One year, the Champions Tour qualifier for the LA Open was at Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena. In the shadows of the Rose Bowl, literally, I’m sure they could have a tidy little side business selling all of the used golf balls that make their way over the course’s boundary fence. The course was also notable for the massive aqueduct running down the middle of the course that was either bone dry or a torrent depending on the season. But that’s another story, take it from a guy with a scratched up sand wedge.
Brookside was the home course of one of the guys who was a regular in the national touring group of Monday qualifiers. And even though the beautiful Southern California weather attracted a full field of 144 guys, he was confident that his knowledge and experience on the course would help him snag one of the four spots we were playing for. This was his home game.
After the round, he was upset, angry at himself and full of stomp-around drama.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Oh, man. I am so pissed off. I can’t believe how bad I played. This was my house. I’m supposed to protect my house, not let somebody else win here.”
Once again proving the point that golf is not basketball…and my friend was not Michael Jordon. In basketball, you have the home crowd whose white-noise, roaring support lifts you up, floats you above the fray and frequently delivers you to the promised land. In golf, you have the solitude of the mind, particularly when there is a sparse or no gallery.
I had a similar experience to my Rose Bowl Open friend. One of the other stops on the California swing was at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, California, an hour and a half north of San Francisco and a mere fifty minutes from my former home in Marin County. This was my home game.
To help reduce the unrelenting costs of travel, my wife never traveled with me. So this was an opportunity for her to get to see her man slaying dragons at her very door! As an added bonus, my ex-boss and golf buddy was going to come along too.
It was a disaster. In my forthcoming book, Going For It! A Spiritual Adventure on the Champions Tour, I wrote, “I hit some good shots and typically made some great putts, but I generally played very badly.” And I remember an earlier draft where I added, “and I had no idea why.”
But I do now and I can tell you what it feels like. First of all, there is an exhilaration surging through your body. With experience, you learn to flatten that out and channel it into tranquility so that you can pay attention to the only things that matter: target, ball, club, body. You look at a fairway, and instead of just letting your swing hit it there, you try to hit it there, ardently. “I’ll show this course!” Like the ball, the course just sits there passively, unmoved. Muscling robs your swing of its athleticism and efficiencies and you wind up with big hooks or slices as you try to bring order to things. Your scalp begins to feel prickly, the hair on the back of your neck stands up.
While all of this is happening, tranquil as the outside world may be, it feels loud and oversized. The ego is only too grateful that others can’t see it unless they can see your eyes. The ego does not like to be wrong, hence, my friend’s stomp-around drama.
All of this comes to mind because of Charley Hoffman. You may recall that he was among the three players I wrote about Wednesday, Nick Watney, Rickie Fowler and Charley, and how this was a home game for them.
Watney and Fowler both did great, 5-under and 3-under, and high on the leaderboard. Charley, however, was 3-over and two places from last and that was only because of a late, face-saving birdie on a par 5 to claw his way back from 4-over.
The remedy for each of these home game distractions is to become aware that it’s even happening. In my Silverado outing, I didn’t have a clue until years later; all I was aware of was the struggle. It takes a lot of playing experience to recognize this or any other interruption, and to just stay calmly focused on the task at hand.
I don’t know if Charley Hoffman was suffering from the home game syndrome or not. He could have just been rusty. But many other Tour players confessed having been afflicted with it. As soon as I saw his name at the bottom of the leaderboard—he’s such a talented player—it was the first thing that came to my mind.
He might have figured it out too. At this writing, he’s 5-under though ten holes, inside the cut line and blazing up the leaderboard. That’s what I’m talkin’ about! (I’ll update this post after his round.)
At least somebody understands how to deal with the home game phenomenon.
Charlie made two bogeys in his last four holes to end up 4-under on the day and 1-under for the tournament. Had he not made those bogeys–woulda, shoulda, coulda, the stock and trade of golf sorrows–he would have gotten to 3-under. Unfortunately, that still wouldn’t have been enough. The PGA Tour freight train rumbles down the road leaving first-round 74’s in its wake: it looks like the cut will be 4-under.