In Golf, Head Games Are the Key

In Golf, Head Games Are the Key

Twenty years ago Billy Mayfair was playing in a college tournament at Stanford when, on the opening hole, a dogleg left par-5, he hit his second shot to the front fringe. It was a good shot, but Mayfair was the only one in his group not putting for eagle. Alas, he chipped in for 3. “I had to keep up with you guys somehow,” he said, and when the others missed, he’d executed a nifty reversal.

Which is what happened 100 times over at the Honda Classic at the Country Club at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, last week. It was a stark reminder that as much as we talk about distance, the most telling factor in golf is still the ability to withstand the psychological pounding of 18 holes. It’s about that great “sniglet,” a non-word that should be one, sticktoitiveness, especially at treacherous Mirasol, which as Geoff Ogilvy said was basically a U.S. Open track minus the bamboo rough.

Luke Donald was most resilient, earning his second Tour victory by two strokes over Ogilvy. Instead of focusing on the fact that he was in the midst of his worst putting round of the week—Donald would finish with 30 putts—the sweet-swinging Englishman buckled down with one-putts on the last six holes to salt away the win.

“I’m very proud of the way I finished,” Donald said, “especially after missing a few putts in a row to kind of regroup and have the confidence to go on and make some.” His sudden reemergence on the greens was merely the most indelible comeback in a week full of them.

David Toms made four bogeys over his final six holes Saturday, and a deflating par on the cupcake, par-5 17th hole. But he had a chance to win, a testament to his powers of persistence, and a Sunday 69.

Ogilvy started his back nine double-bogey, bogey, on Saturday, at which point NBC announcers, eying the awful stretch of holes beginning at 13, began predicting a back nine score of 40 or worse. Ogilvy was 1-under the rest of the way and shot 38. Take that, Johnny!

“I’ve got to give my caddie, Paul Fasco, a lot of credit there,” Mayfair said after recovering from bogeys on 10 and 11 on Saturday. “He pulled me aside and got in my face and gave me a pep talk and was ready to slap me, I think. It got me going again and kept me going.”

New slogan proposal: The PGA Tour—These Guys are Good at Slapping Themselves in the Face.

How else to explain it? The game is guaranteed to land a few body blows. Of all the things that can happen when club meets ball, one is perfect, two or three are good, 10-15 won’t kill you, and the rest are out of bounds.

But successful golfers are like those inflatable, sand-filled clowns that pop back up every time they hit the mat. No, strike that—they’re like the liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2, such a good healer he was barely knocked off stride by a surface-to-air missile to the solar plexus.

It takes fortitude to overcome such carnage as befell Donald when he missed a “tiddler,” as he called it, and bogeyed the 10th hole Sunday. But then golfers are used to failure that would crush most everyone else—even baseball players succeed at least one of every four tries. (If a golfer did that, we’d call him Tiger Woods.) From November 3, 2002, when he won the rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau Classic, to his second career PGA Tour victory on Sunday, Donald was 0-for-70. Batting average: .000. No one remembers his three 2nds and two 3rd-place finishes.

He is a throwback to an earlier era, swimming against the tide not only of his own late-Sunday failures but of the hit-it-and-hope, driver-wedge mentality that’s all but taken over on the PGA Tour. Afterward he spoke of his decision to, “play Luke Donald golf” on the back nine at Mirasol, which was codespeak for believing in his ability. Clearly he believed. With all that can and does go wrong in this crazy game, that’s an achievement in and of itself.

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