Ben Martin’s Magical Mystery Round

Ben Martin came out of the chute on Thursday at the Zurich Classic with a course-record by two shots, 62, and I’ve been writing about him ever since. He followed that round up with a 5-under 67, a nice surprise, I think it’s fair to say. And even though he shot 1-over on Saturday falling from a 3-shot lead to 4 shots behind, I’m going to write about him again today.

Why? Because he plays with magic. In his earlier rounds, he talked about how he is not a swing tinkerer and has no interest in swing mechanics. He just plays. But what made the difference for these last two tournaments (T3 at Hilton Head) is how he played.

Earlier in the year he had been cracking the whip on himself by setting the lofty goal of winning two tournaments this year. I know about lofty goals, having tried to play on the Champions Tour for nine years without the requisite experience that might have made that possible; which was my whole point, I might add. I thought I knew something about magic too. 

What changed for Martin was that he realized that every week that he didn’t win — the norm for every Tour player — it wasn’t just a loss, it was a failure, another chink in his goal-setting armor. Setting goals is supposed to “work,” right?

So he changed his goal from winning two tournaments this year to finishing in the Top 30 in the FedExCup points race so that he would get into the Tour Championship and have a shot at the FedExCup. Because of this seemingly insignificant shift, even when he doesn’t win, he gets a little closer to a pretty significant revised goal. This because FedExCup points are awarded to everyone who makes the cut. He said this week that this has given him a terrific sense of freedom.

An incredulous reporter asked him if this was really how it worked. “It couldn’t be this simplistic, right?” And Martin goodnaturedly responded:

 “I don’t have another good answer for you, really (laughing).  I don’t really ever change my swing.  I don’t really think a whole lot about mechanics.  To me, all I did is kind of change my goal at the end of the year.  I think it freed me up.  I wasn’t as worried about where I was finishing.”

Some would look at his 1-over round on Saturday and dismiss this whole thing as a noble but failed experiment that didn’t hold up under pressure. But Martin doesn’t feel that way:

I felt a lot more relaxed today.  I know last week playing with Jim Furyk and K.J. Choi and not taking anything away from our group today [Andrew Svoboda and the new leader, Seung-Yul Noh], but those guys are pretty accomplished players.  So I was definitely a little nervous going off in the final group with them last week.”

“But I felt relaxed and confident and comfortable today, and that’s when I play my best golf.  So I think I keep the mindset like that all week.  I feel like I’ve played Sundays well this year, so I have that to look forward to tomorrow.”

The day was a real birdie-fest with Noh and Keegan Bradley shooting 7-under 65s to wind up 1, 2 on the day with Bradley 2 shots back.

FedExCup No. 126 from last year, Robert Streb, continued his good week shooting 4-under 68 to finish the day another stroke back and in 3rd by himself. Jeff Overton came out of nowhere with a 5-under 67 to tie Martin and Svoboda at T4 and yet another stroke back. But Martin was not bothered by all of this explosive movement up the leaderboard…because he can’t control it.

“I really only focus on what I can control, and I can’t control how many birdies the guys in my group are making.  I just need to make a few more out there.”

And he’s not particularly concerned that he starts Sunday four shots back:

“Yeah, I guess, like I said, I don’t really look a whole lot at where I stand.  But obviously if I want to have a chance to win, I’m going to have to go out tomorrow and play a good round of golf.  But I’m still pretty confident in how things are overall with my game.”

You would expect that from a guy who shot 62, 67, is pleased with all aspects of his game and has a goal-setting scheme that frees him up. But, yeah, a reporter politely asked, not so much today?

“Yeah, I only made one birdie today which is not going to get it done out here.  Too many putts but I felt like I’ve been playing Sundays well this year when I’ve played the weekend, which hasn’t been often, unfortunately.  But I feel like I usually finish strong and that’s something that I try to pride myself in.  Still an opportunity tomorrow, which will be fun.”

So the belief that he plays well on Sunday, plus his even demeanor:

“Yeah, Thursday’s round and today are kind of 180‑degree difference.  So after Thursday I wasn’t on cloud 9, and after today, I’m not in the dumps, so I still have a good mindset going into tomorrow.”

There is a well known phenomenon that occurs at the beginning of tournament rounds called, “The Disappearing Pep Talk.” It is closely related to the cosmic question, “Where Does All the Wisdom Go?”

There is the swirl of the first tee that assaults the mind with any uncertainties born on the range, anxiousness engendered by any projection of the round’s results and the simple uncertainty of just not knowing.

But Ben Martin seems to be beyond all of that. I can’t wait for Sunday’s final round to see if it’s actually so.

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