Geoff Ogilvy
Jens Honore
By John Garrity
Wednesday, June 13, 2007


"My daughter is learning to crawl," Geoff Ogilvy says, and you write it down. \n

"She never does the wrong thing twice," he says, and you write it down. \n

"It's the same thing with golf," he says. "You're taught how to stand, how to hold the club. Maybe a better approach would be, 'Here's a club, here's a ball, here's a big field. Figure it out.' "\n

You write it all down because you've traveled a thousand miles to pick the brain of the reigning U.S. Open champion. ("Ogilvy has this reputation as a deep thinker," said the assignment editor. "Look into it.") On the plane to Charlotte, you thumb through the clips. One writer points out that Ogilvy has "an unusually inquiring brain for a professional golfer; he likes to read heavy tomes such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time." Another writer sees in Ogilvy "a gift for the aphoristic that is about four decades beyond his years." \n

So when you meet Ogilvy in the men's locker room at the Quail Hollow Club, site of the Wachovia Championship, you're mildly disappointed that he's dressed in slacks and a polo shirt instead of, say, a toga and laurel wreath. A slender Australian with a receding hairline, he hides behind a shy smile until you raise the sorts of questions that used to cost him sleep after a round of golf. Questions like: If a golfer falls in the forest and no one is there to hear him, will he make a sound? How many angels can dance on the head of a flagstick? What is the meaning of golf? Given license to expound on these subjects, Ogilvy, who'll turn 30 on June 11, becomes animated. His eyes dart upward for inspiration; he embellishes his arguments with arm gestures, like a painter touching up a canvas.\n

And the second writer was right: Ogilvy talks in aphorisms. To explain why repetitive golf drills tend to be ineffective, he says, "It's like throwing pebbles in a bucket. At some point it gets boring and you lose your feel." To a question about swing technique, he replies, "The only variable in golf is the person playing it. You're not trying to work on the game; you're working on yourself."\n

This last nugget cries for an example, and Ogilvy provides one two days later, during the first round of the Wachovia. He's in the right rough on the par-4 9th hole, needing a par to complete a solid round of one-under-par 71, and he's having a scholarly exchange with his caddie, Alistair (Squirrel) Matheson. You can't hear their discourse, but Ogilvy seems to be employing the Socratic method, throwing out questions for Matheson to answer. Ogilvy finally pulls a middle iron and swats a sweet-looking shot toward the green, a high draw that swans above the tree line for perhaps a beat too long before dropping to the right-front fringe and stopping 50 feet short of the hole.\n

Dealt this outcome, Ogilvy makes a strangling noise, lifts the club over his shoulder with two hands and drives the clubhead down into the grass, turning over a hunk of turf. He is, you recognize instantly, working on himself.

ANY QUESTIONS? You, in the back. (Inaudible.) You're right, Ogilvy does have a reputation as a hothead. Or did have. (Inaudible.) Well, he's almost got it under control. In the first round of the Players, for instance, he hit his tee shot into the water on the island-green 17th. The old Ogilvy might have kicked the tee markers or ripped the heads off the begonias behind the tee, but this time he didn't react at all. He simply walked over to his bag and calmly put away the club.\n

(Inaudible.) The Masters? Well, I asked him about that. He said, "I played 68 holes under par and four holes way over," and he dismissed the 9 he made at number 15 as "a few minutes of stupidity" during which, he pitched two balls into the water. But, he said, "I didn't punish myself for that. I didn't say, 'You're an idiot.' " Or if he did punish himself, he didn't do so for long. He said, "By the time I got to the car, I was well over it."\n

(Inaudible.) No, I didn't see him get into the car.\n

THERE IS temperament — to paraphrase Bobby Jones, a reformed club-thrower — and there is tournament temperament. Last June, during the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Ogilvy sailed through the four rounds as if he were piloting a skiff across Melbourne harbor. "The calmness that was over him was brilliant," says his wife of two years, Juli, a Texan. "When he made a mistake, he simply moved on." His composure, Ogilvy would admit later, contributed as much to his one-stroke victory as his chip-in for par on 16, his clutch up and down for par on 18 and the spectacular final-hole blowups of Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie.\n

Ogilvy's growing sense of peace extends off the course too. Six years of seasonal residence in Scottsdale, Ariz., have schooled Ogilvy in American politics, but he prefers the measured prose of The Economist to the hot-button polemics of the radio ranters. For news he goes online to read the Australian dailies. ("The only TV show he watches is House," says Juli. "He loves what a smart-ass House is.") Ogilvy plays rock guitar, alternating between "electric months" and "acoustic months" — although there have been no guitar months since the birth of the couple's first child, Phoebe, now eight months old. "But it's great," he says of his musical hiatus, "because playing with my daughter is so much fun."\n

