Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Julius Caesar II, ii
After the drama of the U.S. Open came the farce of the big member-guest tournament last weekend, which makes June the biggest month for the mindless recital of ridiculous golf cliches. There are of course so many of them, from “Never Up, Never In,” to “No Pictures on the Scorecard,” which I invented sometime during the summer of 1998 during a loop for a guy at Bob O’Link after he skulled a 5-iron that, improbably, stayed on the green. The best, by which I mean most ridiculous, of them is the Yogi Berra-like phrase, “Golf is 90% mental.” It is a breathtaking phrase, especially when it is followed, as it always seems to be, by a heroically-awful lumberjack-like chop at the ball. It is a phrase, in other words, that seems especially to appeal to people who, in all other respects, appear completely unaware that golf has any intellectual component whatever.
Bobby Jones said that golf tournaments are won and lost in a 6-inch space—the distance between one’s ears—so it’s true that tournament golf, at least, is partially a matter of psychology, especially at the upper reaches of the game where talent tends to level out. The case of Rory McIlroy at the Masters in April is but the latest in a long line of famous disasters, like Dustin Johnson’s implosion at the U.S. Open last year all the way back to Arnold Palmer’s blowup at the Olympic Club, when Arnie gave the tournament to Billy Casper by trying to shoot a tournament record. The history of golf, one might say, is written by train-wrecks.
Golfers who like to cite the psychological aspects of the game, you might think then, might be especially cautious fellows, mindful of dangers lurking around every dogleg. In my experience, however, this is not the case: guys who talk about the “mental game” generally are also the guys who hit three-woods from the rough, couldn’t care less where the wind is, and never saw a five-par they didn’t think they could reach in two. This fact is, at the least, odd, though perhaps demonstrative of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s point about how modernity is defined by the ability to hold two contradictions in one’s head simultaneously.
Rory McIlroy’s win at Congressional would appear to justify such thoughts, given that, unlike Augusta in April, he didn’t fold tent in the final round and went on to win by such a huge margin. But there’s a number of reasons to distinguish McIlroy’s case from that of the average duffer. For one thing, he is probably the best golfer in the world right now, Official World Rankings notwithstanding. Golf at the professional level is, to one degree or another, mental: the differences between one player and another are very small.
The stat heads, for instance, bolstered by numbers drawn from the PGA Tour’s Shotlink data, can demonstrate that the difference between winners and the rest of the field at any given tournament might turn on one or two shots that, by happenstance, go the winner’s way: the difference between finishing first or second in a PGA Tour event is, to a very high degree, a matter of luck. Winning on tour, therefore, is at least partially a matter of having the discipline to accept the game’s bounces; to continue to play with the same focus no matter the result. Very few people are capable of doing that in any profession, not just golf. But that level of play is not something you are going to see at your local muni.
What a great many amateurs appear to draw from what they see on television is a kind of funhouse-mirror version of the professional’s discipline: no matter what happens, they think they should continue to play the same way, conditions or architecture be damned. I illustrate the point by the guest I worked for yesterday, at Medinah, who insisted on hitting his hybrid every time he drove it in the woods (which was often). That guy thought that the type of shot that worked on his usual course would work on a world-class golf course, but the conditions at Medinah aren’t the same as your park district course.
At a park district course, for example, the rough isn’t very thick, which means that the odds that a club can make clean contact with the ball is decent. But in thick rough odds are that grass will intervene—which means that any sidespin imparted to the ball will be lost. And what that means is that it mostly isn’t possible to, say, hit a big slice around a tree to the green at a course like Medinah, which my player discovered (or rather, refused to discover) when his shots from the rough stubbornly went dead straight into the trees on the other side of the fairway. Spending one’s day slowly trudging around a forest is no way to enjoy your round, I’d submit.
In any case, the conclusion I draw from that state of affairs is that the type of person who wants to discuss golf as a “mental game” is doing it, not in order to better understand the game (or, more dangerously, himself), but rather invoking it as a kind of defense against what might as well be called sorcery. What that person is doing is, in effect, guarding himself against witchcraft, which is more or less what he believes happens on a golf course—not something, in other words, within his control. That in itself is a fascinating result: the mental habits of the uncounted ages before the advent of writing or mathematics continues, surviving like a coyote at the edges of civilization even among people with every opportunity to reject such ancient reasoning.
The larger lesson for the amateur, I think, is that yes, golf is a “mental” game—which means that, in playing it, engaging one’s brain once in a while is probably a swell idea. Not all golf shots are the same: what the game is, in fact, isn’t so much a matter of swinging the club perfectly every time (even McIlroy didn’t hit every shot pure at Congressional) but rather a matter of evaluating the shot before you and playing, not necessarily the perfect shot, but rather the best shot. Golf is a “mental” game insofar as it is a game of judgment: the best player in any foursome might not be the one with the best mechanics but rather the one who can consistently find the shot with the highest percentage of a payoff.
None of us are ever going to play the game like a McIlroy, because we haven’t devoted our entire lives to the pursuit of the white pill. (And a good thing, too.) But that doesn’t mean that the golf we play is, in some crucial respect, different than anything else we do with our lives. In every human activity (even, I suspect, witchcraft: I’m sure that there’s witches out there who decry people who just slavishly copy their spells) what’s necessary is a recognition of the particularities of that circumstance, and then the formulation of a plan to attack those circumstances. Any teacher or artist or business owner who did precisely the same thing every day would, sometime or another, crack up. Why would anyone think golf is different?