When All Else Fails, Choose Freedom

The main story at Thursday’s second round matches at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Valley in Marana, Arizona, is that Tiger Woods didn’t get through to Day 3, while Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood did.

I’ll have something to say about that later, but my interest was drawn to a lesser known player Aussie, John Senden. He did come in at No. 41 in the world, but when people think of Aussie golfers, they think of the likes of Geoff Ogilvy, Stuart Appleby, Robert Allenby and Adam Scott. They don’t think of John Senden. In fact, when I saw that he was playing the new Aussie kid on the block, Jason Day, the No. 7 player in the world, I thought there would be much more competitive matches to follow. I was wrong.

Senden took it to him winning 6&5; not even close. And he did it winning five of the holes with birdies with Day throwing in a concession hole at 11.

This was a shock. Day’s ranking at 7 is no fluke; on the Tour since 2008, he won the Byron Nelson in 2010, had ten top 10s last year on his way to a $4.0 million dollar year and a career $9.0 million. Senden played the European Tour for three years before winning his PGA Tour card for 2002. He’s won once, the 2006 John Deere Classic, and managed to accumulate $13.7 million in career earnings. Italian teen, Matteo Manassero and Scot, Martin Laird, seemed a much more promising offering.

So when the transcript for Senden came out, I had to find out how this happened. They always say that in match play, anybody can beat anybody else on any given day, but this seemed very different. And reading along, I found out why Senden was finally able to come into his own.

In these series of remarkably self-aware and insightful answers to post-round questions posed by the PGA Tour staff, he focuses on a central tenet of this blog, freedom.

The only way to play this game–or do anything else well–is with freedom. Any effort to make it happen rather than letting it happen will be met with artificial and inefficient motions. Not very good when you’re trying to get your driver to hit the ball square at 115 to 125 miles per hour. You just can’t hit the ball where you intend because you are interfering with the magic computer of your instinctive body.

As you will read, it took him a long time to get there, but he finally figured it out. That’s what the mastery process is all about.

Q.  Your game is in remarkable shape for this early in the year, not that it wouldn’t be normally.  But there seems to be something different that’s happened, or is there?

Yeah, yeah.  It’s all about trying to get where you can feel like you can compete with the best in the world.  And I think that it’s taken me a while.  But I’m kind of hopefully getting there.  I have the belief system.  And it’s about being able to get up there and stay on stage and accept that and know that I can be hopefully a winning player, rather than someone who is consistent and solid.  You sort of get to the end of a career thinking, well, I played well on the PGA Tour, but I didn’t have that many victories or even in Australia.

I want to be able to change that.  I’ve seen a lot of players, like some of my mates that have maybe taken–like Appleby and Allenby, and Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy, they’re great players, and they’ve got the big ones.  I’d love to be able to give myself a chance to do that and be a winning player.

Q.  So it’s nothing physical, nothing special in the game, just sort of a mental adjustment?

Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Mental adjustment.  I said at the end of last year and this year, you know, it’s about standing up there and really just looking out and just ripping it, letting it go and being a free player, freedom.

Tiger Woods doesn’t stand up there and just like try to steer it down the middle or Phil Mickelson, he doesn’t steer it.  He just gets up there with a rhythm.  Mickelson, I’ve noticed, that he misses cuts, but he wins tournaments, as well, that same way.  So I’m trying to get to that level.

Q.  You said in your television interview that you drove the ball really well, but do you think that’s just the refocus of your mental aspects?

Absolutely.  The golf course makes you work.  Some of the golf courses that we play are pretty sort of straight, tree lined, and it’s straight out in front of you.  Where here you know you have to drive it good.  And because if it’s off line here it’s unplayable.  It makes you work really well.

It’s perfect conditions and the golf course is in great shape.  So it’s nice to be able to play a golf course that has those conditions going for it.

Q.  One thing we sort of noticed in this match, most people wouldn’t have expected it this way, but putting was the difference early and in your favor.  Jason has been a top ten putter and you really haven’t been.  Are you feeling really good on these greens, is it something different?

Well, yeah as I said to my caddie yesterday, Josh, I said to him, as the round got on further into the round yesterday, even though I was off in the round, I felt myself tightening up a little bit more.  And that’s maybe the reason for the three‑putt on 13 yesterday.  And so from that point on I was really kind of working hard.

