Matt Kuchar, William McGirt and Scott Langley are tied for the lead after the first round of the 2014 RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, South Carolina. They managed to get around the par 71 Harbour Town Golf Links — a Pete Dye gem — in 5-under 66.
Harris English was in 4th alone at 3-under, followed by a gaggle of 15 at 2-under that included Jordan Spieth, Matt Every, Rory Sabbatini and Billy Horschel.
But of all those great players, the one whose comments in the media center interested me the most was Scott Langley. Langley burst onto the scene in his rookie year after he surged into the 1st round lead of the Sony Open in Hawaii with a 62. His good friend Russell Henley went on to win and Langley finished T3, a dream start to a PGA Tour career.
He didn’t have a great 2013, but he managed to pocket almost $600,000 and finish 122nd in FedExCup points to keep his card. So it definitely had a happy ending and gave him some enduring lessons in how a Tour pro approaches the game.
He began by talking about “expectations:”
“Expectations are funny. I was confident, you know, in my game. I worked very hard last week [he had the week off]. Seeing Jordan do so well, almost win the Masters inspired me a little bit. But I was already very motivated to come here this week.”
“I love this place. I know it suits my game pretty well. And I have a decent understanding of how to play it for only being my second year here.”
“So I don’t know if “expecting” is the right word but I was confident in my game. I knew I could play well. I think the best golf is played sometimes when you don’t really have expectations, at least for me. So I just tried to go out there and stay in moment, hit one shot at a time. It’s a cliché, but my caddie and I had a good talk about it. Just process shot after shot after shot, and play the conditions as they come. We did a good job of that today.”
And the conversation naturally drifted into a review of some of the bigger lessons he came away with from 2013:
“Yeah, I think just having the right mindset is so important. Not beating yourself up too bad. I was guilty of that sometimes last year, because I wanted to play well so badly. And I felt like I had a great opportunity every week, and sometimes I didn’t really take advantage of it and I found myself being a little upset about that too much.”
“So just being kind of my own best friend on the golf course. Having the right attitude. Having the attitude that this is hopefully going to be a long year for me. Each shot if it’s good or bad is a very small portion of my long‑term plan.”
“So just to treat it like that a little bit more. Kind of stay in each moment. Stay even keel a little bit more. I played with a lot of veteran players last year, it was great experience, I was able to learn from them and was able to observe how they are. They just stay so level for the most part.”
“And I think that’s so important to maintaining a consistent level of play over the course of a career. So that was a big lesson that I learned last year, and one that actually helped me keep my card when it came down to it.”
So for Langley, what’s his knee-jerk reaction to situations that don’t go his way?
“I wouldn’t call it anger. I’m not really an angry guy. But I’m really competitive. Sometimes it manifests itself in different ways.”
“I’m learning how to make it kind of positively intense. Common frustrations of the game; I think everybody goes through it at times. When things aren’t going your way, the competitor in you wants it to go well.”
“So I find myself every once in a while I’ll still get upset. And it sits with me for a little bit. But I’m learning how to take those moments and move on real quickly and kind of turn a bad situation into a good situation.”
In college golf, there’s sort of an aggressiveness that works its way into the good players’ arsenal. They’re at the top of the hierarchy and they learn to affirm that by routinely shooting at the pins.
But in the professional game, they fall to the bottom of the hierarchy and all the pins are on the edges of the greens. The old joke goes something like, “That pin was so close to the edge, from the fairway, it didn’t even look like it was on the green.”
So you have to learn to channel your aggressiveness appropriately:
“It comes with time. I consider myself a pretty smart player, but I can pretty much bet that in about ten years I’m going to be smarter than I am today. It just comes with time, experience, growing an instinct to determine the situations better. And playing the golf courses more.”
“So I think that’s part of it. I’m fortunate that I went to a school, University of Illinois, where my coach, Mike Small, taught me to play the game to that extent, where to go aggressive, where to be smart, where to play away from a pin, where you want to be coming into the green. He taught me so many basics like that that I think some players take for granted. But those things help me play better golf when, say, I’m not a hundred percent on my game. It’s course management stuff.”
Course management stuff. And personal management stuff. And golf skills management stuff. And that’s not an exhaustive list, merely a starting place to determine whether to keep going.
But get a handle on these three and you’ll be a long way towards having the capacity to play professionally. And the longer you work at it, the greater that capacity grows. It’s the golf mastery process and there are few shortcuts.