into gamesmanship even at the risk of crumbling the possibility of a nice little accomplishment. (On the other hand, he’s also known for taking younger players into his Tuesday money games to toughen them up for the Ryder and Presidents Cups.)

Q.  Was the play that easy or you guys just played that well today?

We all played really well.  You know, all of us could have been lower, especially, you know, Phil played really well, too.  But, you know, I started to actually think about it coming in that we all were bogey-free.  I think it’s a pretty cool thing for three guys to go out there —  and this morning on the front-9 was sneaky tough.  I think that’s pretty cool.

The most interesting thing about this from a mastery point of view is that he allowed his mind to go there at all. He certainly knows better.

Q.  When did that thought pop in your head?

It sort of popped in my head at 11, 12.  None of us made bogies.  We’re walking down our last hole, me, Weber, and Phil starts yapping in our ear how none of us made any bogies.  Typical Phil stuff.

Q.  Was he trying to get a bet down at that point?

Me and Webb, we two-putted.  How funny would this be if he 3-putts this after yapping in our ear.

Which he didn’t, of course, because he’s Phil. Later he talked about why he risked possibly not being able to play in the Masters by coming to Houston given his withdrawal in San Antonio last week due to a strained oblique muscle. But as interesting was his admission that he was having some difficulty maintaining his concentration. Really? Phil has trouble with this?

I just felt that for me to have a realistic chance or best a chance as possible at the Masters, I got to play this week and get in a better frame of mind.

One of the things I really worked hard today was staying focused on each shot.  Got to back away a few times because my concentration wandered. But I felt like I was able to keep my concentration, focus, throughout the entire round, [except for needling his young charges, of course] which is something I’ve struggled with this year.

I needed to play here this week and really challenge myself in that regard to give myself the best chance for next week.

J.B. Holmes was asked how he was going to back up his 66 on Friday and his answer is indicative of just how easy it is for concentration to just seep away; any variation from the normal routine becomes a new thing for the mind to think about when it should be on the coming round.

You just kind of go through your same routine.  Think of it as another round.  You’re looking at a great round and not really worried about the scoreboard.  You know, go to sleep the same time, get up your usual time, get to the course and warm up just the same, try not the change.  As much as you can, not change your situation and get in a routine is the easiest way to do it pretty much for every round.

And when he was asked about what his goal for the day had been that led to that 66, he gave a much more thoughtful answer than most:

Yeah.  My goal today was just, you know, try to learn and grow on the situation that I got.  Go out there and try to learn from situations that I’m getting in and have a good time and try to just think positively and control the stuff that I can control.

After I hit the ball, I can’t control it bouncing or anything like that.  Just trying to focus on stuff that you can control and just stay in the moment, stay in the present.  It’s difficult, but that’s the easiest thing to really stay there and play well.

Erik Compton, the double heart transplant inspiration, was one of the other 66s, which was pretty good since he doesn’t hit the ball that far. And while Holmes has a single-minded purpose in staying in his routine, Compton is single-minded on his primary goal for any round:

It’s only one round, but it does help when you get off to a good start.  It’s nice to have a good start and try to continue doing the same thing tomorrow.  But my only concern is getting the ball in play and trying to find the yardage and get the ball on the green.  It sounds cliche and the same for everybody, but it’s all I think about when I wake up.  Get the ball in play and get it on the green.  Try to make a putt, move on.

He was able to do that seven times on Thursday with just one bogey. He was asked if, given what he’s been through, is he sometimes amazed to see where he finds himself? And I just loved his answer. It’s probably why he’s come back from all of his heart issues:

Not really, no.  The guys that I play with seem to be focusing on their game.  I’m focusing on my game.  You know, there’s guys out here that are — that I’m impressed with that I see play, and those guys are what motivates me to get better, you know.

Rory McIlroy playing behind us and Luke Donald and lot of guys who had some great victories and great wins.  I’m just trying to do whatever I can to hang in there.  It’s obvious that I have a lot of adversity that I’ve had to dial with.  So when I’m feeling good and hitting the ball strong, I feel like I have as good a chance as anybody else.

One of the quiet little stories on the Tour is the steady comeback effort of one of the Tour’s year-in and year-out competitive players, Stewart Cink. His game had been in a slide after winning the Open Championship in 2009, but went in the ditch in 2012 where he finished 139 in the FedExCup standings and didn’t even make it into the Playoffs.

He ultimately determined that his fundamentals had just gotten all out of whack and his home-club pro helped him get things back in synch, no pun intended. Finishing No. 76 in 2013 was not everything he wanted, but it was a strong move in the right direction…as was his 1st round 64 at Torrey Pines early this year and Thursday’s 5-under 67.

And he’s been around long enough to know how to “be” with the process:

You know, every day is a little bit different.  You just come out here with a good attitude and positive thoughts and try to just do what you’ve worked on.  Some days it works out great and other days you go back to the drawing board and reprogram.  Days like today felt really good.  I really didn’t get myself into a lot of trouble.  I think I had a pretty good score.

The nice thing about having a Tour card is that when things don’t work out, there’s always next week. And that safety net allows you to sustain that good attitude and those positive thoughts, because that’s the most reliable way to play the game.

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