Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2016

Amateur Or Pro, The Game’s Between The Ears

All golfers, from the rankest weekend hacker all the way up to the player ranked number one in the world, understand that there are two aspects to the game we play. There is the physical side, the game that all can see. There is proper alignment and a balanced stance, the forward press and a smooth takeaway. There is the weight transfer and keeping the club on plane, turning the hands over through the point of impact and the always desirable high finish. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the physical aspects of all the shots that involve less than a full swing, from delicate chips to knee-knocking five foot putts to save par.

Visit any driving range or putting green during golf season and you’ll see plenty of players of varying abilities working on that part of the game. Watch a tournament on TV or buy a golf magazine and you’ll be bombarded by ads promising to improve one’s physical performance with a better ball, a tackier glove or more solid shoe, or by the latest and greatest technologically improved aerodynamic driver with its adjustable composite head, available now for only $499.99.

We who play know full well that its other aspect, the mental side of golf, is every bit as important. With its occasional action the game requires intense focus for brief periods of time. The more accomplished players are those not just with superior physical skills, but also with the ability to expunge from one’s consciousness an errant shot on the previous hole while also not daydreaming about signing for a personal best result just because the round is going well with seven holes still to play.

Legendary amateur Bobby Jones famously said “golf is played on a five-and-a-half-inch course…the space between your ears.” It is not uncommon for a top professional to count a sports psychologist among the members of his or her support team. Tin Cup, one of Hollywood’s better efforts at putting golf on the big screen, was in essence a movie about the impact of the mental side of the game on a golfer’s career.

Amateurs don’t have the luxury of hiring either Bob Rotella for real or Rene Russo on screen to help quiet their mental demons while on the links. Left to their own devices, some fare better than others. But even among those who generally handle the game’s mental side well, it’s the rare weekend golfer who doesn’t have a particular hole or two that has managed to climb inside that five-and-a-half-inch course and turn it into one big hazard.

Here in New Hampshire Candia Woods is an affordable public links that’s kept in top condition and features some of the fastest greens around. The 8th hole at Candia is a par-3 that plays about 190 yards from an elevated tee across a wide and gradual swale to an equally elevated and generous green. At the bottom of that swale lies a pond. Its nearest edge is perhaps 100 yards from the teeing ground; the far bank perhaps 130 yards away as the amateur foursome prepares to tee off. With the front edge of the green 50 yards up the hill beyond the pond, and on any given day the flag perhaps another 10 yards more distant, the little pond is not in play.

Except of course that it is. For the water reflects the Sunday afternoon sunshine, and as the golfers step up to hit, it is as if each one’s eyes are drawn away from the green and down to that harmless circle of water. Surely there are pond nymphs swimming just below the surface, sending out their siren call to “send me your Titleist.” For with remarkable frequency, though each member of the foursome will wield a club that should easily send the ball well clear of the water, at least one golfer’s tee shot will land with a splash. And having done so once, that poor hacker is now even money to do so again every time he or she returns to play Candia Woods. The result has nothing to do with physical skill; the 8th hole has simply climbed inside that golfer’s head.

A golfer impervious to the whiles of the nymphs at Candia’s 8th may instead fall victim to the woodland elves hiding behind the trees at the 2nd hole at Portsmouth Country Club. Those trees have various distinctive geometric shapes painted on their trunks to make it easier to know where a hooked drive went into the woods; that of course makes them extremely inviting targets. If not Portsmouth or Candia, then surely somewhere; everyone who plays the game can name a hole that has their number.

It happens with the pros as well, sports psychologists in residence notwithstanding. Those who play the game for their livelihood would never admit such of course; the preferred language is that a hole “doesn’t fit my eye.” Surely a player as accomplished as the great Jack Nicklaus knew the power of a golf hole to climb inside even a pro’s head when in 2002 he remade the Champion course at PGA National Golf Club, now the home of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic. He designed the 15th through 17th holes as a home stretch trifecta that has its own nickname, the “Bear Trap,” and a reputation for difficulty that is as much psychological as physical.

The 15th and 17th are par-3s, both of which can play to little more than 180 yards from the tips. The 16th is a 440 yard par-4. There is water, water everywhere through the Bear Trap, to the right and front of all three greens and along the right side of the 16th fairway. All the greens feature multiple tiers which can make lengthy putts especially challenging. But the distances of all the holes are average or even modest by today’s PGA Tour standards. There are also generous bailout areas to the left of all three greens as well as down the left side of the par-4. In short, the Bear Trap is each PGA Tour season’s shining reminder that even the world’s best golfers can be challenged by the mental side of the game.

Saturday Adam Scott stood on the tee of the 15th with a three shot lead in the third round of this year’s Honda. The Aussie had broken open a tight tournament by scorching the front nine in 5-under par 30, and had added two more birdies on the back. But his 6-iron was right all the way, and never threatened the green before splashing into the water. Then from the drop area his third stroke was too strong, landing past the flag and bounding over the green and into the water again. By the time Scott staggered off the putting surface he had recorded a quadruple-bogey 7 and fallen one behind playing partner Sergio Garcia.

The Aussie’s tournament could have been done then. Along with a dozen PGA Tour victories and nearly 30 wins worldwide, Scott has had his share of meltdowns, most notably in the final round of the 2013 Open Championship; and he had not won anywhere in almost two years. But in a testament to his mental fortitude, he birdied the 17th to tie Garcia through 54 holes. Then on Sunday he rolled in a birdie putt on the very first hole to take the lead alone. From that point on he never trailed, and on his last time through the Bear Trap he went par-bogey-par while keeping his ball dry. In the process he became only the third golfer in thirty years to win a PGA Tour event while recording a quad.

While the end result showed Adam Scott’s mental toughness, his statistics also show the genius of the Bear Trap. Through 24 career rounds this year’s Honda Classic champion is 18-under on holes 1-14 and 18, but 23-over on the 15th, 16th and 17th. Those holes are hard; but not that hard. Anyone who has ever dreaded walking up to the 8th tee at Candia Woods can surely sympathize.

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