I opened yesterday’s post summarizing what it’s like to be in the lead Saturday night:
It’s lonely at the top. If he didn’t know that already, Rory McIlroy, the leader after three rounds at the Masters, will know it in his very competitive bones in a way that he will never forget.
But never did I expect that it would end in his total collapse. I even asserted that the pack chasing him from four strokes back had no chance. That’s how mature, intelligent and experienced we all thought McIlroy was.
But I think that’s as attributable to our collective desire for the fantastic, the great story, the happy ending. How could you not root for the 21-year-old-kid from Northern Ireland? The kid who was thoughtful, polite, self-effacing, philosophical and possessed of a gentle, fun-loving sense of humor? The kid who seemed to be an absolutely bulletproof, world class golfer with the gorgeous swing?
The thing about our fallen heroes is that behind feeling sorry for them—and to some extent for the disappointment for ourselves—we tend to think of their failures as some sort of character flaw. “Nope, not tough enough. A little too…soft.”
Most observers who look at it that way have never been in the caldron, the intense pressure cooker of big time professional golf. They have no idea what causes these breakdowns and what it feels like to watch your staid, reliable world collapsing around you.
Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Going For It! A Spiritual Adventure on the Champions Tour. It describes the exact feelings you go through when your worst fears start to mount. In this case, after a solid up-and-down par on the first hole and a dramatically successful tee shot on my second hole—a long, uphill par-3 over wetlands—in my very first Monday qualifying tournament, I shocked myself with an very uncharacteristic 3-putt:
So the perfect tee shot…ended up in an ignominious 3-putt double bogey.
This is the way of big time tournament golf. This is why so many players trudge the courses like a deer waiting for the lioness to leap from her cover.
And when this happens to you for the first time in a real tournament situation where everything, everything, matters so much, it is a shot to the psyche that numbs every perceptive sense you have.
You cannot see as well because your external vision is turned inward in a kaleidoscopic review of the disaster, in a foretelling vision of its consequences. You cannot hear as well because the blood is coursing through your body filling up your head. And you cannot feel your golf swing because all you are aware of is the prickly tension bunched between your shoulders.
And so, until you learn how to manage these things, your next tee shot has no chance—mine sailed deep into the forest on the right. And the next, and the next until finally there was no chance, no hope, no possibility of recovery.
I immediately thought of this passage as I watched poor McIlroy standing between the cabins way left of the 10th fairway, working with his caddie, trying to figure out how to get his ball back in play. Even though the ball arrived there after ricocheting off a tree, his drive shouldn’t have been anywhere near that tree.
He was just 1-over on the day standing on that 10th tee, but I’m sure it felt like he was sliding backward way more than he actually was. Not to mention that I am sure he heard the roars of the birdies and eagles out on the course in front of him. So you jump up on the tee—”Hey! New nine!”—with the intention to take control of your world again. But the flaw in that thinking is the word, “control.”
For me, taking control instinctively meant swinging harder, more powerfully…to take control. But when you do that, a shroud descends over your sensory awareness. All the practice, all the time, all the feel…disappears.
This is why playing golf well professionally, or anywhere else for that matter, takes experience. Not only endless practice beating balls, working on your short game, finding your putting stroke, but also practice playing in competitive situations. You have to have those feelings I described in my first tournament, learn to recognize them for what they are and know that the solution lies in relaxing into normal, not pressing into the red zone. McIlroy had all of that, of course, but this was the Masters and a chance at golfing immortality.
And relaxing into normal is really, really hard to do.
On the other hand, if you’re Charl Schwartzel and you chip in for birdie from the next county on the first hole after a tentative approach shot and make an eagle 2 on the 3rd, you have all the evidence in the world that it’s going to be your day and you can just play. And even though you bogey the par 3, 4th right after that, “Hey! It’s 240 yards!” and you’re going to make an occasional bogey on such a long hole.
And so Schwartzel was able to just industriously cruise along under the radar making one par after another until he birdied the par 5, 15th…and then every last hole to the clubhouse.
And that was really hard to do too. He just came at it from a calmer place that McIlroy, with his bogey on the 1st and subsequent rickety play, never had a chance to get to. But he knows where that is and what it feels like…and he will again.
Ah, the ridiculously sublime Masters.