Last night I stood over a Callaway 4 in the fairway at Twin Rivers Golf Club with a 3-wood in my hand at 8:51 p.m. I couldn’t see the green, though I could make out a sand trap I knew to be behind the front left side of it. I could see the white ball silhouetted against the dark green background.
An hour earlier, I speculated my opponent and I would have just enough daylight to finish the round. That daylight lasted about 15 minutes less than I expected. A hole earlier, I finished off the match by winning the 17th hole for a 2-up victory. This shot, the second on the par-4 18th (perhaps the third or fourth most difficult hole on the course) didn’t mean anything. If I hit the ball in the ravine that guards the front of the green, I walk to my car claiming an 89 and a match win.
I swung. The ball came off low and left but cutting back toward the green. I couldn’t tell if it cleared the ravine. I shrugged and walked toward the green.
That swing last night was the opposite of a shot I stood over eight days earlier at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin. Despite the fact that the distances were basically the same, neither shot left much room for error and I had the same club and essentially the same ball, the same stance, the same swing.
But they were different, and not just because one shot occurred at my home course in Texas and the other occurred at a course along Lake Michigan where they play majors. Self-imposed pressure made the two shots diametrically opposed. One had a ton, the other had none.
My friend Tate Barrett and I attempted but failed to one-up each other this summer. He was traveling to Pinehurst with his father-in-law and I was traveling to Kohler with my dad. He was playing No. 2 and I was playing Whistling Straits. It’s a draw, you see?
We even had the same exact experience. Here is Barrett’s description of the fateful moment of his round at No. 2 in his own words:
“Standing on the tee at No. 17 at Pinehurst, I have to go par-par to shoot a 78 on the 2014 U.S. Open course. I hit a 5-iron off the tee and hook it over a bunker on the left side of the green and into the pine straw. I get to my ball and it is up against a tree and so I have to hit the next shot from behind the tree and end up putting it in in the bunker. I hit my third shot out of the bunker about 25 feet past the flag. I end up 2-putting for a double-bogey and my dreams of breaking 80 are shattered!”
By now you must know what happened to my 3-wood on the par-3 17th at Whistling Straits.
“Standing on the tee at No. 17 at Whistling Straits, I have to go bogey-bogey to shoot 89 on the 2015 PGA Championship course. I hit a 3-wood off the tee, come out of it and it shoots right into the high native grass just off a maintenance road. I drop from the road and my caddie convinces me to hit a sand wedge over a high green-side bunker-dune. I don’t clear the dune and the ball rolls into the bottom of the bunker. I swing hard from the bunker, catch it way to crisply and the ball sails over the green. I end up rending my glove until it is rendered useless as my dreams of breaking 90 are shattered!”
Despite the strong anecdotal evidence in these two shot descriptions, I don’t believe in the idea of choking. You play the game to put yourself in position to hit the shot on the 17th tee box. Sometimes you come through and it’s the best shot of your life. Sometimes you come off of it and the result dooms the work of the previous 16 holes. That’s the risk you sign up for when you decide to care about whatever it is you’re pursuing.
Self-imposed pressure is not the only real pressure. Pressure to not let the team or firm or company down is different from the pressure of individual pursuits. That kind of pressure is at least partially external. But no one can put pressure on me like me.
So the next time you hear about an individual folding under the pressure of a huge crowd and a national-television audience, realize that the person in the spotlight couldn’t care less about how you, the viewer, view him or her. He or she wants to win because they want to win. That’s all.
We’re all self-centered. There’s no escaping it. You can be the most humble, selfless, giving person in the world, but you still see the world through your own eyes and interpret what you see in your own brain. You do it, I do it and Mother Teresa does it. Maybe knowing we’re the only ones that really give a shit is half the battle.
But since I believe that you care, the shot I hit at almost 9 last night ended up in the middle of the green. I two-putted for par and shot 87.