Monday, October 10, 2011

WGC-HSBC Champions Golf: Try to win and you won't?

The last global tournament of the stroke play season will see an unprecedented number of newcomers rewarded for their wins with a place at the WGC-HSBC Champions. There’s also a good chance that, for the first time in golf history, the season will end with all the Major titles and WGC trophies in the hands of first-time winners!

Tim Maitland, in Part 2, reports:
WGC-HSBC Champions Preview: The Weird Art of Winning, Part 1

Why should learning to win matter? If you look at golf in an abstract sense, it’s an unusual sport in as much as nothing your opponents do impacts on your own score; so, in theory, the player who hits the ball best, makes the fewest mistakes and putts the ball most efficiently should win.
In reality, winning seems to have very little to do with technique; a suggestion supported by the fact that all the conversations on the subject, no-one talks about the nuts and bolts of their swings. Stop any of the world-class field at the WGC-HSBC Champions and they will, however, discuss at length what goes on in the grey matter between the ears and how the body reacts to that.
“It’s one of those things where you almost black out,” says 25-year-old Keegan Bradley, who as a rookie on the PGA Tour this year won the HP Byron Nelson Championship in Texas and then went on to become only the third player ever to claim a Major at his first attempt, when he beat Jason Dufner in a play-off at the 2011 PGA Championship.
“I don’t remember some of the shots and that’s a huge part of it; you’re just so into it. It’s a pretty intense experience. It’s a feeling that only people in sports can experience; it’s just intense!”
Even players who seem to take to winning the way ducks take to water reveal that at the highest level there is little that can prepare you for the feeling of being in contention.
Eighteen-year-old Italian wunderkind Matteo Manassero, who in 2009 at the age of 16 became the youngest-ever winner of the (British) Amateur Championship and was the youngest-ever winner on the European Tour when he claimed the 2010 Castello Masters Costa Azahar at 17 years and 188 days, struggles to describe the sensations of challenging to win a professional event.
“It’s strange. You can’t really explain it. It’s tense; you’ve got a lot of nerves. You start thinking about good things you’ve done in your life, for example as an amateur, and it might help. Having the experience from the British Amateur really helped. Once I got into contention the first time in Castillon and even when I won it was really, really tense and I didn’t know what to think.  Adrenaline makes you react a little bit differently. I don’t know what the secret is. I’m not sure there is a secret. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s not much you can do to force it; there’s not much you can do to make it happen,” explains the teenager from the province of Verona, who qualified for Shanghai when he won the co-sanctioned Maybank Malaysian Open in April.
Equally it seems it’s hard to even know how you’re going to react, as Bradley said after beating Dufner in the three-hole shootout to claim his maiden Major.
“I kept thinking about the playoff that I won at the Byron Nelson, and the same thing happened to me in that; as soon as I realized I was going into a playoff, I completely calmed down. And I got to the tee on 16…it was the most calm I'd been probably all week. I don't know the reason why or what it was, but I was completely calm, and I absolutely striped it down that hole, which was fun. That hole, the playoff and in regulation…that hole, I'll never forget it the rest of my life. It was so exciting!” he declared.
Given how unpredictable the sensations and reactions to being in a winning position are, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, in the absence of the Tiger Woods of old, the tournament golf landscape is somewhat confusing at the moment.
“I think if you took thirty percent of that kind of experience out of any sport or that kind of top-level know-how from the C-suite of any business or work place anywhere in the world it would have to create some kind of void. It’s experience of success and there’s some truth to the saying that success breeds success,” says HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship, Giles Morgan.
“It’s fascinating trying to work out who will work out how to win next and asking yourself out of those first-time winners, which ones will emerge as a regular champion. It’s been pointed out that the last time there was this kind of unpredictability in golf was when Arnold Palmer and Gary Player emerged as Major champions; there has to be someone out there now who is about to do the same,” he added.
Try to Win and You Won’t
Any hacker or weekend warrior will know recognize the irony of a sport where the more you try the worse it can get; we’ve all started a round badly, played steadily worse, becoming increasingly frustrated until, just when we’re ready to give up, we finally smack one off the middle of the club. Another of the qualifiers for the HSBC Champions coming off a first win on the PGA Tour has done exactly that, except for him, it wasn’t one round… it was his whole career.
