The Bottom of the Leaderboard

Since I spent so much time at the bottom of the leaderboards during my days as a Monday qualifier on the Champions Tour (0 for 124), while I always begin by looking to see who’s at the top of the tours’ leaderboards, I also always reflexively look to see who’s at the bottom.

Invariably the very bottom of the board is populated by the few players who had to withdraw or were disqualified. But of those who played and finished the first two rounds, we routinely have young or international players you’ve never heard of, journeyman players whose names you recognize but don’t know what they look like and, always a surprise, the “name” players who are the staples of the Tour.

At this week’s Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin (Columbus), Ohio, we have samplings of each of those categories.

With the cut coming at 1-over par, 145, the ones that get you are the guys who missed by just one or two shots. When you’re not playing well, professional golf can be an icy surface where you can get done in by one bad round or even one bad shot. Tim Petrovic went 70, 76; Sean O’Hair, 76, 70; or ones that really break your heart like Henrik Stenson, 79, 67; and Jhonattan Vegas, 79, 68. Thomas Aiken hit a bad shot on the par 3 12th the first day and made triple bogey—missed by one. Or last week’s winner, Keegan Bradley, who was cruising along at 4-under in the second round and then bogeyed four of his last six holes to give them all back—missed by three, probably by pressing trying to make the cut.

Making the cut is a little like getting your sea legs. When I was in the navy, my rolly-polly, top-heavy destroyer was the perfect sea sickness generator, especially if you were working in windowless, below-decks compartments. Fresh air and being able to see the horizon are pretty good antidotes, as was limiting your fluid intakes on the first day so nothing was sloshing in your stomach (the latter probably being an old sailor’s tale, but at least it made sense). And, as with making the cut on the Tour, once you made it through the first day, your body was acclimated to the motion and you were fine (save, famously, for one career gunners mate who never could get his sea legs—he lived for being in port).

And then you have the sampling of players who just weren’t playing consistently enough, shooting a couple over in both rounds; it doesn’t take much to be down the road and it happens all the time. Oh, well. There’s always next week.

And at the bottom of the leaderboard, the guys I have the most compassion for, the guys who know how to play the game but are totally lost: Kris Blanks, 74, 80; Matt Jones, 82, 75; Mike Weir, 76, 82 and this week’s “biggest loser,” Jin Jeong, 76, 86.

The bottom of the leaderboard is where the most work is being done. The most because you can take nothing for granted when you may be fighting for your career. You can’t afford to take a day off, you can’t afford to miss one tournament you can still get in, you can’t afford the luxury of a leisurely lunch when you might be able to find something that could make a difference.

These are the guys who play with a shroud of worry over their awareness; it’s like a fog that you just can’t seem to see beyond. And that fog, of course, impairs the work that you need to do to get out of the fog. Everything is so myopic, focused on the sound of impact, the flight of the balls. “How did I do that? Was it this? Let me see if I can do it again. Nope, not that.” These are the “lost boys.”

But they can at least get some inspiration when even some of the Tour stars come to visit them: Carl Pettersson, 76, 73; Stuart Appleby, 75, 75; Fred Couples, 79, 72; Lucas Glover, 72, 79; and, incongruously, Jim Furyk, 77, 75. The presence of these distinguished visitors gives hope, not only that it’s not just them in the doldrums, but that playing badly is just an aberration, a temporary thing. And hope because, with the stars’ departure from the bottom of the leaderboard in the following tournaments, it proves that it’s clearly possible to work your way out of it.

So the next time you take a gander at a leaderboard, be sure to take a look at the bottom too, where it’s possible to find your own solace. There you will find a rotating collection of the best players in the world proving just how hard the game can be even when you are the best.

So be a little gentle with them and, by extension, with yourself. It will free you up and not only make your own efforts a little easier, but a little easier to accept too.

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