A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind

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Geoff Ogilvy
Jens Honore

“My daughter is learning
to crawl,” Geoff Ogilvy says, and
you write it down.

“She never
does the wrong thing twice,” he
says, and you write it down.

“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.’ ”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

(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.”

(Inaudible.) No, I didn’t see him get
into the car.

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.

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.”

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?

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.

“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.”

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

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.”

What if it’s not going good?

“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.’ ”

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.”

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.

DID WINNING at Winged
Foot convince Ogilvy of this
approach’s rightness? “Everybody’s
different, but yeah,”
he says, “winning gave it credibility.”

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.”

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.

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. . . .

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?

Ogilvy shakes his head. “No epiphanies.
It was a gradual thing.”

Epiphanies. Damn.

Write that down.