“I think there’s something to that. People had been telling me for years ‘You’re trying too hard! You’re just trying too hard! You’re trying too hard!’ I always thought, how can you try too hard? It doesn’t make any sense,” says Harrison Frazar, who set a PGA Tour record for the longest quest for victory when he claimed the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis in his 355th start.
The turning point for the now 40-year-old Texan was when, after starting the season by missing the cuts in six of his first eight events, he decided it was time to give up.
Immediately, the results came as he tied for 14th at the Byron Nelson and then won the next time out.
“In my mind it was over. Everybody was on board; family, friends… everybody knew it. Friends were even trying to talk me out of playing. They saw me at home, the way I was, and they said ‘This is crazy. We like you too much. We can’t see you tear yourself up anymore. It’s time to be done. We know you like golf, we know you love golf, but c’mon!’ It was somebody under the influence… of golf!” Frazar says.
 “I had just given up on trying to force results. It was time. I went to the Nelson with the idea that I’m just going to lay these things out for me so I can walk off the course at the end of the day and pat myself on the back. You just quit trying. You quit trying to micromanage every little thing that’s happening. I just said ‘I’m going to stand up, pick my lines and just hit it and see what happens’.”
The rewards for Frazar almost throwing the towel in have been fairly obvious. Having played in only four Majors over the previous eight years, this season he’s played in three. He’d never even made the rarified limited-field world of the WGC events: The HSBC Champions will be his second of the year.
Naturally, there are few examples as extreme as Frazar’s, but Hunter Mahan will attest to how fickle winning golf tournaments can be. In 2010 he claimed both the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open and his maiden WGC victory at the Bridgestone Invitational. For many, a Major win in 2011 seemed a logical progression.
“I can tell you, playing on the (PGA) Tour I've learned not to have expectations about how you play.  Last year was funny; I didn't really play very consistent but I had two wins.  And this year I've been much more consistent and had a bunch of top 10s, but haven't had any wins, so it's kind of strange,” he said when he returned to the Firestone Country Club to defend his WGC crown.
 “Whenever you watch great players play, they never look like they're trying to win; they're just trying to play the game correctly and hit the right shots at the right time and do all the right things that are going to enable you to win. When you're playing pretty consistent and you're close like I had been the first part of the year, my expectation was to win and get up there and just kind of do it. And this game is too hard to force it. You've got to keep working and keep learning and just kind of let it happen.  You trust everything, you trust your game, it will happen.”
Psychobabble
It’s because of these emotional contradictions that so many golfers reach out to sports psychologists to try and find a framework that allows them to perform to their potential in pressure situations. Thus the game is full of players who talk, in different ways, of staying process oriented rather than results focused. Webb Simpson, a multiple winner on the PGA Tour in 2011, is one example.
“The goal that I set out to accomplish is to be one of the best players in the world, if not the best. But, I don't set result-oriented goals for myself. I just try to get up every day and do the most I can to improve my game. I want to expect that I can play with the guys who are the best players in the world. Fortunately right now things are going well for me, but I know this is a fickle game and I know there's ups and downs and I'm sure I'll have a time where it's not going near as well, and it won't be as easy. But just all I really try to do is keep improving,” the 26-year-old from North Carolina said.
Despite his miraculous season, Keegan Bradley still managed to have a mini-crisis of his own the week before winning the PGA Championship, when he found himself in contention at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. His final round 74 left him seeking advice from Dr. Bob Rotella, one of America’s leading sports psychologists, coach Jim McLean, and fellow pros Phil Mickelson and Camilo Villegas. The wisdom he got wasn’t rocket science, but clearly worked.
“They are all a lot of clich├ęs, but it was not getting into the result of winning this trophy or making a birdie or what it would mean to me. It was important to me to win Rookie of the Year, and that's something that was hurting me out there: thinking about it,” Bradley explained after his triumph.
