(KMOX) – The other day I was on the golf course with one of my high school golfers as he practiced for a big upcoming tournament. Near the end of the round he said somewhat sheepishly, “ Coach, I am worried because I get nervous when I play in these things.”
I thought of Kyle as I looked over the finishing stretch of the Players Championship. There was a rebuilt Martin Kaymer, holding a commanding lead with just a few holes to play. This was PGA Champion, Ryder Cup hero Kaymer needing only a few pars to restore his standing in the game. Yes, the 29 year old German did prevail but not without spilling a lot of oil getting to the house.
He doubled the 15th, mostly around the green. He failed to capitalize on the birdieable 16th to o restore some margin over locker room leader Jim Furyk. He clawed his way to a par at the island 17th with only a desperate putt to keep him ahead. And an up-and-down saved par at the 18th to preserve the win.
Afterwards Kaymer was asked was it nerves that chased him down the stretch, and like every professional athlete he denied the obvious lest his manhood be called into question at the prospect of choking in pursuit of something he desperately wanted.
But mostly the question of nerves brought my focus to 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. As at the Masters, Spieth was playing in the final group of one of the five biggest tournaments of the year. He had already played 54 holes bogey free and got off to a reasonable start as he did at Augusta on Sunday. But Spieth then hung five bogeys over an eleven-hole stretch and was merely a spectator to Kaymer’s near catastrophic oil spill.
I suppose it is golf heresy to suggest that young Mr. Spieth might need to prove he too can handle nerves before he is enshrined as the “next” whatever in the game of golf.
Consider some numbers in Spieth’s tiny resume at this point. He won on Tour at age 19 when he came from behind to beat Zach Johnson at the John Deere. He played brilliantly over the final stretch of the FedEx Cup series including a spectacular final day at the Deutsche Bank when he nearly ran the field down from miles back. He forced his way onto the Presidents Cup team and acquitted himself well enough.
Two numbers stood out for me in Spieth’s statistics in 2013. On Saturday he ranked 126th on Tour after ranking in the top ten before the cut. Then on Sunday he put up numbers that left him fourth as a finisher in his rookie season.
I could think of no good reason why Saturday represented such a hurdle other than the reality of having a chance to win and finding yourself in one of the final groups was more pressure than he was prepared to handle. And once he played him self out the hunt for a win, he played more carefree and his talent was on display.
In 2014 young Mr. Spieth has raised the bar of expectations, and the weekend profile has changed a bit. His Saturdays are still a sharp turn away from his Thursday/Friday average, leaving him number 109 on the list for round three. But his Sunday performance has slipped to 57. He stared down the pressure of the moment at both the Masters and Players with round of 70 and 71 leading into Sunday. But with the real prize clearly in his eyes his final day 18’s were 72 and 74.
Spieth too was asked about nerves after his round on Sunday, and he admitted to being nervous at the start of the round, but said when he struggled the most on the day he was calm, just failing to execute his swing.
It is certainly too early to put out the caution lights on Spieth’s race to the top of the golf food chain. Like every player before him the process of defining yourself as a player takes years of success and failure before the profile can be complete. Nicklaus finished second nineteen times in majors to go along with his 18 wins. We correctly applaud those near misses as badges of achievement, not failures to close. But dare we say even Jack might have a few more for Tiger to chase if he had been a little more calm in those runner-up events?
Isn’t hasn’t been long since Rory McIlroy was being celebrated as the Irish Tiger with two majors before age 23. Now Rory seems to have lost his Kevlar vest and bleeds a little every time he tries to assemble a four round week.
The simple truth about golf is every one of us chokes at the game way more than we would care to admit. Tiger Woods seemed to defy the inevitable pressure of leading until Y.E. Yang held up a mirror to his face at Hazeltine and the 2009 PGA and he’s been human ever since.
Hall of Fame golfer and athlete Hale Irwin once regaled me with a brief dissertation on athletic pressure and prevailing in that moment. It was outside the locker room at the US Open at Baltusrol in 1993 and included visual aids as he pointed to past greats whose photographs hung on the wall.
It is to my everlasting regret that was only a conversation, and the recording of Hale’s genius is only in my head and in my fading memory. But what I may not remember about the words I remember about my feeling, and it was one of enlightenment, being able to peek through the window of some special place in the makeup of a world-class competitor.
We don’t know at this moment if Martin Kaymer is really back or just had enough oil to keep the engine running to the end. We don’t know if Jordan Spieth is just in the competitor’s classroom, taking notes and studying for his next exam. And I don’t know if my young talent Kyle will successfully build both his mind and his game. But I can tell you what Hale would say, “Just give me one more chance to measure myself in that moment and I will be happy.”
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