Where today I really wanted to work hard on staying free on the greens.  I know if I do that–I step out here on the practice putting green and hole putts all day.  You get out in the middle of the golf course, and it’s the result of a little bit of tension, it doesn’t quite have that same flow.

So today I was better at that.  And that’s the reason I kept the pressure on Jason.  And I sort of feel that I just sort of was thinking about that last night and this morning and making up my mind that I had a tough match today.  He’s the top‑10 player in the world.  So I have to use–he’s not going to be going away.

Q.  Your strategy into tomorrow, is it the same thing, you just want to put pressure on the guy to make mistakes?

Yeah.  I feel if I keep the freedom in my game, if I stand up there and hit shot after shot, and the good thing about match play, and I haven’t had a lot of experience with it, hitting shots, and after one hole is done, you’re done.  It’s done.  As long as it’s a double bogey, it stays on the scorecard the rest of the day.  It’s over, you’re on the next one.  You go from that–each single day, and you’ve got a new guy tomorrow.  So I’ll go out tomorrow and do my best.

Tiger lost to Nick Watney on the 18th green because he was unable to make an eight-and-a-half-foot putt to send the match into a playoff. It wasn’t the first one like that he missed. And the reason that he missed it is that, to John Senden’s point, there’s no freedom in his putting stroke; he seems completely consumed with the mechanics of putting:

Q. How would you rate the fundamentals of your putting right now?

I’m taking it back shut going back. I need to make that toe move [so that it slightly naturally opens]. And I need to feel the release of my stroke [so that the toe slightly naturally closes on the follow-through]. And it’s hard to release it when the blade is “going under.” It’s shut [pointing left]. And hence [to instinctively try to save it] I block it open [to the right].

I empathize with Tiger because I went through the exact same thing. I knew that the putter was supposed to open and close through the stroke–to do anything else is to manipulate it–so I started trying to do that. When you do, that’s just another form of manipulation. The way I finally got it to open and release naturally (ie., by itself) was to simply pay attention to whether the face was moving towards the hole through impact with my hands soft enough so that they could release. As I have indicated before, it takes devotion to the hole, not to the stroke. Tiger knows this, he’s just forgotten it in the moment. It is, however, good to find out that he actually is human.

As to McIlroy and Westwood, McIlroy went about his business taking down Anders Hansen 3&2 and Westwood dispatched Robert Karlsson 3&2. And parenthetically, in that Martin Laird, Matteo Manassero, Laird prevailed 2&1.

In the upset category (based strictly on their world rankings) in addition to Senden/Day there were two others: Sang-moon Bae defeated Charl Schwartzel 1-up and Miguel Angel Jimenez surprised Keegan Bradley, who said his putting let him down, 2&1.

So we are now down to the Elite 8 with matches too good to have to choose between them. They begin at 10:50 AM local, with Martin Kaymer versus Matt Kuchar.

I think I might follow the last pairing of the day at 12:14 to see what freedom personified looks like. That’s John Senden’s pairing with Sang-moon Bae.


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2 Responses to When All Else Fails, Choose Freedom

  1. Lee says:

    Besides the many many blocked puts by these pros yesterday leading to way too many right misses, I though neither the players nor particularly their national caddies were able to understand the grainy greens and the disparate impact of both the valley effect and mountain effect on many many of these puts. They all looked perplexed. Many had the distances wrong as well given poor adjustment for altitude and dry air. This is a plug for local knowledge and local caddies. Do you conclude that David Pelz square to square teaching method on the greens is just plain harder to execute verus inside square, inside?

    • Bill Rand says:

      Thanks for the comment, Lee. As to the local caddies versus personal Tour caddies, that will never happen. Just as few people appreciate just how good Tour players really are, so too do few people truly appreciate how good the Tour caddies are. Not only are they personal friends in many cases, Tour caddies do exhaustive scouting work on the courses confirming what the Tour yardage books say. They also spend a tremendous amount of time on each green determining the break from all directions to all the likely pin positions on the greens. In addition to eyeballing it, some even use levels. It is sometimes helpful to recruit a local player to walk along in practice rounds to share local knowledge (Phil Mickelson did that with Amy Alcott at Riviera).

      As to Dave Pelz’s square-to-square prescription, he is an engineer and he has accumulated stats to prove his theory. But anything that requires unnecessary manipulation of the club is harder to execute because it introduces the element of timing, especially in something as slow and delicate as a putting stroke.