Well, the Champions Tour let it all fly with the interview schedule this afternoon at the Cochise course at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona. We had:
- Colin Montgomerie
- Bernhard Langer
- Jay Haas
- Fred Couples
The first three were scheduled for 1:30pm after the pro-am and we all know how notoriously slow they are. And Couples was scheduled for 4:30 and he got done with the pro-am late as well.
Every one of them was completely engaging, entertaining and unhurried. It was like they enjoyed being there. It could have been the best batch ever in terms of getting to know who they were as people. There were less than ten of us asking questions, so perhaps the atmosphere was a little less confronting and a little more collegial.
Colin Montgomerie led us off and I found him just as engaged, thoughtful and helpful as he had been in my exclusive interview Tuesday. But what really came out this time was his sly, devilish sense of humor. His bright-eyed face would occasionally break into a big toothy grin as he let us in on his joke. This guy is very smart, very calm, cool and collected in his manner and frankly, funny. Because of his reputation for his prissy churlishness, as he left the room with a big, bright smile on his face, I said to him, “You’re doing yourself a lot of good, Colin.”
Bernhard Langer was the subject of much of Monty’s interview. With Langer blowing the Tour away with his precision play all week long, all year long, he clinched the Schwab Cup before anyone had an opportunity to catch him. Monty was full of genuinely laudatory praise that went on and on and did not have one false note. He was genuinely effusive about the things that Langer accomplished, not the least of which was his stunning record of 17 top-10s in 20 attempts. He was also first in greens in regulation (79.01%), Birdie Average (5.13), Scoring Average (68.05), Ball Striking (3) and, of course, Money ($2,916,189).
That said, there was an extensive discussion of Langer’s work ethic prompting this question from me:
Q. When you get as deeply into the mastery process as he is working on in all aspects of his game, you get pretty myopic, you’ve really engaged in it. Is his stoic personality part of that?
That’s his way, yes.
Q. So it’s helpful?
Very methodical, very precise, yeah, yeah, and that’s him. He will never hit a shot without having thought it out at first. Most amateurs think after they hit the shot, Bernhard Langer thinks before he hits the shot. That’s why he takes so bloody long doing it [a mischievous, playful jab] . It will be fun tomorrow, it will. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve played a lot of golf with Bernhard this year. The first rounds, the first round we’ve been partnered together a lot and it’s been a joy to witness, it really has, it really has.
It’s been a joy to witness and everybody should be — you know, there’s been new standards set this year on this tour and I’ve witnessed it firsthand and it’s been a joy to do, it really has. And he happens to be a friend of mine, happens to be a colleague of mine and a partner of mine and it’s been great to see and great to witness.
Bernhard Langer himself was next up. There was a gentle intelligence in his manner, his face and eyes breaking into tight smiles as he made his points. He was attentive to every question and very thoughtful and responsive to each one.
Most of it was about his extraordinary performance this year that locked up the Schwab Cup, but I chose to take off where I left off with Monty:
Q. Bernhard, the quantity of your work on your game is legendary. Everybody knows you’re working until dark.
That’s what Vijay —
Q. You and Vijay.
And Tom Kite.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about the quality of your practice, what you’re trying to accomplish with all of that quantity and the way in which you go about developing that quality?
Well, I like the way you put it because right now I think I’m looking more for quality instead of quantity. I’m still out there long hours, but not what I used to do. And I realize my body’s not able to take it like it used to, so I’m looking for more quality, less quantity and that’s the way it’s going to be for the rest of my career.
How? By every shot I hit needs to be — have a purpose. And the time I spend on the putting green, I’m not just there to, you know, so I can say oh, I spent an hour on the putting green or an hour on the range or half hour in the bunker. It was really never like that, but more so just really focusing on what I’m doing and just cut down the time a little bit so I don’t wear myself out. It’s very simple on the range. I don’t need to hit 200 balls. I can hit 50 balls and accomplish more if I really focus on those 50 shots and try to do what I’m trying to do by improving my swing or certain aspects of it.
Q. When you’re working on those 50 shots, can you talk about the mind state that you get into? Are you pretty much by yourself and totally invested in what you’re doing or are you engaged with other people?
Oh, I can engage with other people in between shots, but when I hit the shot, I had better be focused or it’s just going through the motions.
The last couple of quotes here were about the impressive way he expressed his faith without proselytizing. He was speaking about why he continues to have the drive necessary for the care and feeding of a world-class golf game. It was more a quiet confidence in the path he’s chosen and you can choose for yourself:
I think it’s the balance in life. I’d become a believer in God 30 years ago and ever since then I’ve tried to balance my faith, my family, and my priorities have changed and my profession. It used to be all about my job and the last 20, 25 years it was more about other things.
So you look at my schedule. I’ve only played 20 events, I didn’t play 26 events, and that’s part of it. I don’t play four in a row like some people do, I play two in a row maximum and then take a week off. So I’ve learned to pace myself, I’ve learned to get away from the game.
People think when I go home I practice every day. No chance. No, I put the clubs away for a number of days and do other things and get away from it, and then when I come back I’m hungry or I’m eager to work or put the hours in and enjoy the game and I think that’s part of the reason of the drive I still have. I enjoy being competitive, I like the game of golf, I love it, and what greater setting than the Champions Tour?
And then the conversation turned to his longevity and whether he could ever beat Hale Irwin’s record of 45 victories:
I really don’t know that, I can’t answer that right now. I’m going to take one year at a time. And what Hale Irwin set with 45, the record he set with 45 wins might never be broken and it might be, who knows. When he played there were a lot more tournaments. I think they had 40 or 42 events a year and he played more. I don’t play more than 20 usually, so he had more opportunities.
