The Education of a PGA Tour Player

Even though you work the better part of your life for it, there’s a certain amount of surprise when you finally wind up on the PGA Tour. All of the junior tournaments, all of the high school tournaments, all of the college tournaments and the mini-tours after that, it’s all with a single minded purpose: “I want to be on the PGA Tour.”

But then, even though it’s something you want with all your heart, something you’ve worked exhaustively for, there’s the inevitable transitional experience of a newbie, not the least of which is going from playing in front of no one to playing in front of thousands. And going from playing with guys you know you can beat to playing with guys you hope you can beat.

Aussie, Jason Day, one the new young guns, describes the experience in his interview yesterday as the defending champion of the HP Byron Nelson Championship played at the TPC Four Seasons Resort in Irving, Texas.

Q. What’s changed in your game this year? The strength that makes you a top-10 veteran?

I’m starting to feel more comfortable in my shoes out here. It took me a while. I’ve always done that, whether it’s from junior golf to amateur golf, amateur golf to professional golf, it’s always taken me a little more time to feel comfortable in my own shoes and in my surroundings.

It’s my fourth year on the PGA Tour and I’m starting to feel more comfortable out here with the guys, and as you play and succeed a little more and win tournaments and play obviously a lot more top-10s, you gain confidence and you know that you’re doing the right things. You’re improving on the right things. You know, it’s been great. I’ve been working very, very hard in all aspects of my game this year.

So you have that kind of ardent work that you’re putting in and the dream seems to just incessantly reside right in the middle of your mind. It’s almost an obsessive thing. And then, and then, and then! You win! On the PGA Tour!

And then as the subsequent year unfolds, you are emboldened. You begin to trust yourself and your playing instincts. To the point that you dare to even think about coming back and defending your title.

Q. …Let’s look back at your win last year, how special that was to you.

Twelve months ago, it was an amazing run from then till now. Obviously my game has changed a lot since then. I made it very interesting coming down the last hole, but I [managed to win].

This was a platform to the next level for me. I’ve contended in a couple of majors now and I’ve grown on the course and off the course, which has been nice. It’s been a really exciting last 12 months. My world ranking has been improving and I’m just — hopefully I can defend this title. That would be nice.

And then one of the things that begins to happen is that you begin to come out of your disciplined myopia and look around to see what other players are doing. How can I get better quicker? You begin to see areas where you could add polish to the talent that got you there. That maybe the hit-it-and-go-find-it approach of instinctive golf, as freeing as it can be, could be made better by adopting what some of the better players you admire are doing.

Q. Finished second at the Masters, currently No. 25 in the FedExCup standings. Talk about your season up to this point.

I got off to a pretty good start, but I struggled a little bit at the start. I started working with a mental coach. His name is Neil Smith, he’s from Australia, he works with Hunter Mahan and a couple of other guys out here. I felt I needed more structure in my game. We’re slowly improving that, which is nice, and obviously the Masters was the biggest highlight of the year, and a couple more top-10s. I’ve had five of those this year, and I’ve made a lot of money, which has been great.

I want to be known as a consistent winner on the PGA Tour. I would like to win every year. That would be a good goal of mine, if I could win every year.

There are two major reasons you want to win. Gary Woodland, first time winner in Tampa this year, explains them both:

The win validated what we’ve been doing. I had a good start, lost in the playoff early but the win was huge because it gave me the confidence that I belong out here, obviously, moved me up in the FedEx [standings], allowed me to [control my] schedule the next two years [because of the two-year exemption that comes with a win], map it out, play tournaments, more that suit me, take weeks off, so it’s been a huge adjustment but a good one.

They all say that. It’s a rite of passage. And all part of a long, drawn out process. And here, Jason describes the arc of it:

Q. Jason, where would you say your confidence level is now compared to a year ago?

I feel like it’s gone up another level. When I first came out, I don’t think I was that confident. Even though I may have looked confident I didn’t feel confident in myself that I could compete out here and win against these guys.

When I won this tournament last year, I knew that I could win out — I know that I can win on the PGA Tour now. And then I went on to competing in the PGA Championship last year and finishing second at the Masters this year.

But my confidence coming into this event is — it’s great. It’s obviously high. I don’t want to come — sound too cocky, but I feel good about my game, where I am right now, mentally. Last year there was a little bit of a struggle trying to finish this tournament off but I feel great right now.

And so, if you don’t know that all of this is going on in the background, if you don’t know about all of the learning and growth in both self and game, a win by one of these hatchlings would seem to be just another stranger not named Tiger. Why should I care?

But when you know about all of this, you can appreciate the blossoming of the human spirit, the soaring demonstration of self-expression. And you’re better able to share some small measure of the same joy they feel when they realize what’s finally happened to them.

It’s why they sometimes cry when they win…and why, when we know what they’ve been through, we sometimes cry along with them.

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