Nobody’s Afraid Anymore

At least out on the leading frontiers of the PGA Tour. Did you see what those guys did to Aronimink yesterday at the AT&T National? Aronimink, the storied Donald Ross design that had been updated for the modern game. Aronimink, the sturdy defender of the longstanding, scoring traditions of the game. Here’s what they say about themselves:

Aronimink Golf Club is home to one of the world’s finest golf courses.  Designed by the renowned course architect Donald Ross, the championship course, an inspired test of golf, is considered his masterpiece.

Over the past century we have hosted many prestigious tournaments most notably the 1962 PGA Championship, the 1977 U.S. Amateur Championship, the 1997 United States Junior Amateur Championship and the 2003 Senior PGA Championship.

So this is not some chump-change, easy golf course. Aronimink was supposed to be the great equalizer after what Rory McIlroy and the boys did taking apart Congressional Country Club during last month’s U.S. Open.

And then yesterday, the boys took apart Aronimink too: 62, 63, 63, 64, 64, 64, 64, 65, 65, 66, 66, 66, 66, 66. That’s 14 guys shooting 4-under or better. 6 of them did it on Friday and 2 more of them did it on Thursday. A lot of Saturday’s devastation was because of the setup; they moved a couple of tees up enticing the players to take tee shot risks they otherwise wouldn’t have. They said they wanted to have an exciting day…and they did.

I think Tiger started a lot of this when he shook golf history to its roots with his 12-stroke victory in the 1997 Masters; he was at 18-under 270 and Tom Kite was at 6-under 282. People shook their heads in dismay. But it was a fluke right? Nobody does things like that in a Major. And then he did the same thing with a 15-shot victory in the 2000 U.S. Open…on the venerated Pebble Beach Golf Links…all decked out in its U.S. Open setup!

It got everybody thinking about what he was doing that they weren’t doing. It took years. A lot of them thought it was better physical conditioning. Tiger had become a beast. But that was only part of the equation, the part everybody could see.

What they couldn’t see was his fearlessness. He would try shots and pull them off—we’ve all seen his top 10 shots on the Golf Channel—and everybody’s mouth would drop. They thought it was confidence and it was surely that. But underneath that was absolute fearlessness. He would pretty much try any shot. It was the fearlessness that gave him the confidence, not the other way around. And that fearlessness was developed over years and years of play and practice so that he finally got to the place where he knew he could trust his talent.

Well, the rest of the top tier players have caught up.

Nick Watney was the guy who shot the 8-under 62 yesterday. 8-under on a truly great golf course. Rickie Fowler shot 6-under and the two of them are tied at the top at 9-under par.

One stroke behind them at 8-under is K.J. Choi, winner of this year’s Players Championship, who shot a 64 on Friday.

One stroke behind him at 7-under is Steve Marino (63 on Saturday), Webb Simpson (64 on Saturday) and Adam Scott (two 66s; Thursday and Saturday).

Among those at 6-under is Chris Kirk who had a 63 Saturday, Bill Haas, Charlie Wi and Chris Stroud with 66s and Jeff Overton with a 65.

A lot of detail to make the point that there is a swarm of fearless players who have already demonstrated their ability to go low this week and who are all within 3 strokes of the lead. And if that’s true, the guys a couple of strokes behind them are capable of making up a lot of strokes too.

But the thing is that the same fearlessness that got Watney and Fowler to the top is likely to be the same fearlessness that will keep them there. Before Tiger’s heroics, it was not possible to do what he did. And then it was, just like Roger Banister’s sub-4-minute mile in 1954 or Bob Beamon’s 1968 long jump that smashed the world record by almost two feet.

The modern PGA Tour player has the best lifelong resume, the best conditioning for golf, the best equipment (clubs and balls), the best analytical technology to make sure the shafts are just right and the ball has the optimum spin rate for the perfect trajectory for the players’ swing. In other words, they know going in that everything about them is as perfect as time and all the human shaping efforts can make them.

So when you see a pin tight by the water, you no longer give it wide birth. You may not go right at it, but it will be a lot closer birdie putt than the old days. Players will make cavalier efforts to reach unreachable par 5s…and then do reach them. Why? Because they are freed up by the certain knowledge that the wedges and their techniques around the greens give them much easier odds of a birdie even if they miss the green.

So today should be a good day for watching not just the shots of the leaders, but their faces. And the thing to be watching for in their faces is those that can exhibit the same fearlessness that they did yesterday.

The Tour always has the option to make the tees and pins more difficult and probably will just to protect Aronimink’s good name.

It should be great.

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