February Madness

College basketball has its perennial rite, March Madness, with its 64 teams and four brackets to decide who the national champion is.

Golf has the same thing except it’s 64 players and they are the best players in the world. That phrase, “best players in the world,” spills so frequently across our lips that we never really stop to think just what it means. Out of the tens of millions of golfer all across the globe—at one time there were more than 26 million in the U.S. alone—the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play Championship has managed to gather the 64 best at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, a northern suburb of Tucson, Arizona.

The college basketball players are full of youthful clanging and banging, hurry up and shoot, get the rebound and try again. The Tour pros are poised men of great accomplishment and wisdom whose mistakes are routinely negligible and there’s no physical contact with your opponent. It’s more like a gentlemen’s chess game but with soaring golf shots.

And one of the reasons that the pros so willingly migrate to this tournament is that it’s match play, not medal (stroke) play as the rest of the tournaments are week to week. And match play has its charm. If you can win more holes than your opponent over the course of 18 holes, you win. Get a big enough lead and it can be over in less than 18 holes. Do that six times and you are the best match player in the world for that year and it is a badge of distinction that will follow you forever, “Oh, he’s a great match-play player.” Aside from those plaudits, there is the golfer’s romance with the history of the game: it all started as match play gaemes all those hundreds of years ago.

So today, given the opportunity to participate in the interviews of Numbers 4, 6 and 7 in the world, Graeme McDowell, Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy, I chose to ask questions of them that went to the heart of this blog’s interest, mastery. I apologize for the post being a little longer than normal, but I thought their verbatim answers were very revealing. As Tour pros, they are, after all, the “Keepers of the Secrets.” It was Casey first, followed by McIlroy and then McDowell.

Q [to Casey]. As someone who’s been quite successful in match play and enjoys it and kind of understands the dynamics of it, can you talk a little bit about there’s sort of this “one and done” possibility when you go to a match play event. But there’s also in an individual match a sort of inevitability that creeps up as you get closer to the end of the match and say you’re 1-down and all of a sudden the guy gets another hole on you.

Can you talk a little bit about what you do to maintain your presence to keep doing what you’ve been doing and not panic as the finish line draws closer?

For me it’s — you know, there’s a game plan, I have a game plan of how to get around this golf course. And it’s something I don’t flinch from, I don’t change that. There are certain holes you can be incredibly aggressive on, there are certain holes you just have to be sensible, even if you’re down and you’ve literally got one or two holes to go I think you just have to keep giving yourself opportunities to make birdies.

If you’re going to force something, maybe try and force a putt, you try to get a bit more aggressive with a putt. I think this golf course would bite you if you try and — you’re not going to — put it this way, you’re not going to win a hole with a tee shot, I don’t care how good it is. So you just have to stay in your routine and stay with your game plan and hope that you make the birdie putt and you never wish anything bad on your opponent, but maybe they make a mistake and that’s all you can do. Everybody out here is so good that there’s nothing else you can do apart from playing your own ball and hope for the best.

Q [to McIlroy]. Where are you in that instance where you find yourself…where you start to react to your opponent, what do you do to maintain sort of your mental equanimity without going off, without pressing too hard?

Yeah, again, you need to find the right — there’s no point in trying to press too hard and start being too aggressive and missing greens in places that you can’t. You’ve got to still play smart, but know when to be aggressive and know when not to. And hopefully this week I won’t need to get myself into that position too much. But, you know, if you do, I mean I was 4-down through 6 last year against Kevin Na on the first round and managed to come back and beat him in the last. But when you’re 4-down through 6, you still have plenty of holes to make up some ground, so you can still stay a bit more patient. If you’re 3-down with 5 to go or something like that, that’s when you need to push.

But I think the finish on this course, as well, allows you to be aggressive. The 15th is a drivable par-4. And 16 is a very tough par-3, but 17 and 18 if you can take tight lines off the tee, it can leave you with an easier second shot. So it gives you opportunities to be aggressive and really take advantage of some of the holes if you’ve got a little bit of length.

Q [to McIlroy]. You talk about a time when you were playing well and your confidence was high. Have you ever had an experience where you weren’t playing all that well, but your confidence was still high and how did you sustain it and when you lost it, how did you get it back, other than just by playing better?

Yeah, I mean it was probably this time last year. I got beaten in the second round here last year and I went to the Honda Classic and finished middle of the field. I went to Doral, didn’t finish that good. And then missed the cut at the Houston Open and The Masters. It wasn’t a really good stretch for me, and confidence wasn’t that high, to be honest. But you’ve just got to keep working hard and you work on the right things or feel as if you’re working on the right things, and it will turnaround sooner or later, you’ve just got to stay patient and hope that it turns around for you quickly.

But I missed the cut at the Masters and took two weeks off, went home and played a bit of golf. And sort of started trying to find the enjoyment for the game again. Went the next week and won at Quail Hollow. It’s a funny game, it definitely is.

Q [to McDowell]. You have a very lighthearted personality. And I’m wondering if you can describe how you manage the transition to the intensity of professional golf. How can you play at that level and still maintain who you are?

Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s a sport. We work extremely hard off the golf course so that we can go and try and do our jobs on the course. I think if you’re not lighthearted about what you do I think, you know, you’re going to — it’s very difficult to take bad days. I think you have to be certainly — keep it real. I try to do that. But, yeah, you know, we’re out here, we’re trying to play, you know, playing golf at the highest level. And like I say, my thought is if I work hard and prepare myself well, I can accept anything that happens on the golf course. That’s kind of what I go on.

There’s probably a lot of guys who maybe take the game a little too seriously. Of course you take it serious to a certain extent, but you’ve got to let yourself off the hook as well sometimes. I try to do that. It’s great. I’m certainly enjoying my life right now. I’m playing golf at the business end, playing the best events in the world against the best players, on great golf courses like this one. It’s lighthearted, call it what you want. I’m having fun. I love what I do. I feel very fortunate doing what I’m doing.

Q [to McDowell]. With all that you’ve accomplished last year, extraordinary year, what did the win at Chevron in the playoff with Tiger, as you look back on it now, what did that add to your sense of accomplishment for last year?

You know, it’s just — it really just put the icing on the cake, really, if you like. I mean last year was an amazing season, you know. The Ryder Cup and the U.S. Open were two of the most amazing moments that I maybe ever will have in my career, and I’ve got to cherish those moments, for sure.

The Chevron was pretty special in its own way. It’s amazing how many people switched across from their NFL football game here in the States and flicked across to watch the next episode of the Tiger Woods show, and it was just great to be a part of that.

I’ve had a huge amount of recognition from that, just to be the guy to hole a couple of Tigeresque putts against Tiger. It’s a lot of fun. The Chevron is a very lighthearted tournament, and we play for a lot of money and we take it seriously. And you can believe Tiger and I were playing tough that weekend.

But, yeah, it was the icing on the cake. But, you know, I certainly wouldn’t put it up there with Pebble or the Ryder Cup. But it was pretty cool.

Tomorrow is the last practice round for these guys and I’ll get an opportunity to question World #1, Lee Westwood, #2, Martin Kaymer; #3, Tiger Woods; #12 Ian Poulter; #21, Alvaro Quiros; #59, 17-year-old, Matteo Manassero; and #65, Henrik Stenson who won the tournament in 2007 but was only able to get in this year as an alternate. Funny game, golf.

They should all be quite interesting.

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