The USGA gave the players in the third round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 their day of reckoning. The first two days there was a nice steady stream of rounds under par, the most notable, Martin Kaymer’s two 65s. Saturday there were only two: a pair of 67s by Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton. Two guys out of the 67 that made the cut.
Not many people were expecting that from either of them. Fowler started working with Butch Harmon in December and has been sort of wobbling his way to a much more efficient swing that would take pressure off his back. Compton had to get through a 36-hole qualifier to even get into the tournament, let alone do well in it. They are both T2 at 3-under, five shots behind Kaymer who was able to bank most of the hard work he put in the first two days. He only gave back two shots with his 72 and was pleased.
Fowler summed up the work that he’s been doing on his swing:
“It’s definitely a lot more mature. I’m hitting it harder. I’m older. I’m definitely more in control of my golf swing and more in control of the golf ball, and unfortunately my results haven’t showed it this year. I’ve been a bit up and down in some cuts, and most of the cuts I’ve missed in my whole professional career. But it’s definitely the best my game has been, and it’s only going to keep getting better from here.”
Does this sound familiar? Tiger was saying the same kinds of things about his swing changes with Sean Foley, but many didn’t want to believe him. And then he won five times in 2013. Fowler’s biggest fan is Butch Harmon himself who has pronounced himself very pleased with the state of his game.
And the consequence of all of that was that he was able to hit a sweet little cut into the par-3 17th pin that was sitting just back of center and 5 from the right edge. He describes the difference between Saturday’s shot and what it might have been with the old swing:
“Yeah, as far as trusting that I would start it on line and cut it from there. Typically I would be a little underneath [the plane] and the shot prior to that probably would have been more of a push cut. And like I said, it started a fraction right of where I was trying to, but I’m starting the ball on my lines. That one I just have to be a fraction off and 15 feet right of the hole, take it.”
Double heart-transplant recipient, Compton, was very clear on why he thought he played so well:
“Well, I think that my attitude suits a U.S. Open style course because I don’t ever give up. I’m extremely hard on myself, but I tend to forget the shots I hit bad and move to the next hole. And sometimes I don’t even know what hole I’m on, because I’m just trying to execute and then move to the next shot. I guess that’s kind of reflective of how I always lived my life. If you have a bad situation or a bad day, you get up and try to do it again.”
“But when I am playing well, I don’t have a lot of curve on my golf ball. And if any, it’s moving a little bit left-to-right and I think a lot of the hole shapes out here suit my game. I had lunch with Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield last week and he kind of winked at me and said, ‘Your game will suit Pinehurst.’ So he had a smile on his face and it was kind of neat to — when I qualified, I let him know that I qualified.”
Having words like that come out of the mouth of none other than the great Jack Nicklaus is like gold. You can persevere for years on a simple exchange like that.
“And I had a lot of people who have supported me, my coach Charlie and I have been working night and day on putting before we came here this week. When I was on the putting green, I felt like I was out there alone with him just hitting putts and focusing on the targets. Just kind of like I was on the driving range.”
And as for objectivist-thinking Kaymer, he’s under no illusions about how secure his lead is. After his terrific birdie on 18 to get back to a five-shot lead, he was asked what the difference was between a five-shot lead and a four-shot lead. The reporter should have asked what the significance was:
“One shot. If you have four shots, five shots, six shots, at the end of the day, if you play a golf course like this, it can be gone very quickly. You could see it today. I made three bogeys the first six holes. I didn’t hit many fairways today.”
“So the challenge will be tomorrow, to keep going and not try to defend anything. Because if you try to defend then you’re not free enough. You don’t swing as free. And that will be the challenge. So we’ll see how it will react tomorrow, how the body feels, and how I handle the situation.”
Finally, the media came back to this very important point that Kaymer raised during the first two days about being done with working on technique. The reporter wanted a more detailed explanation and to know what the process was like.
To a layman, it may sound a little too fantastic to be able to do this, but the difference between struggle and greatness is trusting yourself. His extensive answer explains why he’s running away with the tournament:
“Well, I watched “[The Legend of] Bagger Vance” yesterday, and he said, ‘At the end of the day we’re playing a game.’ And that is what we’re doing. We can’t control a lot of things that happen on the golf course. You have to play the game.”
“And if you try to control your swing, if you try to control everything, which is a little bit the way I am as a person, I like to be in control of things. It’s the way I think a lot of Germans are. But at the end of the day, you have to feel on the golf course. You have to create that feel and trust your skill and all the work.”
“And today when I was standing on 18, that’s a tough tee shot. There’s pretty much no fairway. It’s very difficult to see any fairway from the back tee. So you stand there and for me it was such an enjoyable shot, because I knew exactly where I wanted to aim and I thought, what a great position this is now. You are 7-under par at the U.S. Open, playing your third round. It’s the final hole, it would be nice to finish it off with a birdie. If I miss the fairway, it’s a tougher shot. But if you can pull it off, you gain some confidence. So it was a very, very nice thing”
“And it’s about that feel, that touch, that you play with your heart, that you can’t control too many things and that’s what I was trying to do the last three years. Now I just play.”