The Tour Championship begins tomorrow at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia. Paired in twosomes in the order they finished in FedExCup points, the first tee time is 11:35 (Eastern) and the Golf Channel broadcast begins at 1:00 in time to see gavel to gavel coverage of the last six groups. 30 players, 4 days, $42.5 million.
This tournament upon a tournament began in 2007. Unique at the time for its 30-man field, there had been a Tour Championship since 1987. But in time, it became “just” another prestigious tournament. And because it took place towards the end of the season, it ran headlong into the baseball playoffs and the beginning of the college and pro football seasons. Golf got lost in the shuffle.
The Tour felt that their brand would benefit from an earlier playoff scheme that matched the excitement of other sports’ playoffs while not being as diluted by their games. They partnered (a material understatement) with Federal Express to create the FedExCup, a year-long points race based on the players’ results in each tournament.
I’ve been faithfully watching all of this as it unfolded, but I didn’t really understand its full import until I began researching “the $10 million bonus” that we occasionally hear about from aspiring players who want to win it. What we don’t hear about so much is the other $25 million…and that it’s all on top of the regular tournament purse from Coca-Cola of $7.5 million. 30 players, 4 days, $42.5 million.
Why would Federal Express fund this? Because while the traditional Leading Money Winner statistic still exists, it has been supplanted by the FedExCup points system. So instead of being the title sponsor for their little hometown tournament in Memphis that comes but once a year, they bought the rights to be mentioned on the PGA Tour almost daily. $35 million is cheap.
But not to the players: 30 players, 4 days, $42.5 million. With no downside. Worst case, even if you finish 30th in the tournament and wind up 30th in points, you are still going to make a very large check ($210,000 for the tournament and $175,000 for the bonus).
So from a mastery point of view—always the primary interest of this blog—how do you deal with the enormity of that? How do you stay focused on just playing golf? Your caddie’s job is to keep you calm and help you think straight. Who’s going to keep him calm? 30 players, 4 days, $42.5 million.
Players frequently invoke fun, “I’m just going to have fun out there.”
Or the solitude of the game, “I can’t control what anybody else does, I can only control what I do.”
Or the equal footing all players are on, “We all have to play the same golf course. The conditions are going to be the same for everybody.”
Yeah, but. Yeah, but how do you do that? When you could make $1,350,000 plus $10,000,000?
“By not thinking about the money,” they say. “If I just concentrate on winning the tournament, everything else will take care of itself. I just have to take care of business.” And how do you do that?
By knowing with certainty that you can. Not by thinking that you can, but knowing that you can. So where do you get that “knowing” from?
From years of competitive playing and practice. From years of being so focused on hitting a golf ball effortlessly from here to there that you rarely doubt it anymore. You almost think it through the air—the vision in the air matches the vision in your mind. Most of the stray shots you see in golf tournaments stem from the mind drifting from the intention of the shot…or from doubt.
The mind drifts because of the consequences of the shot (good or bad) or a random, extraneous thought having nothing to do with the shot. That’s why players speak so much about focus. “I just have to keep my focus.” But what do you do when you didn’t sleep well, your brain is fried by the 15th hole and your body is fatigued? You take a deep breath and focus. And make a mental note to amp up your workout routine.
A good exercise to practice focus is in the mundane act of driving. Turn off the cruise control, the radio, the GPS and the cell phone. Choose a precise speed, a place in your lane, a distance from the car in front of you. Watch how your thoughts drift and then refocus. Nothing but driving. Nothing but what’s right in front of you, in your peripheral vision or mirrors. Get a scan going. Watch how your thoughts drift and then refocus. We are capable of so much. Watch how your thoughts drift and then refocus.
Doubt comes up when you overthink your swing. You can play inside of a swing concept and maybe with a backswing or downswing feel (as opposed to thought), but you can’t play if you’re thinking about whether your left wrist is flat or cupped at the top of the swing. The golf swing is an integrated, fluid motion. Do those little girl gymnasts think their way through a tumbling run? Do musicians think their way through the notes? Practice thoughts on the range to develop the feel, play with feel on the course.
So it will be interesting to see what happens on the lush stage of the Tour’s biggest payout. Who will have a centered presence as he plays? Who will be frowning at his ball in the air and trying to lean it back on target? Who will have fear in his eyes as his ball drifts inexorably towards the water hazard? And how quickly will he let it go?
The weather will be warm with light winds and just a 30% chance of scattered thunderstorms on Sunday. There will only be 30 guys there (“I proved I belong here? But can I win it?”). An entire year boils down to these next four days (“The deadline for greatness is here!”). And there is a huge pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (“There’s nothing I couldn’t buy for my mother!”).
30 players, 4 days, $42.5 million.
Everything looks so normal on the surface.
It should be very interesting.