“Phil and Camilo gave me some advice that only players can. Phil just told me to stay more patient out there. The major thing I tried to do (during the PGA Championship) was under-react to everything whether it was a good thing or a terrible thing. That was [what] the key was, to under-react. And if you watch Phil play, he gets excited but he never gets too down on himself, and that was the key.”
Everyone is searching for similar keys, even Stuart Appleby, a nine-time winner on the PGA Tour who makes the field by virtue of his 2010 JB Were Australian Masters victory. He describes how his ears pricked up when he heard a question about winning asked to two of the greats of the game during this year’s Memorial Tournament.
“They had Faldo and Nicklaus in the commentary booth and the commentator asked ‘When things weren’t quite turning out right, what did you do?’ I was ready for this amazing answer and Jack Nicklaus says ’You’ve just got to suck it up. You’ve just got to suck it up.’!” Appleby exclaims.
“Now, what that means to each person is down to your own interpretation, but what he was saying is you just have to slap yourself on the face and get going and get playing!”
Clearly that’s what Rory McIlroy did in between blowing up in the final round of this year’s Masters and turning a similar third-round lead at the US Open into one of the most stunning victories. Equally, at the PGA Championship, Bradley did the same to himself when he triple-bogeyed the 15th in the final round.
“I didn't want it to define my tournament and I just kept telling myself to just pretend like nothing happened and go out there and hit this fairway. That's what I kept telling myself walking to the tee was just hit this fairway. And it was the best shot I hit all week. I absolutely striped it right down the middle,” Bradley told the media after his historic win.
Had Bradley stayed focused on his mistake that day, done what many of us would do and spent the rest of his round berating himself, his maiden Major win would never have come. It sounds easy to do on paper, but, as Allenby points out, the reality of golf is it’s a sport that loves to help you beat yourself up.
“That’s the tough part of the game, because the game, if you use a boxing analogy, is always trying to work you over, and put you in a corner of the ring and punch you…  
“And punch you hard!
“And it’s a bigger opponent than you!
“What you spend your whole career doing is trying to keep out of the corner, keep light on your feet, keep energetic, keep enthusiastic and not get down… but it’s so easy to get manhandled into the corner. I think the great champions never got into the corner for very long,” the 40-year-old Aussie concludes.
A Matter of Experience 
So as the world’s top golfers gear up for the WGC-HSBC Champions – the last global gathering of the great and good in 2011 — with few of the proven winners seeming to be in winning form, how have the first-time winners got ahead of the pack? It’s interesting that many of them have some sort of life or golf experience that lessened the enormity of the task they succeeded at.
None of those stories is more heart-breaking than that of the Open Champion Darren Clarke.  The Northern Irishman was a regular winner and a contender in the Majors until his wife Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 2001. She was diagnosed with a recurrence in 2004 and succumbed to her illness in 2006. Six weeks after her death, her husband resumed his golf career at the Ryder Cup. He readily admitted that having gone through that experience, winning the Open at Royal St. George this year wasn’t nearly as difficult as it might have been.
“It's not possible to compare, but I think the emotions and everything that I went through walking towards that first tee at The K Club in 2006, getting onto the first tee and making contact with the golf ball and managing to look up and see that it was thankfully going down the middle of the fairway, I will never forget anything more difficult on the golf course than I did that morning, and to this day, I still haven't faced anything as difficult as that. That in itself made Royal St. Georges an awful lot easier for me because I will never face anything as tough as what that was,” the 43-year-old said after lifting the claret jug.
Clarke also mentions the weather on the Saturday of the tournament. In the fiendishly difficult conditions that earn seaside links golf its reputation, it was so wet and windy that Tom Watson’s two-over-par round actually moved him up the leader board. Clarke was one-under for the day and the outright leader.
“I think confidence is everything in victory. You need to have the self belief that you can hit the shot when you need to hit the shot or make the four‑footer when you need to make the four‑footer.  You need to have that confidence, and I think I gained an awful lot of confidence from the way that I played on the Saturday.  That stood me in great stead for Sunday because to me Saturday was a tougher day than what Sunday was, and I had bit the ball as good as I could, so it carried on into Sunday,” he explained.
Keegan Bradley has a similar tale to tell of his maiden PGA Tour victory at the Byron Nelson in Irving, Texas, where the winds were so strong the final round was described as “a survival test”.   
