People Have No Idea

About three years into my Monday qualifying days on the Champions Tour, I got some insight on the cluelessness that many amateurs have about the competitive abilities of professional golfers.

I was on the practice putting green at the White Columns Golf Club in Alpharetta, Georgia, just keeping my putting stroke tuned up. It was early on the weekend, so the pros were all starting to drift into town one by one. I was saying hello to a guy I frequently saw out there when a couple of local amateurs wandered up. They began with a pleasant enough conversation, but then it evolved into a playing challenge: the two of them against the two of us. They were fit specimens somewhere in their thirties and they were drunk.

I was mostly ambivalent, but my proposed partner was set against it. He’d just driven 12 hours to get there and his back was stiff. But the boys were begging us. But my partner was unyielding and it never got off the ground. But they would have lost. People just have no idea how good tour players are.

The boys may have been able to smack the ball around pretty good—they looked the part—but they had no idea how good we were. They had no idea how many hours a day we practiced all aspects of our games and how much better you get when you do. They had no idea how shallow their short games were compared to the richness of ours. But most of all, they had no idea how big the gap was from the schizophrenia of their competitive minds to the seasoned scarring of ours.

How do I know all of this? Because I was them when I began my quest to Monday qualify—I was just another kind of drunk. I won’t say that it was hubris on my part, because mine was a principled pursuit to prove the efficacy of the principles of mastery, transformation and commitment. But I had no idea what it takes to call up routinely demonstrated golf skills in the competitive, pressure cooker of big time professional golf.

But if anybody had a chance, it would be somebody like John Smoltz, the retired pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. A reader sent me a very interesting profile in the New York Times by, Karen Crouse. In, “Smoltz Is Set to Challenge a Lurking ‘Beast Within,’” she writes about his quest to make the cut on this week’s Nationwide Tour event in Valdosta, Georgia:

He is not challenging himself against other stars in their sports for attention or television ratings, as the Celtics’ Shaquille O’Neal did in the reality series “Shaq Versus.” Smoltz’s participation in the South Georgia Classic, a Nationwide Tour event at Kinderlou Forest Golf Club, feeds a more primal urge, that of fight or flight.

How does one react in the heat of battle? Smoltz’s desire to pitch is gone but he has not lost his competitive wiring. For Smoltz, golf offers not a second career but existential validation: I compete, therefore I am.

“You get to test your will and what I call the beast within, the demons that everyone deals with,” he said. “You either tame them or unleash them.”

There are many good reasons that a sponsor would give him the Sponsor’s Exemption he was granted this week. First of all, with his celebrity, he’s good for the gate. Second, he’s played a lot of competitive golf in celebrity pro-ams and he even made the cut in last year’s Georgia Open. But the primary reason he was given the chance was because of his competitive experience at the top of the baseball heap:

…but he knows from his time on the mound that managing his nerves by slowing his routine will be a key this week.

Another lesson he learned in his baseball career is the importance of not letting his thoughts run away from him, a mistake common among golfers new to this stage.

“Early in my career I’d be in the seventh inning and I was ready to answer interview questions on the game that I won,” Smoltz said. “Anytime I had those thoughts, about 70 percent of the time I lost the game.”

Unfortunately, even with all that going for him, he ran into a bad-weather first day interrupted by delays that upset the rhythm and timing of even seasoned professional players.

He started out well enough with pars on his first two holes and a birdie on the 3rd, but then perhaps he started thinking about that interview in the seventh inning. He bogeyed his par 5, 4th, (bogies on par 5’s drive tour pros to distraction) and then went bogey, double-bogey, bogey, par, bogey, to shoot 5-over on his front nine.

Now, it did not help that he was playing on a wet, monstrous golf course measuring just 19 yards short of 7,800 yards! You’d normally need a backpack for something that long. But finally completing his round at 12-over par 84, he found himself in dead last place. With the cut projected at even par, there was nothing left except for the experience of playing the second round in the cauldron. The leader, former PGA Tour player, Matthew Goggin, shot 6-under 66, another shot 67 and a bunch of others shot 68’s.

Smoltz found out, as I found out, that people just have no idea how good these guys are.

Nevertheless, as a stand for the magnificence of human beings and the possibility of their lives, I would urge him to keep trying. There is far more value in exploring the nooks and crannies of his golfing mind than in letting a passing competitive disaster force him away, his tail tucked between his legs.

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