Validation and Fried Brain

I’ve written before about the ego’s need to validate accomplishments, “Me? Oh, no! I’m not a fluke!” and how I used to see it in betting games during Monday qualifying practice rounds. A player would win a hole, but in order to lock up his win, he had to be the first to win the next hole too. (Of course, that could have been an unspoken cash conservation scheme amongst the group too.)

We’ll get to see how that plays out in this week’s Honda Classic. Played at the PGA National Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, it has attracted a great field. The reason is because it is positioned right before next week’s second of four World Golf Championships, the Cadillac Championship, being played at the TPC Blue Monster at Doral in Miami. Everybody wants to get a last minute playing tune-up (as contrasted with staying at home beating balls and playing). That would be “almost” everybody; Tiger’s chosen private practice again.

And one of the luminaries who will be in the field is last week’s winner of the Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, Luke Donald.

“So, Luke, now that you’ve had that very impressive win, how about proving to us, you know, just in case, that it wasn’t a fluke?”

While there may be somebody uttering those words somewhere, that conversation is more likely to dwell in Donald’s head. And it’s just another example of how the ego, left unsupervised, “poisons the well” of self-confidence with its insecurities.

In my opportunities to hear Donald answer questions in the media center interview room last week, my sense is that he is very secure in his sense of himself. Not only did he endure the drought since his last victory in 2006 with high levels of play that garnered him $12.4 million in earnings, not counting last week’s $1.4 million first prize, he also seemed to have it all sorted out about the merits of his win at match play as opposed to stroke play. But still, as I pointed out yesterday, there are those already simmering about a stroke play win.

The other nice thing that bodes well for Donald this week is that his last victory in 2006 was—Ta! Da!—the Honda Classic. So not only does he enjoy the status of last week’s champion, he has past champion status at this week’s tournament.

The other thing to watch this week with respect to his performance is the extent to which his brain is fried from last week. As you wend your way through a tournament, especially in match play where every hole is a mini-tournament unto itself, your level of consciousness gradually creeps higher and higher, until you almost transcend everything that’s going on except the golf.

I had a friend who was caddying for Frank Beard in the Champions Tour event at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, California some years ago. I’d gone up to see Beard play because another friend had worked with him on his game.

It was one of those classic, enchanting, Northern California, low-clouds days. There wasn’t a breath of wind, as still as a funeral.

Beard was on a par 3 that was about 170 yards and had been playing well up to that point. So as he settled in over his tee shot, the waggle, and the waggle, it got quieter still.

There is a rhythm to a Tour player’s routine; watch for a while and you know every time when they’re going to pull the trigger.

So just as Beard started his swing, “BAM!!” somebody let a Portalet door on the other side of the tall hedge slam closed. Beard continued his swing as if nothing had happened and hit the ball to a foot and a half.

I recounted that story to my friend and he said, “I guarantee you that he never heard it.” That’s how enmeshed in the moment, steeped in concentration, Tour players are when they are really and truly “in it.”

But being right up there like that takes it out of you. Imagine yourself having worked all day long on a project that required intense concentration. Imagine that it is a fascinating project that garners all of your attention. As the hours go by, your mind is fresh, you see the end result you’re working toward and how the part that you’re working on now fits into that goal. Think, for example, of doing a complicated tax return that requires the compilation of all sorts of disparate data in order to complete the return.

And let’s say that the deadline for the project is the next day. And the hours go by, and the hours go by. And then finally, say at around 2 o’clock in the morning, as it’s all starting to come together, you notice that you can’t think straight anymore. You can’t stay focused on the parts as well as you could earlier in the day. But you push it over the top, get it done and collapse into bed. The next morning, the world moves a little slower for you as you gather your wits again.

That’s what it can be like to recover from a win on the PGA Tour.

So we can watch Donald for that too.

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