“It was really brutal weather so I think I was focusing on not making double (bogey) on every hole. That helped a lot. I also had a great caddie in “Pepsi” – Steve Hale – that helped me. Caddies are such a big part of winning – people don’t realise. He’d won before and he helped me stay calm.”
Making triple bogey going into the closing stretch at the PGA Championship also forced Bradley to focus, this time on chasing down Jason Dufner: “For me it was easier because I knew I had to make some birdies,” he said.
Among the first-time WGC winners lining up for the HSBC Champions there are similar kinds of stories. Australia’s Adam Scott got the biggest win of his career at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with Tiger’s longtime caddie Steve Williams on his bag and admitted his presence contributed to him playing “like a bulldog” to win: “It's almost like I need to show him I've got it in me, because a lot of people question it,” he said afterwards.
Then there’s the defending champion Francesco Molinari who resisted consistent pressure from newly-crowned world number one Lee Westwood to win the “Duel on the Bund” at last year’s WGC-HSBC Champions. Would he have been so steadfast without having gone through the madness in the mud at the Celtic Manor Ryder Cup just five weeks before?
“There’s so much pressure that week; you can’t do anything to take pressure off yourself. You just have to live with it and play with it. After a while you get used to playing with all the tension. It’s just a great feeling for a sportsman to be playing in an environment like that. It’s a lot of tension and a lot of pressure but at the same time it’s also a lot of fun because you don’t play for money, you don’t play for world ranking points… you just play for winning and the team. It should be less pressure, but when you see all the people supporting you and you see all your teammates trying hard it is a lot of pressure on your shoulders,” Molinari says of his Ryder Cup experience.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
For each player, however, the details of the combination that proves to be the key that unlocks those wins is subtly, sometimes infuriatingly, different.
“It’s difficult to do because so many people start to think of the people behind them trying to catch them and so many people try to save their score. It’s very difficult because we should be able to play the same golf on the 1st hole of a tournament as we do on the 72nd,” says 28-year-old Spaniard Alvaro Quiros, who has won once in every European Tour season since 2007, including some of the highest ranking events on the Tour, such as this year’s Dubai Desert Classic. 
“I have to learn, but in a different way. I should try to give myself more chances. I’m too ambitious. Too hard to myself sometimes and this, probably, makes me miss more shots than I should. Everybody has to go through a process. I’ve been improving. I used to be even more aggressive. I used to be even more impassioned. Little by little golf puts you in your proper place. If you’re able to improve with the shots God gives you I think you can improve a lot and this is what is happening to you.”
And what has Quiros learned in attempting to win more often and win bigger?
“Try to keep myself in the present. Try to keep doing the same that I was doing. Don’t try to accelerate the end of the competition,” he says.
As Harrison Frazar can vouch, finding the specific answer can take a long time… in his case almost a whole lifetime in golf.
“I did think ’Thankfully I’ve figured it now. At least now I’ve figured it out!’ So I’m 40 years old, but who cares? At least I can go and do it now. I could have retired and never figured it out, so I’m thankful for that,” he laughs.
When the cards finally fall on the table, when the penny finally drops, you’d be forgiven for thinking that winning again would come more naturally. Webb Simpson certainly thought so after claiming his maiden victory at this August’s Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, but he quickly discovered that wasn’t the case when he followed up with a victory at the September’s Deutsche Bank Championship; the second event of the FedEx Cup play-offs.
"I told somebody that I feel like next time I was in contention it'll be a lot easier than Greensboro, and it wasn't that way at all. It was just as hard. The shots and the putts were just as hard. I think it helped just calm me down a little, but it was like I had never won a golf tournament before.  I thought winning the second time would be easier," Simpson declared after his second win.
Simpson could have gained that wisdom by asking someone eight years his junior. Like Rory McIlroy, Matteo Manassero is one of the more precocious winners in professional golf, yet he doesn’t even hesitate when asked if it gets any simpler.
“No! Once you’ve won ten times maybe it becomes easier, but when you’ve one once or twice you feel the pressure for your third or fourth!” 

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