These Guys Are Tough

Take heart all you hackers! Tour pros make big mistakes too…they just aren’t as affected by them.

I came out of the media center “tent” (don’t be deceived; it’s huge and fabulous) yesterday morning at 8:58 intent on getting to the first tee for the first match of the second round of the WGC Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Valley Golf Club in the northern suburbs of Tucson. That 9:10 match was between number 4 in the world, Graeme McDowell and England’s, Ross Fisher, number 37.

Taking the shortcut through the range, I came around the corner of the grandstands and there was Graeme McDowell, still hitting his driver! Normally, you would have expected him to be over on the putting green by then just finishing up. And maybe before that, warming down with a couple of instinctive shots at close targets with his lob wedge. But, no, he’s still hitting drivers.

I stopped the lead rules official and asked him if there was a frost delay. On his way to do something else, he called over this shoulder, “No. No delay.” What could be going on? I asked a range volunteer how long he’d been there. “For a while,” he said. And Ross Fisher was nowhere in sight.

So I headed to the tee. A couple of minutes later, Fisher and his caddie stroll up. The same rules official arrived a minute later. Still no McDowell.

Fisher set about making sure that everything was orderly and meticulous with his bag. Divider by divider, he pulled each club cluster out of the bag as far as the grips, gave them a little jiggle so that the shafts were no longer entangled and then slid them back into the divider. He pulled his putter out up to the grip, peeled open the Velcro fastener on the putter cover, took the cover all the way off, put it back on making sure it was properly seated and refastened the Velcro.

And in his attire and presentation, he looked as fastidious as his club tending was.

But still no McDowell. If he didn’t arrive by 9:10, the penalty is loss of hole and that’s not the way you want to start a match play tournament, 1-down. The rules official turned back and peered up to the putting green to see if he could see him. Ross Fisher joined in.

And finally, ho, hum, here came McDowell striding down the cart path with two minutes to spare. Cordial hellos, he confirmed that he was first up and pulled his 3-wood just as Tiger had done the day before. And, just as Tiger had done the day before, he hit his ball into the same desert thicket.

Suddenly these two things came together in my mind: was his last instant practice with his driver and selection of his 3-wood on the first tee a signal that he was distrusting his swing? Was this all his way of handling subliminal fear?

This tournament is such a big deal—it is, after all, one of only four World Golf Championships—that each group had its own rules official. In this case, the same lead rules official from the tee. And it was a good thing that they did because it took the better part of ten minutes to sort out his two primary options: dropping within two club lengths on either side of the ball or going backward on the line to the hole as far as he wanted in order to get a decent lie. He ended up going with the two club lengths, but it left him on the side of the bank with the ball well below is feet. And then he rifled  an iron onto the green…but lost the hole anyway to Fisher’s par.

But he turned right around on the par-5 2nd hole and got it back with a tough downhill birdie putt. Who knows, maybe that rattled Fisher because on the par-3 3rd, he fatted his tee shot onto the bank of the pond and it fell back into the water. McDowell 1-up and that was after a beautiful, “touch” bunker shot that trickled down to the hole for a gimme putt.

And then Fisher played it too close to a fairway bunker, “fatted” his approach shot and McDowell goes to 2-up. Wow. From 1-down to 2-up in just four holes. Obviously, Fisher was done, a broken man. Wrong. He birdied the next hole leaving McDowell just 1-up…and when McDowell bladed a very complicated lob shot across the green on the next hole, the match was all square again. Until Fisher did the same thing on the next hole and McDowell went 1-up again…and 2-up with a short birdie putt on the 9th.

That’s the thing about golf: you can’t ever tell what happened just by looking at the final score. You have to look at the ebb and flow of it to understand how the players were reacting; how they were rising and how they were falling. These two guys were gladiators. They had their ups and downs, but nobody was discouraged and nobody was giving up.

From the 10th through the 14th, they had a one-stroke calliope going, one hole this way and one hole that until McDowell made a sweet little chip shot on the drivable 15th and a birdie to go 3-up. 3-down with 3 holes to go, Fisher was suddenly dangling from the hook. His need to make something happen, to win three holes in a row, freed him up to throw all caution to the wind. He hit it against the grandstands behind the 16th, the end.

If you followed these guys around without keeping score, you would forever be wondering how they could shoot scores higher than 62. It was an awesome display of ball striking, even though there were some occasional errant ones. And through it all they were determined and unyielding. As I said, these guys are tough. And not just these two.

Here’s the transcription of my questions to Nick Watney in his post-round interview. He took out World No. 1, Lee Westwood, in a dramatic match that went all 18 holes:

Q: So you mentioned going from euphoria to anger and the necessity to control your emotions. Can you talk a little bit about how you control your emotions?

…I think my caddie, Chad Reynolds, does a really good job of–he knows just what to say. He can kind of sense if I’m going too fast or getting a little too down on myself. He did a good job when we were walking to 18 of just kind of slowing me down and reminding me, we are still 1-up with one to go. We played a solid hole [and won]–I lost, I think it was the 8th hole and he made an eagle. I made birdie; Lee made an eagle.

There’s going to be up-an-downs in golf, and in match play, especially. The key for me is to not get too high or too low on any shot.

Q And so, taking it the next step, how do you do that? I mean, it’s nice that your caddie is talking to you and he’s keeping your pace going. But there’s a deeper thing to how you actually control your emotions. What are you thinking about? How are you feeling?

I just tried to remind myself that there’s more golf to be played and maybe take a few extra deep breaths, just try to collect my thoughts and focus as much as I can on the tee shot on 18.

I mean it’s a cliche, but there’s nothing you can do about [losing] the 17th hole. I would have liked to have closed in out [on 17]. If I hit it in the desert or something [on 18], obviously we’re going to the [playoff] hole. So I tried to focus as hard as I could on the last tee shot and just move on.

That’s what they do: hit the shot and “just move on.”

One of the other treats of following the McDowell match was that I managed to get through a spectator bottleneck by breaking for the 15th tee before they were done on 14. It’s a bottleneck because the players have to cross the cart path the spectators are limited to at that point and so the marshals stop all traffic to let the players pass without delay.

So by the time the marshals shut it down, I was already safely on the other side strolling up the cart path. There were two gentlemen shoulder to shoulder with me and I suddenly realized that the one next to me was the great European golf coach, Pete Cowen. He is Graeme McDowell’s coach among other luminaries I detail in my December 20th post, “Most Bang For The Buck.”

The post was basically about the value of improving your short game and was prompted by an article Cowen had written about how he was working with McDowell on his as a way, not only to have a better short game, but to improve his ball striking in his full swing too. It’s worth another read. As I said in the post and joked with him, Cowen is the best kept secret in the United States. And he good-naturedly joked with me that he wanted to keep it that way!

We had a very cordial conversation for the two holes until the match was over.

One last player note. Keep an eye on the young, 17-year-old kid from Italy, Matteo Manassero. After the McDowell match was over, I walked back up to the 15th green to wait for Manassero to come through. He lost that hole to a sliding, improbably-long eagle putt and the 16th to a fluke shot that hit the grandstand roof and flew out in the desert: from 2-up to all square. He was completely unaffected. He hit a beautiful tee shot on 17 and then went right at a “tucked” pin as if he was playing a practice round. There was no hesitation, he just got up and hit it to 3 feet to win the hole and, halving 18, the match. It was like he was playing a no-consequences video game. Watch him. He already beat No. 5 Steve Stricker.

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