If the gap between glowering golfer and amiable dilettante baffles Ogilvy watchers, it shouldn't. He has a searching mind because golf has made him search. You see, he was hitting tennis balls with a broomstick when he was 18 months old, and he was an Australian schoolboy champion. So why, he asked himself, can't I win the Australian Open as an amateur, like Aaron Baddeley, or be called the next Tiger Woods, like my best mate, Adam Scott?\n

The answers to these questions were all around him: in books, in videos, in conversations with smart people, and — crikey! — in himself, if only he could get out of his own way. Over time, for instance, it struck him that practicing like a disciplined pro was doing more harm than good, so he quit beating balls and began to work on "little things that make no sense to anyone else." He practiced putting with his eyes closed. He hit balls while focusing solely on the sounds: the click of impact, the thud of club on turf, the pfffffffftt of the ball whistling through the air. Whenever possible (and this took courage) Ogilvy regressed.\n

"Everything I do now, everything that works for me," he says, "is what I did instinctively when I was 12." You write that down, but it begs for amplification. "If I hit it bad on the range when I was 12, I'd stop and go to chip because it was no fun hitting it bad, and I liked to chip." He smiles. "A couple of days later I'd be hitting it well again."\n

Without a swing guru? Without a launch monitor? Without towels tucked in his armpits?\n

Ogilvy shakes his head. "Ten years ago I'd hit balls all day with a video camera," he says. "Then it was once a week. Now I can't remember the last time I looked at my video. It really doesn't matter how my swing looks. If it feels good and the ball is going good, it's good."\n

What if it's not going good?\n

"If I start hitting it bad, I simply go and chip." He smiles again. "When you hit enough golf shots in your life, you don't forget. Maybe you only need to take a week off to get rid of the last few weeks of crap." The 12-year-old mind, Ogilvy continues, "hasn't been clouded by theories, hasn't read any golf magazines. That's probably the best way to learn anything. By following your instincts." But if you're a hotshot junior, as Ogilvy was, you begin to think like a grown-up. "You say, 'I have to get serious. I have to work on my swing. I have to make 50 short putts before I leave.' "\n

It's the guilt factor. "Tiger's the best because he practices so hard, so you say, 'Well, I have to do that.' You do more gym, you hit more balls, and — surprise! — you don't get better. Tiger's genius is that he understands what he wants to change."\n

MORE QUESTIONS? Yes, the young lady with the tattoo. (Inaudible.) I understand how you might feel that way, if you're not a golfer. But there's this whole literature of golf that informs Ogilvy's view of the game, books like Haultain's The Mystery of Golf and Galway's The Inner Game of Golf.\n

DID WINNING at Winged Foot convince Ogilvy of this approach's rightness? "Everybody's different, but yeah," he says, "winning gave it credibility."\n

His temper, Ogilvy adds, is no longer an indicator of his overall satisfaction with life. He's happy with his feisty American wife, his cooing infant daughter and his starter set of big-time golf trophies (which includes the big blue tureen he won at last year's Accenture Match Play). His U.S. Open triumph was transformative, the frustrated child in Ogilvy yielding at last to the confident performer. "There's some part of me that's uncomfortable in that fishbowl with everybody looking at me," he says, "but just before I played the final hole at Winged Foot, I would have told you I was having the most fun I'd ever had on a golf course. Being in contention on the back nine at a major — that's it, that's the thrill."\n

In the year since, Ogilvy has looked like a man for whom one thrill is not enough. He was 16th at the British Open, tied for ninth at the PGA Championship and rode the leader board at the Masters until his third-round debacle at 15. He hasn't won since Winged Foot, but runner-up finishes in the Australian Open, Target World Challenge and the Match Play suggest that Ogilvy will put up a vigorous defense next week at Oakmont.\n

But you didn't fly a thousand miles to talk about the Open. You're on a golfer's mystery tour, and Ogilvy is the robed guru sitting cross-legged at the mouth of the cave. If he just has time for another 20 or so questions. . . .\n

Alas, he doesn't, but you sneak in one more. Was there one event, a single revelatory experience, that changed him from a tantrum-prone underachiever into a highly regarded champion?\n

Ogilvy shakes his head. "No epiphanies. It was a gradual thing."\n

Epiphanies. Damn.\n

Write that down.

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