Many years ago I interviewed well-known golf coach Bill Ferguson, the man who guided Colin Montgomerie into the world’s top five. It was hugely enjoyable and the stories he told were fantastic. However one of his many memorable lines really sticks out… “Golf is 99% mental. The other 1% is in your head.”
Any golfer, good or bad, can relate to this internal battle. We all seek that wondrous state of golfing utopia also known as ‘being in the zone’. When, for just a few fleeting hours, golf is easy. It is a time to be enjoyed because, as everyone knows, the ‘Golfing Gods’ are not that kind.
This is no different for the best players in the world.
Starting on Thursday most of them will be seeking that state of mind with extra determination. The swings will be grooved, tweaked or, occasionally, something more radical will be embarked upon in the hope of ‘finding something’ in time for April 6th.
Yet for all the technical stuff, it is still the mental battle that will decide who wears The Green Jacket come April 9th.
Pressure, and how everyone copes with it, will become a major topic for discussion throughout Masters week. Even the best players in the world have ended up doing peculiar things in the potentially suffocating atmosphere of a Sunday at The Majors.
Some players never properly recovered from folding when the pressure was at its most intense.
Fifty-three years later, it remains tortuous watching Doug Sanders fiddle and squirm and then miss his three-foot Open-winning putt. Many years later the American was asked about that experience and explained that he was starting to get over it, adding: “I only think about it every three seconds now.”
Fast forward 40 years and Hunter Mahan has a relatively simple chip up the green at the 18th in his singles match with Graeme McDowell at Celtic Manor. In that Ryder Cup cauldron he hits it like a 24-handicapper having his first outing of the season. Something very similar happened to Constantino Rocca in 1995 at The Open as he chased a birdie to get himself into a play-off with John Daly.
They were extraordinary examples of pressure overwhelming extremely good golfers. But there are many more. I could write thousands of words citing other examples.
Because this is what golf at the elitest of elite levels does.
Understandably the focus, coming into this year’s Masters, hasn’t been on the mental aspect of becoming a champion. It’s all got very physical. The extension of the 13th has been exhaustively debated as ‘the distance problem’ and has become increasingly wrestled with.
There is no denying it is helpful to hit the ball further than your opponent but it wasn’t a factor when Jordan Spieth unravelled at the 12th in 2016.
Few propel it further than Rory McIlroy but that just meant his dragged drive, at the 10th in the final round of the 2011 Masters, ended up in someone’s garden. It is significant the four-time Major champion unravelled on that hole as he teed off with a one-shot lead.
The legendary phrase: ‘The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday’ is so well-worn because it is so true. Most top golfers can stay in the moment for the majority of any tournament but we all know when it comes to the crunch, hard-to-envisage drama is just around the corner.
It’s why we love the Majors. Anything can, and does, happen.
There is perverse pleasure in seeing how these titans of the game cope, or otherwise, when golfing immortality is within touching distance.
And we are constantly surprised by the actions and reactions of those who seemingly have victory within their grasp.
Some players seem able to ride the wave. Nicklaus famously used to talk about those Sunday afternoons at Majors being ‘fun’. Tiger was definitely one who relished the spotlight and, the brighter the light being shined upon him, the more he lit up the sport.
Tiger being in the picture also seemed to have an unduly weighty affect on those trying to stop him. In his pomp it almost appeared as if the field would just melt away down the stretch. He was in their heads as much as the course and/or the conditions. They just knew he never ‘went away’ when in contention. The pressure on the rest was ‘Tigered up’.
This year Woods is back but, obviously, he is not the bogeyman of old. In 2023 the players will be fighting themselves, desperately clinging to the rock face that is staying in contention through Amen Corner on Sunday.
There will be tears and tantrums and probably a few meltdowns.
It will be sport at its most intense, watchable and compelling.
This is walking the highest of tightropes without a safety net.
Who will make it across?
We’ll find out soon.