Footsteps

Kelly Tilghman is funny. The Golf Channel announcer at this week’s Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney’s Magnolia and Palm courses in Orlando, watching a six-birdie barrage on Saturday that stretched his lead to six strokes, wryly reported, “Roland Thatcher leads by a touchdown.”

But, in the way of the PGA Tour, if you’re not moving, you’re losing. Thatcher started thinking about it and double-bogeyed 17 and bogeyed 18 to end up with a four-shot lead overnight. “Okay, but it’s still four shots,” he must have been thinking. “At least I got my mistakes out of the way when it didn’t make any difference.”

Sometimes making mistakes acts like a pressure relief valve, “Whew! My worst fear happened, but I’m still here…with a healthy lead. Now I can settle down and take care of business.” But it’s still a conversation you shouldn’t be having with yourself, because rather than a conversation of confidence, it’s a conversation of fear, fear that you might still screw up somehow, fear that you always knew you would.

And Sunday morning, Thatcher’s lead shrank to three shots right out of the box before he even finished the first hole. And while he continued to try to keep the lid on, making par after par over the early holes (employing the traditional strategy of, “It’s my tournament to lose. All I have to do is keep making pars and force him to make birdies.”), by the 6th hole, it was all gone as Robert Garrigus, playing in the group in front of him, thundered up the leaderboard with five birdies in seven holes.

So was this Garrigus playing brilliantly or was it Thatcher hearing footsteps and playing too cautiously? It turned out it was both, but, in the end, more Thatcher hearing footsteps. But it wouldn’t be confirmed for a few more holes.

Garrigus had a lot to prove. Standing on the 18th tee in Memphis with a three-shot lead, he lost the tournament with a collapse of such monumental, excruciating proportions that ESPN’s, Tony Kornheiser, said that after such a crushing defeat, he would never win a PGA Tour event. It was just too emotionally crippling. So much for the indomitable human spirit.

Falling into the tie with Garrigus was a shaking event for Thatcher because he’d never won, he was 179th on the money list coming into the week and would lose his card if he didn’t win or finish in sole second place.

Thatcher made birdie on the 8th to go back to a one stroke lead. Whew.

Garrigus birdies back on the 10th to tie Thatcher. Footsteps.

Thatcher, after hitting it in the middle of the fairway on the par-5, 10th, flared his second shot out to the right, a sure sign of nerves. But he managed a birdie to go back into the lead. And then stuffs it to a foot for birdie on 11. But then pulls his second putt on the 12th to bogey and fall back into a tie. Reeling now. Feast to famine. Can’t get any traction!

Thatcher, (“with the weight of the world on his shoulders,” observed color commentator Craig Perks), blows it way right off the 13th tee, hits the cartpath, bounds around off the trees. At the ball, he’s pacing around, hands on his hips, shaking his head: not good body language. He has a hole under the tree limbs and between the bunkers to the pin. But in trying to feather it in there, the clubface remained slightly open and, excruciatingly, he cut it into the greenside bunker. He calms things a bit with a classy sand shot to a foot to save par.

Garrigus 3-putts the par-5 14th for par, to remain tied for the lead. Uh, oh. Is this little leak the beginning of another collapse?

Before Thatcher’s layup from the rough on the par-5 14th, he asks on-course-commentator, Jerry Foltz, for an update on what Garrigus was doing up ahead. Where is your attention?

Later, Garrigus makes birdie on the 17th to take the lead by one.

Cut to Thatcher on the 16th, slumped shoulders, deep breath. He needs a 3-footer to save par. He misses over the edge, falls two back and walks off green squeezing his head, pushing up the edges of his hat in anguish.

Thatcher hits a big hook on his second shot into the bunker on the 17th. Commentator Matt Gogel, says, “All day long he’s been fighting himself instead of the golf course.” He hits his bunker shot to 8 feet. Spencer Levin, playing with Thatcher, birdies from 34 feet.  Thatcher misses his putt to fall into a second-place tie with Levin.. Arghhh! He’s three back, “his” tournament out of reach. He’s now fallen outside of the top 125 to keep his card.

But on 18, Levin 3-putts from the fringe, Thatcher makes a 5-foot, second putt to finish in sole second place and, nervous exhalation, lock up 122nd on the money list and retain his card. From 179th to 122nd in one round. But it was a heart-pounding, foot-stepping rollercoaster. He was completely spent when it was over. But he hung in there and he did it. This was a display of the indomitable human spirit at its finest…and so was Robert Garrigus’.

There is an ongoing debate about whether you should leaderboard-watch, whether you should be paying attention to the footsteps. If you do, aren’t you taking yourself out of your target-ball-club-body focus? And if you don’t, aren’t you depriving yourself of the possible boost of adrenaline you’ll need to get yourself to a higher level of performance? Jesper Parnevik famously lost the 1994 British Open because he didn’t know where he stood and tried to hit a riskier shot on the 18th than he really needed.

Match play is thought to be all about playing your opponent, why should stroke play be any different? And football teams who win the coin toss in overtime always chose to defend rather than play offense because they want to know what they’ll have to do when they do get the ball.

I come down with Ben Crane on this who said in Golf Digest,

This year…my only thought has been to execute each shot with the same attention, day in and day out. In San Diego, I didn’t even know I’d won until Ryuji Imada congratulated me, because I’d made it a point not to look at the leaderboard during the round.

Precisely.

But if you find yourself under the gun and the only thing you can think about is, “Where’s that guy! Where’s that guy!”, by all means ask, get it off your mind and get back to the only four things that matter: target, ball, club, body.

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2 Responses to Footsteps

  1. Walter Diewald says:

    Please remember that Tony Kornheiser is pretty much just a noisy guy who is (was) much better in print than speaking, so while he has face time on TV, he shouldn’t be listened to for expert commentary. As with all the talking heads, he has to talk loud about the extemes or he loses his job.

  2. Bill Rand says:

    Thanks for your comment, Walt. You’re absolutely right. More’s the pity.