But that aside, it really doesn’t matter. And I don’t know how much longer I’m going to play. I always said three things have to be: I have to be healthy to play, I’ve got to enjoy it and I’ve got to have some success, which goes hand in hand. With my faith, if the Lord tells me to do something else, I might pack it in tomorrow and do something else if that’s what my calling is. Right now my calling is to be out here and play golf.
Jay Haas came across as a quiet, Southern gentleman, a good man filled with good will and intentions.
His interview began with the moderator pointing out that he had just one round over par all year long and that that had never been done before on the Champions Tour. How did he explain that dramatic improvement over his lackluster 2013 year?
Well, it’s been a pretty satisfying year certainly for me. After last year, you know, at 59 I didn’t play that great. I played pretty well toward the end of the year, which kind of helped me toward this year, but overall I just felt like I didn’t play as well as I was capable of playing. It would be a different story last year if I felt, well, 59, I’m getting older, it’s just kind of the way it is. But I felt like there was better golf for me out there. I won’t say that I went into some huge workout program. I didn’t eat differently. I just played better this year. A couple swing thoughts that seemed to click, but I’ve had 10,000 swing thoughts over the years and most, 9,900-whatever had not worked, but a few of them this year did and just gave me some confidence early on.
So I picked up right there with questions about how someone who had such a repeatable looking swing managed swing thoughts.
Q. You were talking about all the swing thoughts. (Inaudible) How long do you spend with something before you put it away?
That’s a good question. I think for me, I can try a swing thought and then I try to put myself in the position of being on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach with a one-shot lead. Can this swing thought hold up in that situation, can I get it in the fairway, can I get the next one up there between the ditches and make a par to win the tournament? That’s kind of what I think about when I try certain things. If they’re not totally comfortable, they might be on the wide open driving range, my pull hook or high to the right or something, you can just get another ball and hit another one, no big deal, but usually those go away pretty quickly.
I think when I take a swing thought to the course and then hit a quality shot under pressure, and one shot in particular this year that kind of confirmed that I was doing a lot of the right things was on the 17th hole at Boca early in the year, our second tournament of the year. I needed what I thought was a birdie-eagle finish or at least birdie-birdie, might have an outside chance to get into a playoff. I had a 5-iron, pin was way in the back right, wind was kind of left-to-right into me. It’s a pretty hard hole and I hit the most beautiful 5-iron shot about six feet behind the hole. I missed the putt, but just the fact that I was able to hit that shot in that situation.
You know, I know it’s not the U.S. Open, all that stuff, but this is what I got right now, this is the shot I need to hit right now to have a chance and I did. So that was really, that was a big shot for me and I’ve used that a lot this year, the thought of being able to hit that shot under pressure. Some swing thoughts, to answer your question, some last days, some last minutes, but I think over the years I know that if this thing doesn’t feel pretty comfortable right away, it’s gone.
Q. So when you’re on the range practicing before you get ready to play, how many swing thoughts have you — you’re not playing with that many. How many are you double checking before you go?
Hopefully no more than one or two. You know, if I’ve got seven or eight, then I’m in big trouble. A lot of my swing thoughts are set up, aim, ball position, things like that. But then I’ll put myself with a 5-iron or with a 3-wood or a 7-iron and think about a shot that I have to hit that day on a par 3 or a tough par 4 or something like that and hit some of those shots. If they’re consistently going out there the way I’m imagining I need to hit them, then I’m good with that.
Fred Couples is famously the Mr. Cool of golf and he lived up to that billing when he came in. Just off his pro-am, he looked completely relaxed and unruffled. Before the moderator even said a word and before the room was settled, he leaned into the mike and began with a joke intro:
Let’s get rolling. Nice course, good shape, good to be here. Thank you.
It was all in good fun and set the tone for his kicked back interview. He began by reporting that his game was feeling a little rusty and I chose to followup on that.
Q. So you said you were rusty. What does that feel like to you? What’s the difference between you being rusty and you being sharp right now?
Well, you know, when you’re sharp, there may be a shot or two on a golf course that you don’t like and you can get around it. When you’re not sharp, it’s almost impossible to get around it. And then there are other shots that to keep a round really going you have to hit. You don’t have to pull off great shots. You can go play a round of golf and do well if you just hit the ball solid.
For me when I’m rusty, I don’t play much and I don’t — I just don’t see the shot as well as when I’m playing a lot. It’s got nothing to do with my swing. I mean, obviously I don’t know how many weeks I had off in a row, four or five, maybe six or whatever it was, but for some people rusty is if they play a lot and they don’t play a little. I have a tendency to take a lot of time off, and when I come back it’s more like seeing the ball go where I kind of want it to go and that’s the rusty part. I can still hit it fairly solid. I might hit them in the rocks or hit shots that you don’t want to hit, but you can do that if you play every single week. But for me, you know, I just like to visually see the ball go, and when I don’t do that, then I kind of panic.
We’ve heard players talking forever about their games being rusty, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a description of exactly what that means to them. And — news flash!! — Couples said it doesn’t even have anything to do with his swing, it’s all about how what he sees matches up to the swing he can make. I never thought about it that way.
What ensued was a fascinating discussion about the Ryder Cup and whether he wanted to be captain (yes, but he’s not lobbying) and how he thought his Presidents Cup style would work in the Ryder Cup milieu (it would because he really doesn’t do anything, he just makes the players comfortable).
It goes on for all of 11 pages, too numerous to detail verbatim here. But it’s a sweeping display of the real Fred Couples and worth it if you want to read the whole thing. It was such an engaging and entertaining insight into one of the games enigmas.