Where Does It Go?

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. The impetus for finally getting to it is the brilliant, bursting-on-to-the-scene and then flameout of one of the PGA Tour’s new, young talents, Jhonattan Vegas.

He burst into our awareness at the Bob Hope in January when he impressively won a playoff in just his third start on the PGA Tour. And he did it with a combination of power, consistency and precision that bordered on stunning. And then he almost did it again the following week when he finished T3 to Bubba Watson’s inspiring win in San Diego. And we’re all thinking, “Whoa. That first one was no accident.”

I saw him the following week in person in Phoenix. He has such a strong physical appearance that I spotted him in mid-practice round from a couple of hundred yards away. I immediately abandoned my “up-and-comers foursome” to skip over to his hole and follow him in. He was playing with one of the best swings on tour, Angel Cabrerra, a U.S. Open and Masters winner, and Andres Romero, winner in New Orleans in 2008. It was the South American threesome.

And what I noticed about Vegas’ play was that it was even more impressive in person: the easy power, the control of the ball, the flutter-gently-onto-the-green accuracy. I was so excited when I got my chance to ask him the secret to his mastery in the interview room the next day. And then he missed the cut. Given how brutal the sweeping cold front was, it was understandable.

And then he had a nice T12 at Rivera. And then while all the best players were at the Accenture World Match play, he had a T19 in the week’s “opposite” tournament in Cacun. “Shouldn’t he have done a little better against that ‘remainder’ field?” I wondered.

Then he fell to T70 when the Tour moved East to North Palm Beach. He had a nice T31 at the WGC at Doral and then the roof caved in.

He missed three cuts in a row: Bay Hill, Houston and the Masters. Then a T44 in San Antonio. And then he missed three more cuts in a row: Charlotte, THE PLAYERS, and the Memorial.

He has since righted the ship with a T32 in Memphis and a T33 in Hartford, but still, that’s nowhere near all the promise so early in the year. So how does that happen? How do you lose it? Where does it go and how do you get it back?

How you lose it is that your level of awareness gets degraded. On Tour, it can be degraded due to the relentlessness of the Tour’s schedule—it’s a never-ending, perennial, merry-go-round that waits for no man. If it’s Sunday, you’re playing for the trophy and the cash. If it’s Monday, you’re on your way to the next pony. If it’s Tuesday, it’s trying to figure out the new course. If it’s Wednesday, it’s getting another look in the pro-am. And if it’s 4:30 Thursday morning, the starting gun can’t be far behind. So you have to know how long to stay on the carousel; long enough to get in a groove, but not so long that you get burned out by its demands.

My first foray into the world of Monday qualifying on the Champions Tour was a five-city stint; I lived in San Francisco at the time, all the events were on the East coast, so I wanted to make the travel costs worthwhile. It seemed so logical. But by the time I arrived at my fifth stop in the beautiful, wooded country just north of Pittsburgh, I was fried. For as much as I understood about commitment and ardor and intention, I could not wait to get on that plane at the end of the week. Try as I might, it was as if my life force had slowly been sucked out of me.

How you lose your awareness is by constantly tinkering with your swing without supervision. Things begin to happen with your ball striking or your ball flight that cause you to try to “fix” something. Almost all of this stems from the myopia of swing mechanics. It makes such sense: if something isn’t right, I should look deep into my swing to see what it might be.

The problem with that is that that search knows no bounds. When your search turns inward, you suddenly discover feelings in your swing that you hadn’t noticed before. And because you hadn’t noticed them before, you’re immediate reaction is, “Ah! Ha!” But there might not be anything wrong with that feeling, it’s just new. If you don’t understand that, you start to pay attention to that feeling, to see what happens to it if you do this or that. And before you know it, the baseline feeling is no longer identifiable; it’s lost in the range of tinkering you introduced to it.

And so now you have this new blind spot in your swing in addition to the original blind spot you went looking for. Hence, the value of a good coach with a good pair of eyes, someone who can tell you, no, it is this and not that. Someone to keep you from going down the box canyons and getting lost. Someone who understands—once you can reliably hit a ball at a target—how to get the most out of your swing, not mold you into the latest and greatest swing theory.

And the most virulent way that you can lose your awareness, as we have discussed many times, is by being consumed by affairs of the ego. When the ego begins worrying about consequences or appearances or relationships to others—will they still like me? Or the flip side, I could care less if they like me–or institutions—Hey! I’m on the Tour! Or the flip side, I could lose my card!–you’re not in the present and cannot pay attention to the thing that matters most in golf, just hitting the ball to the target.

When you allow yourself to become fully invested in hitting the ball to the target, the relaxed intensity of that effort crowds out all of those other extraneous things. It’s learning how that feels and replicating that feeling that gives you the most mileage for your effort.

Jhonattan Vegas knew how to do that once. And I have no idea what it is that’s been distracting him recently. But let’s hope that his shakedown cruise on the PGA Tour helps him to find his way back to the extraordinary promise he delighted us with when he first hove into sight.

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